With Durant atop the list, Boston ready for run at top free agents

BOSTON -- Kevin Durant makes a rare appearance in Boston on Wednesday night. The Celtics probably wouldn't mind if he came back this summer to make up for lost time.

Nearly nine years to the day after the Boston Celtics were fined $30,000 because Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sat next to Durant's mother at a Big 12 tournament game, Durant will make only his sixth appearance in Boston on Wednesday night when the Celtics host the Oklahoma City Thunder (ESPN/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

It will be Durant's first game action in Boston since November 2012 and, because of injuries, only the second time that he has played against Boston with Brad Stevens at the helm.

With Boston positioned to fish again this summer for that elusive big catch that could propel the team forward, the Celtics would covet the chance to pitch Boston as a possible destination when Durant reaches unrestricted free agency.

Scoff if you want -- and most will -- the Celtics are in position to make an intriguing sales pitch to any star talent that becomes available.

And that would include Durant, who might benefit from simply escaping a bloodthirsty Western Conference that's compounded his quest for a championship. But Ainge's desire to see Durant in green stretches back almost a decade, and it's not just an assumption from him sitting next to Wanda Pratt at a Big 12 semifinal.

Those who know Ainge best swear that he would have picked Durant No. 1 in the 2007 draft over Greg Oden had the pingpong balls bounced Boston's way. Ainge's son Austin, currently Boston's director of player personnel, wasn't a team employee in 2007, but he noted in June 2014 that, "I was in the draft room, and they would have taken Durant. I did have some inside information there." His story has been vetted by Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck.

Go through Ainge's public comments over the past nine years and they are littered with (non-tampering) references to wanting to acquire players with the talent, skill set and/or potential of Durant. It seems impossible that Durant could be unaware of how Ainge has gushed about him.

It's also hard to imagine how, if Durant elects to explore his options this offseason, he doesn't at least give Ainge another chance to sit down with his family.

Waiting for this moment

There are 30 teams in the league that would like a chance to talk with Durant this summer. Even with a rising cap, some situations are more realistic than others. Even Boston needed an awful lot to go right this year just to put itself in a position where someone like Durant might consider a visit.

Even after a 13-win improvement and second-half surge to the playoffs during the 2014-15 season, the Celtics acknowledged that none of the few marquee names available last summer were going to pay them much mind. Instead, Boston targeted smaller fish when free agency opened, signing veteran big man Amir Johnson to a two-year deal that was structured such that the Celtics could part ways this summer if it felt like it might have a chance at a star.

But to really make top-tier players take notice, Boston needed multiple things to go right this year. That included (1) Making another leap in the East standings; (2) Developing their young talent; and (3) Hoping Brooklyn, who must hand over its first-rounder, delivers a high lottery pick.

So what has happened?

  • At times this month, the Celtics have crept toward a 50-win projection, though the loss of Jae Crowder to an ankle injury will make that a difficult goal. Even still, Boston is clinging to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with four weeks to go in the regular season.

  • Thomas, who Ainge fleeced from Phoenix at the 2015 trade deadline, elevated to All-Star status, while Crowder, maybe Boston's best two-way player since arriving in the Rajon Rondo swap in December 2014, played well enough to at least warrant All-Star consideration. When healthy, players like Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart have made encouraging strides.

  • The Nets own the fourth-worst record in basketball -- just a game ahead of the Phoenix Suns -- and BPI projects a 42 percent chance that Brooklyn will deliver Boston a top-3 pick, and an 87.6 percent chance of it being a top-5 selection. What's more, the Mavericks are sliding in the West and project to deliver a late lottery pick (more compensation from the Rondo trade). The Celtics will have three first-round picks in this year's draft and what's likely to be five picks in the top 35 spots (Boston owns five second-round picks overall).

As the Celtics know well, it takes talent to get talent. Even Paul Piece alone wasn't enough to persuade Kevin Garnett to come to Boston. The Celtics had to use the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft to pluck Ray Allen from Seattle to set up the Garnett swap.

The Celtics were rumored to be pursuing just about every above-average player in the league at this February's trade deadline. Those rumors included Al Horford, a player that's often been suggested might help entice Durant to join another team.

While Ainge hinted that Boston was leery of giving up assets for aging players -- and Horford turns 30 in June -- he did suggest that some deadline talks might lead to further discussions over the summer. And if Horford, who will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer, can truly help Boston attract Durant, then the Celtics will have the necessary cap space this summer to make that a reality. But it doesn't necessarily have to be Horford, it could be any other high-level player that might make Boston look that much more attractive to a top-tier player.

The lingering question is: Will any big fish finally take Boston's bait this summer?

Crunching the numbers

The Celtics have roughly $34 million in guaranteed salary on the books for next season, which includes starters Thomas ($6.6 million), Avery Bradley ($8.3 million), and Crowder ($6.3 million) -- all three of whom are signed to below-market deals (which will only look better as the cap spikes this summer) that run through at least the 2017-18 season.

Then you add in top reserves Marcus Smart ($3.6 million) and Kelly Olynyk ($3.1 million), both on rookie deals. Boston also has four young players on frugal rookie deals in James Young (No. 17 in 2014, $1.8 million), Terry Rozier (No. 16 in 2015, $1.9 million), R.J. Hunter (No. 28 in 2015, $1.2 million) and Jordan Mickey (No. 33 in 2015, $1.2 million).

Boston will have until July 3 to decide whether it wants to bring back Amir Johnson ($12 million) and Jonas Jerebko ($5 million). By then, the Celtics should know how the dominoes will start falling. And once they've chased the big fish of free agency, they can shift attention to their own free agents.

Bigs Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger -- 2012 draftees -- will be restricted free agents, and their open-market price tags, along with Boston's roster status, will dictate whether they return. Meanwhile, the Celtics have done everything possible to entice Evan Turner, the team's only true unrestricted free agent, to consider returning in a reserve role on a team-friendly deal.

If the salary cap goes north of $90 million for the 2016-17 season, the Celtics will have the necessary space to chase two max free agents. Or they could simply target Durant with a promise of using their asset treasure trove -- including that possible top-three pick from Brooklyn -- to help add more proven talent via the trade market.

With shrewd cap management and asset collection, Boston has given itself enough flexibility to continue its draft-and-develop model or cash in the assets its collected since breaking up the Big Three and try to thrust itself directly into title contender status.

An intriguing situation

Some remain unmoved at the notion that the Celtics could be an honest-to-goodness destination for a top-tier free agent like Durant.

So, why Boston? Of teams not named Golden State, no franchise in the league might be better positioned for sustained future success than the Celtics. Boston brass can pitch a free agent on:

1. Playing for one of the best young coaches in the league: Stevens, who will joust with Gregg Popovich and Terry Stotts for coach of the year next month, has cemented himself as one of the brightest minds in the game. He has maximized the talent of players like Jordan Crawford and Turner, and Celtics fans get weak in the knees thinking about what he could do with an elite talent like Durant.

2. Playing for a storied franchise eager to add to its legacy: The 17 championship banners hanging in the rafters at TD Garden are a constant reminder that it's championship or bust in Boston. This accelerated rebuilding phase has been a pleasant surprise for many Celtics fans, though some still wish the team simply bottomed out in hopes of landing a transcendent player via the draft. Aided by the Nets trade, the Celtics have been able to take a more unconventional route and letting Brooklyn do their bidding. But no sampling of postseason success will truly quench a title-hungry franchise that every year is further removed from the 2008 championship.

3. Playing with a selfless roster of up-and-comers: The Celtics' current core might not have obvious star power, but there's talent. Any superstar that signs on knows he will be the alpha dog but will also have the benefit of a young, developing supporting cast -- and a front office with the assets to fill out the roster with the more-established role players necessary to truly chase a title. The idea of Thomas and Crowder as second- and third-options makes Boston the clear No. 2 in an East where LeBron James is on the back nine of his career.

4. Playing for a team with stability at the top: From an ownership group helmed by Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca that has proved willing to pay to contend to Boston's tight-knit front office that's always searching for an advantage to a growing support staff aimed at maximizing players' health and production, the Celtics are devoid of the chaos and drama that exists on many teams.

Sure, the winter weather can be a drag. But the forecast is mostly sunny for these Celtics.

The things Boston can't control

What seems to make most sense for Durant is to return to Oklahoma City on what's essentially a one-year deal then re-enter the free-agent fray the following summer, when he'll have 10 years of NBA service and can command up to 33 percent of a sky-high cap as part of a max deal.

But when has Durant, with $109 million in on-court earnings and countless more in endorsements, ever made money a priority? He turned heads in July 2010 when he quietly agreed to an five-year, $89 million extension with the Thunder.

Durant has been coy about what this summer will bring and has reaffirmed often that his focus is solely on this season. Teams like his hometown Washington Wizards and the soon-to-be Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers will have obvious interest when Durant reaches the open market. Then there's the somewhat terrifying idea of Durant joining the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics can still better their chances of being considered by top free agents, though some of it -- like winning the lottery -- is out of their control. Boston has done everything it can to get stars to take notice of them. This summer will tell us whether Durant and others are intrigued by what they've seen from afar.