Celtics have foundation to emulate Warriors' rapid rise

Loaded with young talent and high draft picks, the Celtics have all the building blocks of a strong future. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

From the honeymoon phase following his summer arrival to an amicable separation after the February trade deadline, David Lee maintained that he saw shades of the Golden State Warriors in this season's Boston Celtics team.

Maybe he was pandering to a new fan base upon his arrival, but Lee's story never really changed and he seemed to truly believe that these young Celtics have a bright future.

But let's be absolutely clear here: There are no next Golden State Warriors. Golden State drafted and developed some of the league's unique talent, brought in veterans to add leadership and fill key roles, and found the right coach to push the team to a championship level. So Golden State's rapid ascent from a 23-win team to a title squad might not necessarily offer a crystal clear blueprint for Boston, but it does suggest there's a path that doesn't necessarily involve having to lure the big-name free agent.

What the Warriors remind you is that with solid drafting and steady development, a team like Boston can still launch itself, regardless of whether it's able to lure a top-level talent. Lee, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons, repeatedly praised the Celtics' chemistry and commitment and suggested that they were on the fast track to being a legitimate contender again.

"I think that chemistry is so important in today's game. Chemistry and having good character guys," Lee said in November before Boston's first game against the Warriors. "That's how Golden State was built up so quickly. I think that's why Boston is on the way up right now to being a really special organization again is because of building with the right kind of guys.

"I'm a big believer in chemistry and character and guys that are willing to sacrifice. And I think if you have a group of guys like that, whether there's a lot of veterans like there was in Golden State or whether it's a younger team like it is here in Boston, you're going to get the most out [of] whatever roster you have by having those type of guys."

The Celtics visit the Warriors on Friday night (10:30 ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) having already secured third-year coach Brad Stevens' first winning season. But Stevens best asserted their mindset about that accomplishment when he noted: "You don't sign up to come to the Boston Celtics to win 42 games. We've got a long way to go."

"I'm a big believer in chemistry and character and guys that are willing to sacrifice. And I think if you have a group of guys like that, whether there's a lot of veterans like there was in Golden State or whether it's a younger team like it is here in Boston, you're going to get the most out [of] whatever roster you have by having those type of guys."
David Lee, on the similarities between the Warriors and Celtics

But just how far does Boston really have to go? Using the Warriors as a rough guide, the Celtics might be closer to title contention than you'd think.

It took Golden State just four years to go from posting 23 wins during the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season (which projects to about 29 wins over an 82-game slate) to NBA champs. Examining the jumps made by the Warriors during that span shows they are not dissimilar from the Stevens-era Celtics so far.

There were times this season, especially before Jae Crowder suffered a high ankle sprain in early March, that the Celtics were on pace to challenge for 50 wins. They stumbled a bit without him and are now in a four-team fight for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, a spot that would deliver home-court advantage and improve a team's chance at advancing beyond the first round.

An outsider's view of the Celtics suggests Stevens is getting the most out of a bunch of young overachievers. That statement isn't necessarily wrong, but it undervalues the progress and development shown by his players.

It's easy to overlook -- with a roster that doesn't have a player older than 29 -- that some of Boston's best progress has come from its more "experienced" players. But remember that first-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas (27) is a year younger than Steph Curry, while Crowder and Avery Bradley -- both 25 years old -- are younger than Klay Thompson (26).

With that Thomas-Bradley-Crowder trio all locked up under team-friendly long-term contracts, it provides a solid base for Boston to build upon, especially with all three still showing signs of growth in their games. Yes, the Celtics need more impact talent, but the development of core pieces under the team's long-term control makes the possibility of a leap seem that much more attainable (even if some of these pieces might ultimately be used as trade assets).

The question for Boston, in the absence of another star talent, is whether those in its 24-and-under crowd can make the same sort of progress Crowder and Thomas have.

When the Warriors won the 2014-15 championship, their 15-man roster had six draft picks, three players acquired via trade and six free agents. What that suggests is that Golden State made itself attractive through the draft and development, then was able to add supplemental pieces that helped push it over the top -- even if none of those moves were necessarily the sort of "fireworks" that Celtics fans have been clamoring for since the breakup of their own Big Three.

As currently constructed, the 14-man roster features eight of the team's own draft picks, including seven first-round selections. Four players -- Thomas, Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller -- were acquired via trade, and two others were signed in free agency (Amir Johnson and Evan Turner).

Armed with three first-round picks in this year's draft -- including two potential lottery selections via the Nets and Mavericks -- the Celtics might be able to add even more young talent to the mix, though it's more likely they will use those picks -- along with five second-round selections -- to either maneuver around the draft board or deal for more established talent in the trade market.

Sure, Boston can take some of the guesswork out of its ascent if Kevin Durant considers the Celtics this summer, or if Chicago was open to moving Jimmy Butler during the offseason. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has said that much of his talks at February's trade deadline might lead to further discussions this summer.

But if Boston is forced to settle for a cut below the elite, it simply puts a bigger emphasis on bringing along its youngest players.

Jared Sullinger is only 24, and by some metrics has been Boston's most valuable player (he ranks a team-best 21st in Real Plus/Minus and his rebounding abilities have been invaluable to a team that's subpar on the glass).

Sure, there are questions about Sullinger's durability (though he has missed just one game this season), his conditioning and the fact that he might command eight figures as a restricted free agent this summer, but he's exactly the sort of player Boston might like to re-sign after pursuing the bigger names with available cap room.

Then there's 22-year-old Marcus Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft. The second-year point guard is laboring through a brutal offensive season, yet his value is undeniable, even if many Boston fans can't see past his shooting woes. Smart is an All-NBA-caliber defender who Stevens says "impacts winning," remains Boston's best hope for a homegrown star.

There's 24-year-old Kelly Olynyk, an advanced stats darling whose floor-stretching capabilities are key to the Celtics' second unit. Terry Rozier, their top pick in the 2015 draft, is 22 and has shown intriguing glimpses of speed and athleticism during limited time as a rookie. Jordan Mickey, their lone second-round pick on the roster, is only 21 and has a train full of hype because of his raw abilities, particularly his shot-blocking. R.J. Hunter and James Young were supposed to help Boston's shooting woes, but haven't consistently knocked down shots early in their NBA careers.

During an appearance on ESPN Radio this week, Stevens was asked what the ceiling was for his team.

"I'm not really into putting ceilings on people, especially people that I work with every day. And people that I enjoy being around," Stevens said on the Russillo & Kanell Show. "Obviously, our names are going to be bantered about any time there's trades just because of the number of assets that Danny and his staff have accumulated over the last few years. . . . We're in a good spot when you look at it from a big-picture standpoint of we've got a team that has done some really good things this year, has continued to show progress and growth, and obviously we've got all kinds of flexibility moving forward."

Stevens then relayed the story of his second year as the coach at Butler University. The Bulldogs graduated five seniors from a 30-win team and were bringing in a six-member freshman class. Pundits picked Butler to finish in the middle of the pack in the Horizon League, but Stevens saw the potential of a team whose incoming class included future NBA players Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack.

Stevens said he made the mistake of setting too low a goal for his team.

"I told [that Butler team] at the first meeting of the year, 'Hey, if we do everything that we need to do and we all stay together and we stay tough, we'll be an NCAA tournament team,' " Stevens said. "Well, lo and behold, we won 19 of our first 20 games and ended up being an NCAA tournament team and what happens? We got beat in the first round. So, at that point in time, I stopped setting goals short of winning it all. And will never do that again.

"That was a pretty significant moment for me, to be sitting in that locker room after getting beat by LSU, who was probably a little bit better than us at the time. But our guys, I felt like we didn't play as free and fearless with a young team as we should have. And it's probably the only time, at the end of a season that, a postgame locker room on your last loss was more a reality and more of a challenge to the team rather than a celebration of what was accomplished.

"The next two years, we were fortunate to go to the Final Four and maybe that loss early that year played a role in that in inspiring those guys to put even more time in. I learned a lot as a coach and, again, I think it's somebody else's job to talk about expectations and ceilings. It's coaches' jobs to get the most out of people."

Stevens and most in the Celtics' locker room have avoided setting goals or predicting how far this team can go. The team has expressed a desire to get back to the playoffs and wants to show better than it did a year ago, when it got swept in the first round by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Most pundits don't think this Boston team, as currently constructed, is capable of competing much beyond the first round. Without more star power, most believe the Celtics can't make the giant last step -- that sort of leap the Warriors made during their quick climb.

But don't tell that to Stevens. He won't deter his players from dreaming big. The next Warriors? That team probably doesn't exist. But Stevens wants to get his team to a point where other teams want to become the next Celtics.