by: John Tomase on Tue, 02/21/2017 - 2:05pm

Jimmy Butler (left) and Paul George (right) would improve Celtics, but at what cost? (Jeffrey Becker/USA Today Sports)Let's apply some logic to Danny Ainge's pursuit of a transcendent player.

In today's NBA there might be six such stars – LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard. Cases can be made for Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and a couple of others.

Someone from the next tier may eventually join them. We'd love it to be Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas, but we're more likely talking an emerging force like Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo or Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns.

In the meantime, Ainge knows his current roster isn't good enough to challenge Cleveland, and it definitely doesn't compare to the behemoth in Golden State.

So what is he to do as he sits on the most desirable pile of assets in the league? Let's consider the star players reportedly available as Thursday's trade deadline approaches:

-- Chicago's Jimmy Butler is an All-Star defender and excellent wing scorer whose only deficiency is as a 3-point shooter.

-- New York's Carmelo Anthony is entering his decline phase, but remains a proven scorer who could take some of the heat off of Thomas as a bonafide second option.

-- The Clippers' Blake Griffin is a 27-year-old five-time All-Star who feels about 10 years older, thanks to a run of injuries, as well as a decidedly more grounded offensive game as he evolves from highlight-reel dunker to intermediate scorer and facilitator.

-- Indiana's Paul George has recovered from a gruesome broken leg to re-establish himself as a premier perimeter scorer and defender. He's also unlikely to be moved, with Larry Bird hoping to build the Pacers around him.

Is anyone on that list transcendent? George is the closest; pre-injury, at ages 22 and 23, he led the Pacers to consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to James and the Heat.

Butler? A nice player, but sorry, no. Carmelo? Too one-dimensional. Griffin? The injuries are a concern, as is his role as a power forward in a league dominated by perimeter players.

Other names linked to the Celtics -- like Philly's Jahlil Okafor, Dallas's Andrew Bogut, or Phoenix's P.J. Tucker -- belong in a different conversation. They represent marginal upgrades and if Ainge can obtain one of them for a secondary asset, go for it. The Cavs appear vulnerable, after all, and the C's need rebounding.

But that brings us back to the issue of transcendence, and here's what logic dictates: as much as trading one or both of the remaining Brooklyn picks could provide the Celtics instant gratification, those picks offer Ainge his greatest hope of finding the superstar who will lead the Celtics when LeBron is gone and the Warriors start aging.

And when you view things through that lens, Ainge's choice becomes obvious. He must keep the picks.

No one wants to hear that, because we're impatient and the Celtics are legit factors in the East. Why wait for potential No. 1 overall picks Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball when the C's need help now? The problem with that thinking is that even though this year's Nets pick by no means guarantees a franchise player – ping pong balls make the Celtics more likely to pick fourth than first – it still represents Ainge's best hope, however faint, of finding one.

If Fultz is Kyrie Irving, or Ball is Westbrook, then the Celtics won't regret standing pat at this year's trade deadline. They'll be setting themselves up for an extended run of contention.

That's why I suspect that ultimately Ainge will tackle the fringes of his roster instead of the heart of it. Bogut would give them rebounding and a championship pedigree. Tucker provides some size, toughness, and decent 3-point shooting. Sorry, but I'm not feeling Okafor at all.

In any event, the picks are simply too valuable to surrender. Ainge is in this for the long haul, not the quick fix.