It may not be from a lack of trying but there is the very real chance that the Boston Celtics' roster will look largely unchanged when Thursday's trade deadline passes. This will not sit well with a good portion of the team's fan base -- at least not in the immediate aftermath.
Blame it on another February filled with breathless speculation. Blame it on Isaiah Thomas' emoji eyes. There will be palpable disappointment from fans curious to confirm their suspicions that the Celtics are just one impact player away from being a legitimate contender.
So even though the Celtics have accelerated through this rebuilding phase faster than NBA teams are supposed to (right, Los Angeles Lakers?) and have an incredibly bright future already, team brass will again have to plead for patience in their quest to build a sustained contender.
There is always the chance the Celtics will push all their chips to the center of the table on Thursday and overwhelm a team like Chicago or Indiana that might otherwise be leery of parting with their certified stars. Maybe Danny Ainge has something unexpected up his sleeve that helps this season's team without compromising the cap flexibility that will allow the Celtics to seek another impact player this summer.
But, if none of that happens, it's important to step back and remember that patience isn't the worst option for a team that's building for well beyond the final two months of this season. A handful of things to keep in mind if the Celtics don't make a big splash before Thursday's deadline:
HELP IS ON THE WAY
It's a terrible cliche for teams welcoming back a healthy body after the All-Star break but the Celtics do expect to add an impact player -- regardless of deadline activity -- with the impending return of Avery Bradley, who was the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder before an Achilles injury sidelined him for 20 of the team's past 21 games.
The Celtics are 16-6 when they have their four core starters -- Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Al Horford -- together this season. That's roughly a 60-win pace over the course of an 82-game season. The Celtics went a respectable 14-6 without Bradley and ESPN's Basketball Power Index still projects Boston at 52.6 wins, which is 3.5 more projected wins than their closest trailing Eastern Conference competitor (Toronto, 49.1 wins).
Boston went into the break hopeful that Bradley would be ready to go when the team reconvenes for practice on Thursday and the Celtics expect rookie Jaylen Brown back, too, after missing three games with a hip flexor. Bradley will likely need time to shake rust while being eased back in but he'll give the team a needed boost, especially on the defensive end.
THE PLAYOFF PUSH
Sitting three games back of the Cavaliers with 25 games to play, a run at the No. 1 seed is going to be difficult for the Celtics regardless of roster upgrades. The good news for Boston is that BPI projects them with one of the most favorable remaining schedules and that could help the Celtics maintain their grasp on the No. 2 seed.
Boston plays seven of its first nine games after the break on the road, including a five-game trip out west. Things ease up from there with 11 of Boston's final 16 regular-season games at home. BPI currently gives Boston a 77.1 percent chance at one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs, including a 66.8 percent chance at the 2 spot.
Unlike last season when Boston left itself at the mercy of a four-way tie-breaker to determine its playoff fate, the Celtics have an ability this season to lock up home court in the early rounds of the playoffs by simply not letting the wheels come off over the final 25 games.
POSITIONED FOR DEEPER PLAYOFF RUN
As one of the top seeds, Boston would be an overwhelming favorite in the opening round of the playoffs regardless of opponent. As an example, if the season ended today, Boston would play the Bulls in the 2-7 matchup and BPI projects Boston with a 79 percent chance to win that series.
Things are a bit more daunting in the second round. Even as the higher seed in a matchup with the Raptors, the Celtics are currently a slight underdog (47 percent chance to take the series). The numbers are far more encouraging against the rest of the lower-seeded field, though even the Boston-Toronto numbers could shift a bit over the final 25 games, particularly after Friday's head-to-head matchup.
Should a Cavaliers-Celtics matchup materialize in the Eastern Conference finals, BPI projects Boston with just a 31 percent chance to win. Alas, that's an uphill battle regardless of February additions. For the past six seasons, the formula for winning the East has been simple: Have LeBron James on your roster.
RISK VS. REWARD
There's a case to be made that Boston's 2017 first-round draft pick -- courtesy of the cellar-dwelling Brooklyn Nets -- will never have more value than right now because it has a high probability of being the top pick in the draft. But teams also know there's no guarantee it's going to be a top-three selection. Once the pick's position is cemented in mid-May, it could potentially grow in value, especially as teams fall more in love with possible options closer to the draft. There is, of course, also some risk that the value diminishes should the pingpong balls defy Boston.
Remember that Thursday's deadline does not kill any dreams of adding someone such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George. It was last June when the Butler-to-Boston rumors first started swirling before the 2016 draft. There is always the opportunity for the two teams to revisit those talks this summer if things never heat up again this week.
By not taking on a big salary with a February move, the Celtics will preserve some flexibility with how they proceed this summer. Boston can utilize its first-round pick to acquire talent on a cap-friendly contract and then hope a solid playoff showing increases intrigue in the franchise among the bigger names on the open market this summer. In that scenario, the Celtics essentially add two impact players without sacrificing the assets it would cost to beat the rush this week.
Make no mistake, there is no guarantee with any path and patience has potential potholes as well.
The Celtics have upcoming paydays to worry about with players such as Thomas and Bradley, who will both enter the final year of their contracts next season (and both might be interested in extensions this summer if Boston doesn't otherwise use up its cap space). The Celtics must eventually cash in on some of their draft pick surplus with bodies already stashed across the globe, though players such as 2016 first-round picks Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele could help the team next season if roster and cap space allows them to come stateside.
This week feels an awful lot like draft night when the Celtics elected to stay the course. Ainge's words then will ring true again if the deadline passes without activity.
"I want to do a deal. But it's my job to oversee the Celtics and not do what makes me look really good and do something that's instant gratification," Ainge said in June. "It's like we're trying to build something. It's a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously. ... If anybody knows the Celtics right now, they know we're not afraid to make deals. But we don't want to make bad deals."