Celtics' quick fix might be running with the Bulls


The NBA regular season is more than two months away, but all things considered, the Celtics are in pretty good shape.

Their top three picks looked solid in Summer League (even if it’s only Summer League). ESPN just ranked Boston fourth on a list of the NBA’s best “young cores." Meanwhile, they still have Brad Stevens, and all those picks, and financial flexibility, and the legacy of Luigi Datome. Right now, next year’s squad is sizing up to look a lot like the team that finished last year: A team that will frustrate with a lack of rim protection (although Amir Johnson and Jordan Mickey should help), but inspire with a will to outwork the opposition and a selfless, up-tempo style of play. Plus, thanks to the Nets and Mavericks, the Celtics can play their butts off every night; stay positive and continue to improve; sneak into the playoffs or miss it by a few games—and still end up with a pair of Top 10 picks.

But through all the optimism lies the elephant in the room, or at least a glaring hole where that beautiful big-eared bastard should be. In not so many words, the Celtics still need a star. A superstar. Even an All-Star. They need the next Paul Pierce. They need that next franchise cornerstone. Until then, optimism is just optimism, and nothing is real.

The draft is one place to find that star, but it’s also the biggest dice roll and the longest path to the top. For instance, the Warriors needed six years to build a champion around Steph Curry; the Thunder needed five to make the Finals with Kevin Durant; everyone’s after LeBron 2.0, but the Cavs drafted the original in 2003 and didn’t win their first NBA Finals game until last month; Anthony Davis is the league’s new next big thing, but will start his fourth season with one playoff appearance and zero wins.

The best-case scenario is probably that of Paul George, who joined an already decent Pacers squad and led them to the top seed in Year 4, but bottom line: Even if the draft is the best place to find a superstar, it typically takes a handful of years for that discovery to translate into success. The Celtics will wait that out if they have to, but they’d much rather bypass the stairs for an elevator.

Elevator No. 1 is free agency, which is a sore spot for the Celtics. But even if it wasn’t—even if Boston didn’t have state income tax or painful winters—the future free agent waters aren’t exactly swimming with superstar talent. Only one team will land Durant next summer, and after that the top options might be a trio of bigs—Dwight Howard, Al Horford and Al Jefferson -- on the wrong side of 30. In 2017, you might see guys like Blake Griffin or Russell Westbrook hit the market, but Griffin probably won’t leave LA and who knows what Westbrook will look like after two more years of running head-on into brick walls?

Elevator No. 2 is the trade front, and that’s where Danny Ainge does his best work. That’s where he found Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. That’s how he picked up the assets that he hopes to flip into Boston’s next great superstar. Of course, the problem with trading is that it takes another team. Ainge could have every asset in the free world, but if there’s no demand, there’s nothing he can do. And that appears to be the case at the moment. As the NBA shifts into the dog days of the offseason, most of the league’s prime talent -- even DeMarcus Cousins -- appears temporarily untouchable. But if there’s one thing we know about the NBA it’s that the NBA is bonkers. The same way no one expected James Harden to move in the fall of 2012, at some point over the next year or two, a big time, franchise-altering talent will find himself on the block, and (with that young core and all those picks) the Celtics will be in position to strike.

But who will it be?

Who is that next James Harden?

Well, here’s a guess: Jimmy Butler.

That might sound crazy, but like I said, the NBA is crazy, and for what it’s worth, Butler is a star. A two-way star. Last year, the 25-year-old averaged 20 points a game for the first time in his career and made his second All-NBA defensive team. Of course, he just signed a max deal with the Bulls, but that was always going to happen. Chicago couldn’t let a restricted talent like Butler walk for nothing. And while Butler could have signed a one-year tender and become unrestricted in 2016, that would’ve been an enormous risk.

At the same time, there’s no question that Butler was open to the idea of leaving Chicago. Before the Bulls made their max offer, Jimmy reportedly had free agent visits scheduled with the Lakers, the Mavs, the Sixers and, yes, the Boston Celtics. The fact that he was willing to meet with Philly might lead one believe that Butler should be checked into an institution, but in reality, it’s a sign that he wants a team of his own; that he wants to be that cornerstone. And that would lend credence to the theory that Butler’s unhappy alongside Derrick Rose.

Beyond that, just in general, the Bulls are headed in the wrong direction. They’re less suited to knock off Cleveland next year than they were last year. That’s not to say Fred Hoiberg can’t find success in his first season on the bench, but that’s easier said than done. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are both in contract years, but they never clicked last season. If they don’t work, the Bulls don’t work. Meanwhile, Noah still has prove he can impact the game in the face of age -- he’ll be 31 next year -- and his left knee. And then there’s Rose and Butler, who aren’t the first All-Star teammates to encounter growing pains, but will have to find a common ground for the Bulls to be at their best. And as is typically the case, that common ground will only be built on the foundation of winning.

But what happens if they don’t win? What happens if last year’s lumbering shadow of Joakim Noah is just the new Joakim Noah? What if Pau Gasol’s resurgence crumbles under 35-year-old bones? What if Hoiberg can’t adjust and the Bulls aren’t who they think they should be? I mean, the East is no cakewalk next year. The Cavs, Hawks, Wizards and Raptors are all very solid teams. The Bucks, Heat, Pacers, Hornets, Magic and even the Celtics will be better. Both Butler and Rose will have to play to their max ability to keep pace, and if they can’t the Bulls have a problem. The Bulls might have to make a choice. On one hand, Rose only has two years left on his max deal, but then again, he’s a former No. 1 pick, a league MVP and a son of Chicago. He IS the franchise.

So where does that leave Butler?

I don’t know. We’re obviously on speculation overload here. Desperate times call for desperate offseason measures. Either way, it might not hurt to throw the Bulls up there next to Dallas and Brooklyn on the list of teams whose failure could breed Boston’s success.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine 

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