Latest ESPN Power Rankings - Celtics second, but what needs fixing?
Second place is never good enough for Celtics boss Danny Ainge. He wants to be first. He wants to win. The ESPN Future Power Rankings project how each team is expected to perform in the next three years, based on five categories: Players, Management, Money, Market and Draft. The Boston Celtics came in second behind the Golden State Warriors and just ahead of the Houston Rockets. All three of these teams retain the same slots from the previous rankings.
In the East, the Philadelphia 76'ers moved up from sixth place to fourth, while the Toronto Raptors soared from 13th to fifth. Back to the West, the Spurs dropped from fourth to seventh.
Here is a quick comparison between the Celtics and Warriors. Golden State gets a perfect 100 score on its players. Can't argue with that. Boston gets an 87.5, behind both GS and the Rockets (95.0). Danny's next chance to raise Boston's number is this off-season. More on that shortly.
For Management, GS gets a 95.0 to Boston's 92.5. The Steve Kerr/Bob Myers and Danny Ainge/Brad Stevens pairings are neck-and-neck. In the money category, Boston ranks 16th to the Warrior's 25th. Things will be a bit tight in Boston going forward, but Golden State will need to be very creative two summers from now.
The Warriors tie with the Lakers for the top spot for desirable market. Boston's cold, snowy winters have no chance with that. The category that really separates Boston and Golden State is in the Draft. The Celtics are ranked third (tie) and the Warriors are 25th. Boston is positioned nicely here.
What needs fixing for the Celtics? Management needs no upgrade, so we will leave that alone. Players? We have seen all year that the Celtics are a terrific defensive team but something has always been lacking in offense. Brad Stevens wants both. The team has responded remarkably to the numerous injuries, and they still have a shot at a Title this season with the right players back in action.
There is no such thing as a perfect team, but if Danny and Brad were to assemble one, it would look like this. First of all, no weak links. Play both effective defense AND offense, or don't play. Secondly, no chance for mismatches on defensive switches. Meaning, no undersized players who lack the defensive toughness and wingspan to defend any opponent. Remember, this is a fictitious perfect team.
If Danny Ainge was not the top dog of this team, I would say that there is virtually zero chance of landing Anthony Davis in the near future. Meaning, of course, there remains a chance, but I will leave that alone for now. Kawhi Leonard is another matter. The Spurs are currently in sixth place in the West and are still in the fight for a playoff spot. Aren't they always.
Leonard has yet to return from a quad injury, and this entire situation is bizarre. The Spurs are just plain old. They need a youth-boost. Enter Danny Ainge. Kawhi has the size and two-way ability Boston seeks. A package of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes (sign-and-trade) and Boston's own first-rounder this year works on the ESPN trade machine. Don't kill the messenger here. We all know Danny will trade the most-treasured players if it means a serious shot at a Title.
A next-year lineup of Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford can match up with any team. If the Celtics can sign Marcus Smart on a team-friendly contract, with Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele returning makes for a strong bench. Add in some quality vet-minimum guys, and the team is on its way.
Here is the catch - money. The Celtics team salary is at roughly 115 million, ranked 15th-highest in the League. Ownership has indicated a willingness to go above the salary cap tax threshold to win a Title. Golden State has the highest team salary at 137 million. Boston would need to go into the low 130's to make this happen. As with Golden State, this would mean some tough money and player decisions in the next couple years, but I believe Ainge would go this route to make it happen. The Celtics look really good for the next few years no matter what goes down.