Amid breathless trade speculation, Celtics' best bet is patience

Back at February's trade deadline, rumors swirled that the Boston Celtics had engaged the Atlanta Hawks in talks about a potential swap involving Al Horford. While the Celtics certainly wouldn't have minded adding the four-time All-Star five months earlier than they ultimately did in signing him last week, the Celtics ultimately reasoned it wasn't worth moving key assets to secure a player who soon would be available on the open market.

It serves as a worthy reminder as the Celtics find themselves engulfed in breathless trade speculation this week. The chatter is understandable, yet largely circumstantial. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge repeatedly has said the team is not done with its roster construction and, given Boston's incomparable pile of trade assets, it's almost too easy to attach the Celtics to any star who might eventually become available.

Bleacher Report cited "rival general managers" while suggesting that Russell Westbrook could become available via trade and pegged the Celtics as the "most likely destination." Sporting News cited "front-office sources" while suggesting that Blake Griffin is a "likely target" for Boston.

That was enough for the Celtics to muscle their way into local sports radio chatter that typically is dominated by the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox. Callers crafted their best Trade Machine packages, then balked at the idea of giving up anything of real substance in order to obtain one of these stars.

Celtics fans are antsy for the sort of trade that would make Boston an immediate and surefire contender. The addition of Horford this summer has been largely underplayed because the team missed out in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. The overwhelming vibe in these parts is that the Celtics must make additional moves to truly have a chance to push the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

That's not untrue. But the notion that the Celtics should rush to empty their war chest to get a star is misguided. Here's an unpopular opinion: The Celtics should exercise the same sort of restraint they did in their pursuit of Horford and maximize that asset stash in order to ensure a sustained run as a title contender.

Next year's free-agent class figures to be flush with top-level talent. Westbrook, Griffin, Steph Curry and Chris Paul headline the 2017 list. Familiar names Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari and Paul Millsap sit right below the top tier. One summer after getting a chance to pitch to one of the league's biggest stars in Durant, the Celtics would be armed with enough cap space to again pursue a superstar on the open market.

There's a scenario in which the Celtics win 50-plus games next season and penetrate deeper into the playoffs after consecutive first-round exits the past two seasons. Boston would enter next summer with its core still intact -- Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown would all have at least one year remaining on their contracts -- and looking even more attractive than it did this past summer when it walked away thinking it made Durant truly ponder the team's potential.

What's more, Boston owns the rights to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets in the 2017 draft (and owns their top pick outright in 2018). With the Nets projected to occupy the basement of the league, the Celtics would be in position to add a player from a draft that already is being hyped as transcendent at the top.

The question becomes what's more valuable: the instant gratification that comes with splurging on a free-agent-to-be, or remaining patient with the possibility of adding a star while maintaining the draft picks that could make this team a sustained contender deep into the future.

While admitting he's eager to make deals, Ainge often has pleaded for patience. Celtics fans booed Brown on draft night because they were disappointed in the lack of a trade, but failed to recognize that, by not overspending, the Celtics maintained their intriguing core and left themselves in position to pursue both Horford and Durant on the open market.

There is absolutely a point when the Celtics must abandon their patience and simply swing for the fences with what they've amassed, even if it comes at the cost of the distant future. That point could arrive as early as February's trade deadline if Boston finds itself one player away from being a legitimate threat in the East.

Yes, trades are far more exciting than the draft-and-develop trudge. And yet a glance around the league suggests that the giants of the league were built in large part through the draft and often were aided more by free agency than trades.

In the aftermath of Durant's decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, teams might be increasingly leery of letting their star talent reach free agency with a fear of losing them without compensation. If this drives down prices on top talent, then Boston might be more willing to consider assuming that risk in order to bring in a star.

But the Celtics have positioned themselves with so many options, there should be no rush to deal. Ainge should not settle, no matter how strong these trade winds blow.