Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge’s Target Year is 2017-18

Nov 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens talks to his team during a time out in a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Boston 100-98. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens talks to his team during a time out in a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Boston 100-98. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Celtics should be even better in 2016-17, but this isn’t the year they’ll take their biggest step

After the Celtics shocked the NBA world with 48 wins last season, it was evident that they have the core to make a deep playoff run, but are still missing a couple of key pieces. Danny Ainge took that as a challenge as he tried to turn the Boston Celtics into true title contenders this offseason. Aside from his unwillingness to part ways with the third pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, or any future Brooklyn Nets picks, Ainge pushed hard to try to trade for a star.

The Celtics did sign All-Star center Al Horford, though, who should fill many holes for Boston. He adds rim protection, a legitimate front court threat on offense and on the glass. Still, there’s no doubting that Boston needs more than just Horford to hang with the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in a seven game series.

While the Celtics are expected to improve on their win total, possibly eclipsing 50 wins this season, and have a chance to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics target year should actually be 2017-18.

must read: HH Roundtable: Celtics in the Eastern Conference

With the Chicago Bulls signing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler is seemingly off the market for the immediate future. Blake Griffin also already expressed his desire to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, therefore a trade for a star this season is looking extremely unlikely considering Ainge’s willingness to not settle. Even though adding another star to complete their Big Three is on the top of their to-do list, the Celtics have many internal questions they need to figure out, as well.

Right now, their roster is full of young players, also called assets by many. At the same time, it has made the Celtics roster very cluttered. Even though a deep bench helps starters stay fresh in the regular season and is a strength not every team has, it also isn’t how most championship caliber teams are made.

Sure, the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors have great depth, but they also have the star power to go along with it.

The need of star power was best highlighted just five years ago when the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls were seen as the biggest threats to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. Their depth and coaching was why, although outside of each team’s lone star player — Derrick Rose and Paul George — neither team had the star power to contend with Cleveland in a seven game series. Plus, both Rose and George, at the time, were better players than Isaiah Thomas is right now.

As good as the depth looks on paper for the Celtics, there is a reason why Danny Ainge was willing to sacrifice it to land a star. Besides straight up depth not being enough to lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals, they need to figure out what they have in their deep bench and young talent pool.

The Celtics are already faced with a tough roster decision this season, deciding between former first round picks R.J. Hunter and James Young for the final roster spot. However, more tough roster decisions will be coming over the next few years. With Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic stashed overseas, the Celtics young pool of talent will only become deeper and there will be more decisions to be made.

Kelly Olynyk‘s expiring contract, that results in him becoming a restricted free agent at the end of this season, is what’s making the biggest headlines, but the Celtics will be faced with more contract decisions, as well.

As previously mentioned, Yabusele and Zizic are both expected to come over to the states next season, which could result in a very crowded front court. The Celtics currently have five front court players with potentially expiring contracts, though. Along with Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson will become unrestricted free agents, and Jordan Mickey and Tyler Zeller both have non-guaranteed deals. Not to mention they also have Ben Bentil in the D-League. Simply put, the Celtics could have a much different roster at this point next year.

Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Barring a career year, this is likely the last season Jerebko, Johnson and Zeller are on the Celtics. While that does clear up some room, this leaves huge contract years for Olynyk and Mickey.

For Olynyk, this season is all about maintaining the three-point stroke he had last season and being a more consistent contributor. He’ll see around his career 20.8 minutes per game, therefore there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a consistent scoring option off the bench, especially when considering he could attract decent money on the open market.

For Jordan Mickey, the former second round pick will only have a $1.2 million option. Sure, that’s basically nothing on the books, however, with Bentil waiting in the D-League and two front court prospects overseas, Mickey has to show NBA potential this season. He may spend more time in the D-League, but it’s hard to imagine that he won’t ever crack the rotation this season. In fact, it would almost be idiotic of the Celtics to never use him as they need to eventually see what they have in the defensive-minded big man.

Keeping him on the roster for that little seems like the obvious choice but, at the same time, he takes up a much-needed roster spot on a team who will need to add bench players who can contribute to a championship winning team right away. That’s why Mickey’s NBA potential will be closely watched this year.

What does all this contract stuff mean, though?

Every team has expiring contracts every year, but the depth the Celtics have throughout their entire franchise is rare. Despite that, they have very little knowledge of how any of their young talent will fare in the NBA.

They’re banking on Gerald Green to help their shooting problems, when in reality he could struggle like he did last season with the Miami Heat, and R.J. Hunter might not even be on the team by 2017-18.

Terry Rozier is also expected to take the next step in his development in 2016-17, but how important is he to a championship team? Rozier’s playing time in the NBA is a very small sample size, therefore there’s no certainty surrounding him in a bigger role. If Rozier doesn’t prove to be a reliable bench option then he could become expendable with Demetrius Jackson and Marcus Smart also on the bench.

The 2016-17 campaign is important for numerous of reasons, but none more so than to see what they have in their young players. Four of their five starters are legitimate long-term options, assuming they retain both Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas in a few years. Although, there are still questions on their bench.

Besides, in a loaded 2017 draft class, the Celtics could hit big with the Brooklyn pick and land a budding star. The Nets have a chance to land the top pick, and that could alter the Celtics plans and change their view on their roster.

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It’s been a rough couple of years since the Big Three disbanded. Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have rebuilt the Celtics faster than anyone could have thought, and it’s exciting to enter a season as a legitimate top team in the East. Also, finally being able to attract a star in free agency could open the doors in the future and end the aurora surrounding the Celtics not being a real destination for top free agents.

With that being so, Boston isn’t a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers. Everyone has heard it time and time again. Although, it’s hard to confidently say that they’re even the second best team in the East without watching this new group play in the preseason, let alone in games with actual meaning to them.

The Celtics have to see how their new team meshes, two of their three first round draft picks aren’t even on the team this season, and their bench has potential but can be viewed as cluttered at the same time.

We can project and hope that Gerald Green returns to shooting 40 percent from three, or that Jaylen Brown comes in and is an instant contributor. In the end, though, this is the first time during the Brad Stevens era that the Celtics are entering the year with real expectations.

Championship teams don’t get built in one season. 2016-17 is important not because the Celtics could actually take a series from the Cavaliers, rather because this is the year Danny Ainge will find out what else the Celtics need to compete in the East. It may seem like Boston is rushing young players’ developments, but, with Ainge’s proven desire to compete as soon as possible, it wouldn’t be surprising to see young players only getting one or two chances with the Celtics.

Next: Will Demetrius Jackson See Playing Time This Season?

Boston answered a lot of questions about their youthful starting lineup last season, and the same will be done this year regarding the bench.