Denver Nuggets roster full of woulda coulda been Celtics

How do you build an elite NBA championship contender? Well one way is luck. For example the San Antonio Spurs who just happen to have won the NBA lottery the Robinson, Duncan, and Wemby years. Another way is location. NBA players love Los Angeles and Miami, so the Lakers, Clippers, and Heat will always have an advantage when it comes to signing free agents, or in this player empowerment era getting players to force trade there. And the last and final way is probably the hardest. That's a front office being great at their jobs.

The Boston Celtics had that for decades when Red Auerbach simply ran circles around the other teams' general managers. That resulted in 16 NBA titles in 30 NBA seasons. Since then Boston has only won one title in the past 37 seasons. The architect of that 17th championship was Danny Ainge, who was definitely one of the better general managers, but not as amazing as green teamers may rank him.

Same goes for Brad Stevens. If you follow Celtics Twitter, just like with Ainge, whenever Stevens makes a move, he's called a genius. Again, Stevens has been good so far, but he's not elite either.

The key to building an elite contender is to draft great and then supplement your team with wise additions via trades or free agent signings. That's how the Denver Nuggets were built, and ironically all their major pieces could have been Celtics.

Nikola Jokic: Selected 41st in the 2014 NBA Draft (Marcus Smart picked 6th by Boston and James Young was picked 17th). Now of course no one knew how good the Joker would become, so you can't fault Danny Ainge for notdrafting him, but Denver gets credit for making the pick. Again to build an elite team, finding a star an unconventional way is huge. The best way to draft a star is with a top 5 pick, but NBA champions are full of stars who were picked later.

Jamal Murray: Selected 7th in the 2016 NBA Draft (Jaylen Brown was picked 3rd by Boston). I've loved the NBA Draft ever since I was a kid, so the Celtics having a top 3 pick was huge to me. Jamal Murray was the player I wanted the Celtics to end up with and I have the receipts.

While I was open to trading the #3 pick to Chicago for Jimmy Butler if I recall correctly the Bulls were demanding a lot more in addition to the pick. Murray was my guy and Ideally I wanted the Celtics to trade down to draft him (and collect an additional asset for that).

Jaylen Brown made 2nd team All-NBA this season so the pick was still a good one by Ainge, but in terms of a better fit next to your #1 star Jayson Tatum, Murray would be it right now. Better playmaker, ball handler, and passer. Objectively speaking I think Murray is a better player than Jaylen, and just as importantly he's a better fit.

I remember Marcus Smart being upset with the Celtics for selecting another point guard in Terry Rozier in 2015, so he would have likely had a coniption if Boston took Murray in 2016. Truth be told Smart and Murray would have made a fantastic backcourt in the modern NBA.

Michael Porter Jr.: Selected 14th in the 2018 NBA Draft. Boston traded their last Nets pick with Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving. The pick didn't land top 3 again, which was a relief, because then Ainge would have in essence traded Luka Doncic. It remained at #8. If Ainge had wisely traded Thomas elsewhere and kept the pick, he would have had his choice of Michael Porter Jr or Shai-Gilgeous Alexander at that spot.

Aaron Gordon:Acquired by Denver at the 2021 NBA trade deadline from the Orlando Magic for Gary Harris, RJ Hampton and a first-round pick. The Celtics had long been rumored to be in negotiations with Orlando on a Gordon deal, but Denver made it past the finish line. Ainge instead traded a couple 2nd rounders for Evan Fournier.

Bruce Brown Jr.:

Signed by the Nuggets as a free agent in 2022. Brown Jr. was one of the guys atop my wish list for Stevens to sign last offseason. Brad went with oft-injured, poor defending, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari instead.

Now Jokic is the straw that stirs Denver's drink, but with the Celtics failing now multiple years in a row because they don't have enough offensive weapons and their rotation is a player or two short, Murray, Porter Jr (or SGA!), Gordon, and Brown Jr. would have been for sure helpful. Just add those four players to a team with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Terry Rozier and you'd have something great.

Now Ainge gets credit for picking Jayson Tatum as the guy he wanted in 2017 over Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Yeah it's easier to get a franchise player when you end up with the #1 pick than Denver picking at #41. But teams make the wrong choices at #1 and Ainge hit a home run picking Tatum (at #3 after the Philly trade).

The difference between Denver and Boston is (Well besides the fact that Jokic is still better than Tatum) their big money pieces go better together. Yes Tatum and Brown are a dynamite pair that gives you a shot at the NBA Finals every season. But that's thinking like a team that wins one title in 37 years. SGA, Murray, and Tatum would have been a Celtics team that would have won multiple titles.

Again, this is not to say Ainge or Stevens did poorly. They just haven't done great. And to win without the blind luck of the Spurs or the location of teams like the Lakers and Heat, being good isn't good enough. If the Nuggets can build a team this good, we should expect more of the Celtics.

Brad Stevens will be judged (by objective people, not Green Teamers) on whether he can build a champion. If that ends up happening with Tatum and Brown, that would be great. But the more likely path is Stevens creating his own core. That will come from major trades and through drafting.

Stevens doesn't need to draft a Jokic in round 2, but at some point he needs to swing for the fences and actually start drafting first rounders. And a poor GM would trade Jaylen for the wrong return. An ok GM would just keep him. A great GM (which is what we need) would trade him for a great return.

If you're content with one title every 37 years, then so be it. But if you want the Celtics to become an elite franchise again, we need better from the front office. The Nuggets have done much better and are positioned great to win this season and in the foreseeable future. The Celtics like many several other NBA Finals participants, regressed the following season. It's actually the more likely scenario than returning and winning the title the next season.

Having your two best players both play the same positions on supermax deals and neither being a very good playmaker (and one being a very poor one) is not it. And it's certainly not great team management.