The situation in Boston was very nearly remarkably different.
In ESPN's in-depth feature on how the Warriors landed Kevin Durant, Ramona Shelburne reported that many league sources feel that if the Warriors had won the NBA Finals, when they dropped a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers last June, Durant would not have gone to the Bay. Instead, those executives feel Durant would have signed with the Celtics, another team that hosted Durant in the Hamptons that fateful Fourth of July weekend.
Had Durant made such a decision, of course much in the NBA universe would have shifted. The Warriors likely keep much of the team from last season together, making another run with the same core that had the best NBA regular-season record in NBA history. And Boston would have immediately shot to the forefront of the Eastern Conference, in direct competition with the Cavaliers.
In this scenario, there would be serious debate about which team would win the East, even with the dominance of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, as the Celtics would counter not only with three All-Stars of their own in Durant, Al Horford (who likely would have joined the Celtics anyway) and Isaiah Thomas, but a supporting core with players like Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and the surprisingly capable Kelly Olynyk.
But that isn't what happened, obviously. Durant joined the superteam in Golden State, because joining a team that won 73 games is clearly not front-running because they lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals when their megastar was hobbled and their starting center was out.
The Celtics, instead, remain stuck on that second tier. Boston lost to the Raptors, again, on Tuesday, going to 0-2 vs. the team they were supposed to topple for the spot-of "biggest threat to the Cavs in the East," which is kind of like the award for "most annoying mosquito on the elephant's back." Boston was without Bradley in that loss, a running theme for the Celtics this season. They haven't notched a win vs. one of the top teams in either conference, but then, they haven't been fully healthy for nearly any of those matchups, either. One of Boston's big advantages this season was supposed to be depth, but like a lot of teams, that depth is reliant on players being played in their role, not being asked to play above themselves when key starters go down.
And that big trade hangs out there, still.
Boston has arguably the best set of trade assets available. Basically, Boston is the Cheesecake Factory of trade partners. Whatever you want, it's on the menu.
THE BIGGEST TRADE MENU, EVER
JALAPENO POPPIN' FIRST-ROUND PICKS: Boston has its own '18, '19 and '20 first-round picks, the swap rights to Brooklyn's 2017 pick which currently holds the No.1 spot in the lottery, the Nets' '18 first-round pick which is likely to be top five, and 2019 first-round picks from both Memphis and the Clippers. They also have like nine second-rounders I'm not even going to describe but they can sweeten up any deal.
CHICKEN PROSPECT PARMESAN: Terry Rozier, a promising young guard who can score and defend. Jaylen Brown, a tough-as-nails rookie who will likely have one of the best Euro-steps in the league in 3-4 years. Jordan Mickey: big, athletic.
VETERAN SLIDERS: You can fit these guys in anywhere. Amir Johnson is a stretch four who rebounds, defends and brings consistency every time out. Jonas Jerebko is a big counter for Boston with his ability to shoot the 3-pointer (38 percent this season). Kelly Olynyk is only 25 and has made great strides in his positional defense over the past two years; with his scoring ability and that competent containment in pick-and-roll defense, he's actually a valuable asset. Jae Crowder is a near-All-Star who defends at a top level, can shoot, score, drive and plays with a huge chip on his shoulder.
SENSATIONAL SUPER-SUB-STARS: Avery Bradley might be the most important Celtic, the Draymond Green to Isaiah Thomas' Steph Curry. He's a two-way player who can shoot, pass and defend at a high level. He has gotten better every year. His injury history is a bit worrisome, but he's also tough as nails when he's on the floor. Marcus Smart has one giant hole in his game, shooting (39 percent from the field, 30 percent from 3-point range), but he does absolutely everything else. Maybe most notably you can switch Smart from guards onto bigs and he defends them. He's quick enough to guard Derrick Rose and strong enough to guard LeBron James in the post. He might be the strongest point guard in the league. He still has so much potential he can be the key asset in any deal. (You can feel free to move Crowder into this section; GM Danny Ainge clearly feels that way. We'll get to that in a minute.)
FIRE-ROASTED STARS: You would have to knock Danny Ainge completely over with an offer, but Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford are both All-Star-caliber players. If you're giving a superstar that Ainge really wants, you might be able to land one of them, but you had better give a world back in return.
So that's what Boston has, and no matter what you're looking for, they can offer it. Unfortunately, Danny Ainge is a tough one to deal with.
THE TOUGH COOKIE
The problem, of course, is that all these assets are so valued, so talked about, so discussed, that it's hard to actually, you know, trade them. Crowder is the biggest example of this. Crowder is a sensational role player, but you're never building a team around him. He's just a guy who makes every lineup he's in better. He has no discernible weaknesses to his game, but he also doesn't have the ability to take a game over. Crowder was rumored in trade talks for Kevin Love two years ago, and the Celtics balked at his inclusion. Love can take over a game, but isn't in Crowder's league defensively. Which would you rather have?
The Nets' pick is similarly difficult. If you can draft a Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, couldn't those players be a superstar? Do you want to pass on drafting a franchise superstar to add another star to the roster right now? That pick won't align with the ages of the other key players on this team; by the time a Ball or Fultz would be in his prime, the key members of this team will be gone. But would you rather try to make a run now knowing how good James and the Cavaliers are, and then have to beat the Warriors even if you catch the Cavs in a perfect storm, or set yourself up for a decade after?
So if the Celtics are going to make one of these deals, it has to be sure fire. A no-brainer. A can't-miss. But the OKC James Harden isn't out there, despite Harden not being MVP Harden when he was dealt from the Thunder. The Kings continue to believe that one of these millennia, everything's going to work out with DeMarcus Cousins (especially after they give him $200 million). The Clippers don't seem at all close to trading Chris Paul or Blake Griffin.
Cousins especially is tough because he's the one guy that could really thrive in the Celtics' culture, but Ainge is also very resistant to players with the kind of baggage he brings to the table. Ainge has made public comments about players who are "disruptive" on and off the court not being worth it, especially with the strong quality of character he feels they have in the locker room at the moment.
Precedent works against Ainge as well. After you've waited, and waited, and waited, and had your every trade desire fulfilled, it makes it difficult to pull the trigger until that kind of offer emerges again. Ainge waited so far past the Big 3's point of expiration as a viable contender (the Pierce-Garnett combo were ousted in the first round by the Knicks in 2013) that there should have been little return. But Billy King and the Nets arrived to offer up a ransom in the hopes of building a super-contender. The deal was a mortgage at the time for Brooklyn, but it got way worse over time, making it all the better for the Celtics. You don't often trade your best players to a team and then watch that team become a bottom-five team every year with no hope of improvement. It just doesn't happen.
So, via his own account of the situation, he's not looking for "a deal," but "the deal." If the Pelicans have a freak out about Anthony Davis and move him, or the Bulls actually deal Jimmy Butler, or some other star demands out of his current situation, the Celtics will be there, waiting.
Brown looks like a long-term contributor, and possibly even a star as his skill set develops. However, the value of that pick was higher when it was just "the No. 3 pick in the draft." The possibility, and control, that comes with that pick is more valuable than the actual tangible asset, in most cases. The value of the Nets' pick becomes less after it's an actual player. That sounds backward, but it's true. So the clock is ticking on the value of that pick.
Likewise, there's a timing issue with this current core. They have Horford for another three seasons at over $25 million per, but Bradley and Thomas both expire in the summer of 2018, which means that if they want to keep a good team around Horford, and continue the good vibes, they'll need to shell out big money for them both, which is subsequently going to limit their ability to retain Smart that summer, and Brown down the line.
You can keep the picks, hope one of them turns into an instant contributor, and go from there, but you may be resigning yourself to this same tier the Celtics are in now. Or you can gamble, and risk messing up a good thing.
Basically, the Celtics are under no pressure to do a trade; they're going to have a good team for the foreseeable future, regardless of which path they take. If they want to win a title, however, if they want to put themselves among the elite teams without the benefit of a freak occurrence (say, a LeBron James injury), they will need to shoot the gap this window provides and make "the trade" in a time when that trade is not apparent in its availability.
As mentioned above, most of the stars in this league are not available. Let's pretend for a second they might be. Note, these are ideas, conversation starters. You're probably going to disagree with the trades being too much for one team or the other to give, and that there is "no way" one side or the other will do it. Just consider this as something to spark your imagination and not something to freak out over.
If Cousins came available...
Along with the Nets' first-rounder in 2017 and the Celtics' first-rounder in '19 (plus some second-rounders as sweeteners.)
They don't have to surrender Crowder or Brown in this instance, giving them wiggle room for additional deals down the line. They don't give up Bradley. The Kings get a building block point guard, a glue guy veteran and the Nets pick, which could be supremely valuable given the talent in this year's class. Any alternative deals the Kings might make won't guarantee a top-five pick the way the Nets' pick will. It's a certain asset. That might feel low, but this is the inherent danger of dealing with the Celtics, who flat-out do not lose trades.
If Jimmy Butler came available...
Plus the 2018 Nets pick.
The Celtics retain the 2019 pick, along with Smart, and Butler's guaranteed pre-2017 CBA contract gives them flexibility to retain Thomas and Smart. They give up two really good players and two good players, but they keep the 2017 Nets pick, which is likely going to be more valuable than 2018's.
The Bulls get Rozier as a long-term point guard prospect (who they can put alongside Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant, because, hey, why not put more money on the roulette board). Bradley starts at point guard (an awkward fit for now, but he's also not Rondo) until Wade inevitably returns to Miami. Crowder gives them a do-it-all forward. He's like a super version of Mirotic. That, plus the pick, is a great haul for Butler, who has been in trade rumors since last June.
And then there's this bonkers idea ...
OK, so the last time Ainge pulled off the big superstar trade, it was 2007 and he had a former Celtics teammate/legend, Kevin McHale, with a disgruntled superstar in Kevin Garnett. He managed a sweetheart of a trade in which he didn't even give up Rajon Rondo, and the Big 3 Era was born. Now, what team has a former Celtics teammate/legend in place as the man running the team?
Plus the 2017 Nets pick.
Alright, so sure, Larry Bird has outright said "don't even bother calling" when it comes to a Paul George trade. You'll basically have to pry him loose from Bird's cold dead hands. But if he was going to deal George ... he would probably be more open to trading him to Boston. It's a fun idea, if nothing else, for the symmetry.
Andrew Bogut: The Celtics can pick up a rim protector who can help them in a key area and probably get him for a singular asset, maybe even as little as a second-round pick.
Hassan Whiteside: Whiteside is not quite a superstar, but he is a super athlete and a rim protector who can play next to Horford. His rebounding and shot-blocking complement Horford well, and the pick-and-roll with Whiteside and Thomas would be deadly. The Celtics' culture and Brad Stevens' coaching could probably get the most out of Whiteside's potential, or at least as much as the good work Erik Spoelstra and the Heat have done. It's an expensive gambit with Whiteside making over $22 million and on a long-term deal, but it is a weapon to use against Tristan Thompson and the Cavs.
Nerlens Noel: A cheaper shot-blocking option, though Noel will have to get his next deal. He's damaged goods but young enough to grow out of his issues. Plus, he improves the Celtics in very specific areas of need.
The Celtics have done a masterful job of building a really good team. Thomas is a no-question All-Star, but there are limitations with him defensively and his size can be a bit of a liability in playoff environments. Horford was a huge get and makes any player around him better. Crowder was a brilliant buy-low gamble that has worked out, and the Celtics saw value in Bradley (like Olynyk and likely Smart, and potentially Brown) ahead of what they showed early on.
If their worst case is having a team that eventually peaks by being the second-best team in the East, giving the Cavaliers a serious run, and that's it, that's not a bad thing. Maybe they catch the Cavaliers one year, maybe lightning strikes and they play the Orlando Magic role, beat LeBron James and make the NBA Finals. You never know. It's not impossible. The Celtics do have great talent, great coaching and great culture. There does seem to be a limitation to what they're capable of, and they're currently 0-8 vs. the Cavaliers, Raptors, Warriors, Spurs and Rockets. But that doesn't ensure what happens down the line.
If the Celtics didn't have the assets, they would just be this team, and that would be it.
But they do. So the wait goes on, and the clock keeps ticking, as the Celtics remain the one team with the biggest hand left to play.