Danny Ainge, Celtics Enter Free Agency At Crossroads; So, Which Path To Take?

Blame Kevin Durant.

Ever since the superstar forward skipped off to the Golden State Warriors on Independence Day last year, the rest of the NBA has been playing catch-up, desperately trying to form their own “superteams” to compete with one of the most loaded squads in league history.

The Boston Celtics, as fate would have it, are one of the few teams equipped with the resources to do just that. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge reportedly has a master plan to sign Gordon Hayward in free agency and swing a trade with the Indiana Pacers for Paul George. That’d give Boston a “core four” of Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Hayward and George: four All-Star-level talents who, under head coach Brad Stevens’ expert tutelage, could make a serious run at an NBA title.

Sounds dandy, right? Alas, it’s not that simple.

The Houston Rockets assured as much Wednesday by reportedly landing All-Star point guard Chris Paul. Reports suggest the Rockets are targeting a third star to pair with Paul and James Harden, and George is at the top of their list. Boston landing George reportedly is contingent on the club inking Hayward, which can’t officially happen until July 6 at the earliest, per NBA rules.

In theory, the Celtics can offer Indiana the best package of future draft picks and young talent for George. But if the Pacers get impatient or balk at Boston’s low asking price, they very easily could ship their star out of the Eastern Conference to Houston, where he’d help form a similarly formidable core of All-Stars.

There is, of course, another plan of attack for Ainge and Co.

The Celtics have used the No. 3 overall pick in back-to-back NBA drafts to take Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who boast a combined age of 39 and a combined wingspan of 14 feet. They own the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick in 2018, a shot at the Los Angeles Lakers’ top-five pick in the same draft and a host of other assets. Boston very easily could sit on its haunches, let its young guns blossom into stars, and wind up as the league’s most stacked team in 2020.

For now, Ainge appears to favor the more active approach. The C’s seem willing to pull out all the stops to wrest Hayward from the Utah Jazz, regardless of whether they can land George. Blake Griffin and even Rudy Gay have been floated as backup plans should Hayward spurn the Celtics. That means the 2016-17 squad that made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals will, in all likelihood, look very different next season: no more Kelly Olynyk, core players like Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley potentially on the chopping block and the back end of Boston’s bench thinning out.

An overhaul of the Celtics’ roster, minor or major, was inevitable given the war chest of assets Ainge has compiled. (We haven’t even mentioned draft-and-stash players Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele.) This summer finally might be the tipping point, as Boston’s brass must decide just how many chips it wants to push toward the middle of the table.

The still-dominant Cleveland Cavaliers and juggernaut Warriors might give Ainge and Co. pause about going all-in now. But the bottom line is this: The Celtics have a full deck, and if the opportunity becomes available — i.e. signing Hayward and trading for George at the cost of a few role players and future assets — they need to play their hand.

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images