BANNER 18 IN ’18?
Fittingly, the quest for Banner 18 begins on October 17th against none other than the Cavaliers. Recently, I predicted the Cavs would beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games this season. Hopefully I didn’t upset too many people, but listen, this team isn’t quite in win-now mode yet. They have put together a team that is in a unique situation to compete now while hopefully continuing to get better every year for a very long time. So while this season might not be banner material, it should only be a matter of time before they crash the championship stage.
Losing to Cleveland this year won’t be all bad. We will get to see our old friends Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder go after a championship. They both deserve a chance at that. The way things are shaping up, this might very well be their best chance of getting there. It is only going to get harder to get out of the East for them, as teams like the Celtics continue to develop their young talent. More importantly, the Celtics will get some much needed experience for the future. A painful exit out of the playoffs should push the Celtics to work even harder for the next season.
NOT THERE YET
In my opinion, this is a three-year plan to winning the championship. I’m not saying it can’t happen earlier, but if it does it will be ahead of schedule to me. I’ve already discussed that this team has the mindset and work ethic to defy the odds. Winning it all earlier isn’t out of the question, but 2019-2020 seems like the next banner year to me.
There are a lot of asterisks here. First, the core needs to stay together. I’m not concerned with Ainge continuing to trade key pieces; I think he is ready to get some continuity with the squad he has built and see what they can do. We saw in trade talks for various stars this summer he wasn’t willing to part with young players. Guys like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart will allow this team to be good for a very long time, and Ainge has priced them in the trade market accordingly. The previous core was given enough time to maximize what they could do together, and there’s no reason he wouldn’t give this group the same chance.
LOYALTY IN THE NBA?
A more concerning fear that could compromise the Celtics’ championship aspirations would be players leaving in free agency. This off season has been a testament to the lack of loyalty from all sides in the NBA. That being said, the Celtics are a historic franchise. With 17 championships, they are one of the few organizations in sports for whom it’s truly an honor to play. As long as these players spark some chemistry and enjoy playing alongside each other, free agency shouldn’t be a big threat to this team. We are now at a point where we have players that other guys want to come play with, not leave.
There will be decisions to be made in the coming years about the salary cap. Marcus Smart’s deal is up after this year and he will be looking for a substantial raise. Can the Celtics afford to keep him? They will surely have to dip into the luxury tax to do so. It would be shocking if they didn’t re-sign him. Keeping him through all the turnover made it clear he is in the long-term plans. As long as he is happy with his modified role, he will probably stay.
The next contracts up hold a little more weight. Irving and Horford both have deals that expire after the 2018-2019 season, with a player option for 2019-2020. Al will most likely pick up his option, as his value will be on the decline in terms of contracts by that time.
Kyrie will definitely opt out to sign a much more lucrative deal. Again, the Celtics will have to take a luxury tax hit. They won’t think twice about this one. The question mark here is whether or not Kyrie will want to stay. There is no reason to suggest he will want to start over again, especially before the job is done. Kyrie strives for perfection, and won’t want to leave this job incomplete.
If the team successfully re-signs Smart and Irving in the next two off seasons, they will have enough continuity and growth to be a real force in 2019-2020. Kyrie will be 28, fully in his prime. Marcus Smart will only be 26. Hayward and Horford will still be key pieces, but a 23-year-old Brown and 22-year old Tatum might be more important to the teams success by then. These two must make some big leaps forward in order for this team to win a title. This is the six-man core that I think needs to stick around and improve together to take this team to the top.
This season will be fun. More importantly, the future of the league is looking very exciting. The Celtics are a big part of that future, so when I say I don’t think they’ll win it all this year, don’t fret. This season is the start of something special. Our only job now is to sit back, watch the progression, and enjoy. It’s about to be ONE HELL OF A RIDE, CELTICS NATION!!!