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Danny Ainge And The Art Of The Rebuild

As the Boston Celtics struggle this season, it is evident that this team is no longer a legitimate contender for the NBA title. It is also evident that the team is not merely a tweak away from returning to contention in the near-term. The Big Four boat is getting further from shore with every passing day, and the Celtics need a complete overhaul before there will be any hope for basketball in June, or maybe even May.

The question that is on everyone’s mind, including team president Danny Ainge, is what's next? What can the Celtics do to return to contender status? The long interregnum from 1993 to 2007 weighs like a nightmare in everyone’s minds. What, if anything, can be done to prevent a repeat of that painful experience? This article will answer these questions and provide context for understanding Ainge's options.

The Celtics are entering an absolutely critical juncture, and how Ainge plays his cards over the next year or two, and possibly between now and March 15, could go a long way toward determining whether the Celtics are about to enter a prolonged era of mediocrity a la 1993-2007—which is the status quo for most NBA teams—or whether they can hit the trampoline and regroup as a legitimate contender within three or four years.

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There are two and only two states for an NBA franchise: you are either a legitimate contender or you are attempting to become a legitimate contender. The difference is night and day. The main criteria for assuming contender status is having a top-10 player on your roster, and ideally a top-5 player. Unless you have a top-10 player you are almost certainly not a legitimate contender. The teams that are the most serious contenders tend to be teams with two top-10 players, or one top-five player and two or three players who are in the top-30. 

Having such players does not guarantee a title, only contention, It is the ante for admission to contender status.

In the past 56 NBA seasons, only a few teams that won titles did not meet these criteria. (For a long detailed discussion of this, go to here and here) Over two-thirds of the 56 titles have gone to teams headed by just nine superstars: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

(Dallas, ironically, was very much a borderline champion, depending upon how one ranks Dirk Nowitzki at this stage of his career. Don’t bet on Dallas in 2012.)

Basketball is different than baseball and football in this regard. In those sports teams with the very best players can never win titles; ask Barry Sanders or Barry Bonds how many rings they have. In those sports teams can gradually improve and move to contender status by adding several good players and getting experience. The line between legitimate contention and non-contention is very fuzzy. 

Not so in the NBA. To think you can win titles by playing that incremental game and bypass having a top-10 player is fool’s gold. NBA history is littered with excellent teams like the 70s Chicago Bulls, 80s Milwaukee Bucks and 90s Indiana Pacers that won 50-60 games many times but, with the exception of the 2000 Pacers, never got to the NBA Finals, not to mention won a title. They lacked the necessary superstar. It is why current teams like the Hawks, Sixers, Jazz and Pacers may possibly have superb regular season records, but almost certainly will not win the NBA title. 

By this logic, the legitimate contenders for the 2012 NBA title are, in alphabetical order, Chicago, L.A. Lakers, Miami, Oklahoma City. Those should be the “final four” teams barring injuries. Orlando and the Clippers are in the hunt, but longshots. Everyone else is a non-contender, though a few teams like San Antonio and Dallas and the Knicks are close enough to the border to possibly delude themselves, and there is a slim chance they could get hot exactly as one of these other teams implodes. But don’t bet on it. 

In sum, it is a superstar-driven league. A good 22-25 of the 30 NBA teams never have a prayer every season because they do not have a superstar, or because the superstar they have is too young or too old or too injured.

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This is the necessary context to understand the current options facing Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ Majordomo. The current Big Four Era has produced scintillating basketball, one NBA title in 2008, and nearly a second title in 2010. The straw that has stirred the drink has been Kevin Garnett, arguably the greatest defensive player of the last 15 years. Garnett could not do it alone and in Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo he had a magnificent supporting cast of top-30 All-Star caliber players. At its best, this was a team that could stay on the floor with any team that has ever played the game, if only because of its stellar defense.

Tragically, a 2009 knee injury when Garnett was 32, has contributed to his game deteriorating at a more rapid rate than most superstars of his caliber and abilities would have experienced. He is no longer an All-Star caliber player, not to mention a top-5 or top-10 player. The 2011 playoffs, when the Celtics were summarily dismissed by the Heat, was a last hurrah for this glorious team.

The hope that I held, and I suspect Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers held, was that Rajon Rondo would emerge as a top-10 player and prove himself capable of being the best player on an NBA contender. (My discussion of Rondo can be found here and here and here.) Were that the case, the Celtics would not need to engage in a rebuild as much as a reload. Rather than requiring the acquisition of a top-10 talent, Danny could focus on corralling two or three top-30 type players and be off to the races for the rest of the decade. No need to taste the lottery, or at least the deep lottery.

To even consider Rondo in such a light is remarkable. Nearly every top-7 superstar in NBA history has established himself as a first-team All-NBA, MVP candidate by the time he is 23. That certainly applies to the top seven superstars in the game today: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. Rondo was nowhere near that at 23 or 24 or even today as he approaches his 26th birthday.

So how could anyone ever consider Rondo a candidate for top-10 status? As Bob Ryan put it, Rondo’s game is sui generis. When he is on his game, relentlessly attacking the rim, drawing fouls, commanding the offense with unrivalled vision, skill, and panache, and being the most disruptive defensive guard of this generation, Rondo is as good as any player in the game. America had the privilege of seeing that Rondo numerous times in the playoffs over the past four seasons, when he cranked out insane triple doubles. But, alas, that Rondo only appears occasionally, perhaps because his body cannot stand the wear and tear of such a physical game. Most of the time Rondo is far less aggressive offensively, and is a top-25 player, not a top-10 player. And that is all the difference in the world when it comes to having a contender.

Bottom line: Rondo can be a magnificent #2 guy on a championship contender, but if he is the best player on your team, you are unlikely to be in the inner circle of legitimate contenders. 

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How does an NBA GM get a superstar if he doesn’t have one? There are three main routes.

First, through the draft. Most of the league’s superstars were either the very first pick in the draft or picked in the top-3 or top-4 in an unusually deep year. A very few lingered past that, like Kobe Bryant, but such instances are rare. This would normally give the 20-25 teams that do not have a superstar tremendous incentive to “tank” and put themselves in position to get the first pick overall in the draft, especially in a year in which it is clear that a Durant or James is on the horizon. 

The NBA created the lottery to sharply reduce the incentive to “tank,” and it has been effective. Now the only time a team has great incentive to lose games is in a year in which there are several stud superstars on the horizon, like 2003, when James, Wade, Anthony and Bosh were available. Even then, the lottery is such that the odds never work in a team’s favor. Recall 2007 when the Celtics completely bombed with wide eyes anticipating either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden and had the 2nd best shot at the first pick overall, only to land 5th after the lottery.

The notion of tanking too often is used indiscriminately. If a team trades away veterans and plays younger inexperienced players with an eye to the future, it is not tanking. It is not trying to lose games. Those coaches and players are doing what they can do to win; they simply can’t get it done. A team gets the benefit of letting young players get valuable experience and the benefit of having a lousy record. It can be a win-win situation. This is what happened with the Celtics in 2006 and 2007. 

The second route is through free agency. This became a viable option since 1999 when the implementation of a maximum salary meant that all teams that got sufficiently beneath the salary cap could offer pretty much the same amount to a prospective free agent, hence ending the great advantage once enjoyed by the team that had the “Bird” rights to the superstar. The league gives the team that has the superstar the ability to give an additional year and larger annual raises, but that is insufficient to keep a player from splitting town. And teams can work out “sign-and-trades” to sign free agents at the maximum possible amounts, as Miami did with James and Bosh in 2010, once a player informs his old team he plans to move on.

The third route is a trade. This is generally where a superstar informs a team he wants to be traded and the team obliges, or where the team decides it wants to move a superstar before he becomes a free agent. Generally, this leads to all sorts of negotiations between players’ agents and various teams to agree to a new contract and then acceptable terms for a trade. This is what happened with Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, and may be happening now with Dwight Howard. 

The art of rebuilding, of getting a superstar, is putting your team in position to pursue one or more of these three routes. For a GM whose team lacks a superstar, and which is therefore not a serious contender, that means the following two rules generally apply:

  1. Try to collect No. 1 picks from other teams, and try to have them be unprotected whenever possible. No. 1 picks are valuable not simply because they are the path to getting new players and potential stars, but because they are also the gold standard as a trade currency. Having a stack of picks makes it easier to pursue a trade for a superstar. For example, the 2012 Minnesota No. 1 pick was decisive in the Clippers getting Chris Paul from New Orleans. Having a stack of No. 1 picks also makes it possible to fill your roster with young prospects who can then be used in a trade for a superstar. This is what Danny did when he traded a bunch of kids and picks for Ray Allen and Garnett in the summer of 2007.
  2. Be stingy with using up capspace. Try to have as much capspace available as possible. Do not sign mediocre players to multi-year deals. Try to have short deals for veterans so there is always enough room for a max contract player every off-season. (When deals are expiring or have a team-option year at the end they can be especially valuable for mid-season trades.) That is not always going to be possible but it should be a goal. This means to avoid the idiocy of Detroit’s multi-year deals with Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and Milwaukee’s brain-dead deal with Drew Gooden. The point of capspace is not simply to be able to sign a superstar free agent; it is also to be able to take on a crappy contract from another team and get a No. 1 pick for doing so. That is what Cleveland did in the Baron Davis trade, and the resulting pick was Kyrie Irving, the first pick overall.

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If this is so simple, why doesn’t every team in need of a superstar do this? The primary reason is commercial: to do this a team must have an owner who completely buys in, because a team runs the risk of being quite bad for several seasons. That means an owner who will not fire GMs and coaches and create a stressed-out losing environment that makes players want to get out of town as quickly as possible, and superstars to stay away at all costs.

There is strong gravitational pull for teams, no matter how pure their intentions, to go the baseball-football route and simply try to become more competitive annually and show promise. And since there are only a handful of superstars, even a team dedicated to the project can strike out, which is the worst of all worlds.

Consider a team like the Knicks, which spent years riding out a series of traded No. 1 picks and idiotic massive contracts, positioning it to get James and/or Wade in 2010. With an NYC zip code, the Knicks had reason to believe it would be a highly desired locale once they cleared sufficient capspace. The Knicks struck out and went all-in with Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler. It will be a good team, maybe even a very good team, and make it possible for Knicks fans to forget the dreadful past decade; but on paper the team looks one brick shy of a load. But who can blame the Knicks for cashing in their chips instead of waiting two years to make a play for Howard and Paul?   

Recent Celtic history provides both extremes in team rebuilding. In the 1990s the team had no vision or plan whatsoever—particularly hitting all kinds of depths under Rick Pitino, who traded lottery picks for the likes of Vitaly Potapenko—and floundered incompetently and directionless mired is sub-mediocrity. Chris Wallace tried to cash in his chips prematurely during a fluke playoff run in 2002 and the Celtics ended up mindlessly trading 20-year-old Joe Johnson and then dealing for a soggy and flabby Vin Baker. 

When Danny Ainge took the helm in the summer of 2003, the franchise was a mess. In the preceding nine years the Celtics had a whopping nine lottery picks, and all they had to show for them was Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, a max-contract player with decidedly non-max-contract production. Walker’s trigger-happy, shoot-from-the-hip, volume-shooting style was anathema to Ainge, and meant his trade value was well below what Walker thought he was worth. Those lottery picks accounted for, among others, Chauncey Billups, Joe Johnson and Andre Miller, but all were playing on other teams. Ainge had no extra draft choices, no cap room as the team was clogged up with a lot of dead weight contracts, and few players with any value except for Paul Pierce.

What Ainge did have was a new ownership team led by Wyc Grousbeck that was committed to him, and this meant he could take time to build a contender and get a superstar. He was not going to face the pressure to make incremental improvements every season or get fired, and the same was true for his coach, Doc Rivers. The Celtic fans for the most part bought into the program, too. The fans sensed that Ainge was playing for keeps, and that after a decade of short-term fixes that never panned out, it was time to do it right no matter how long it took. Plus as bad as the teams from 2005-07 were, it was far more enjoyable to watch talented young kids developing than watching the journeyman hacks with no future that got too much of the playing time from 93-03.

In the spring of 2007, the Celtics were coming off a second consecutive miserable season and were little short of a laughing stock. When the Celtics flopped in the lottery so it looked like instead of Kevin Durant they were staring at Yi Jianlian, the depression for Boston was palpable. Then, like in the endings to The Godfather and The Godfather II, Ainge parlayed the draft picks, young players, and expiring contracts he had accumulated into the two monster deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics became a contender and a dominant team for the next four seasons. It will go down as some of the most visionary and brilliant GM work in NBA history.

Given the degree of difficulty in getting a superstar and establishing a contender, Ainge may need to be similarly brilliant if the Celtics are going to escape a decade of NBA mediocrity. He is going to have to avoid the strong temptation to trade for and sign up decent players who will make the team slightly better but do nothing to make the team a contender. All efforts must go to getting a top 10 player to team with Rondo. Once that is done, everything else can fall into place. Once a team has its necessary superstar(s) for contention, it can focus on rounding out the roster with complementary players, and think about winning in the here and now.

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Ainge has had an eye on the day the team would no longer be a contender since the first year of the Big Three cum Big Four era. It is one reason why he wisely refused to give James Posey a four-year contract in 2009. It is why he made certain to get a No. 1 pick in the 2011 Perkins deal. He thought he could take those measures without damaging the team’s immediate prospects. I agree with him, but there is certainly debate on those matters.

The dream scenario for the Celtics, Plan A if you will, would have been to have had a successful 2012 season and make a nice run in the playoffs. Then, with all the expiring contracts, the Celtics would have had room to sign Dwight Howard, one of only three or four prospective superstars who might be available in 2012 and 2013. The appeal of Boston for Howard would have been a chance to play for a storied franchise, with an excellent point guard, a respected and beloved coach, and an ownership/management team that is steady and above-board.

To grease the wheels for this prospect, Ainge even aggressively sought out a Rondo-Chris Paul deal in November 2011, after the lockout ended. The thinking was that with Chris Paul in tow, Howard would have great incentive to follow because any team with the two of them would immediately move to the inner circle of contenders. The Cs would be set for the rest of the decade. Had Ainge pulled that off, he would have joined the ranks of the greatest sports executives of all time. 

Alas, it did not turn out that way. Paul preferred to play with a younger supporting cast with the Clippers, and Howard gives every indication that he has no interest in the Celtics. 

The sad reality is that for the visible future all the great top-10 players in the NBA are either tied to other teams or clearly not coming to Boston. This really changes everything, because it means in all likelihood that the next Celtics superstar is not even in the league yet. And that means the Celtics rebuild, even of it goes as well as possible, is going to take three or four years. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but it is the truth. And the odds of matters working out that well are not especially high.

And it is this reality, more than the Celtics sluggish start, that might push Ainge to commence the rebuild project sooner rather than later. After all, if Dwight Howard or Kevin Love isn’t walking through that door, the sooner the team gets to work accruing assets that can increase the odds of getting a superstar, the better. There is little to be gained playing out the string.  

And that means the maxims mentioned above come into play: accumulate future No. 1 picks; play the kids to see what they can do and increase their market value, with the ancillary benefit of getting a higher draft pick; and preserve capspace with a vengeance. 

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Understood this way, the Celtics are now in their formal rebuilding mode. The only question for Ainge is whether to see what sort of market value Garnett, Allen, Pierce, and even Jermaine O’Neal have, and whether the Celtics can work out trades for these guys that would return expiring contracts (or contracts that might go through 2013) and a stack of future No. 1 picks. If the answer is no, or if the benefits of trades are marginal, then stay the course and enjoy the final months of this era as the Big Three take a victory lap. If the answer is yes, then Ainge would be remiss not to do so.

As an outsider, I cannot answer those questions. But a superficial glance around the league shows that the Lakers could use Paul Pierce badly and have the necessary contracts and future No. 1 picks to tango. Utah desperately needs what Ray Allen has to offer, and the Jazz, too, have expiring contracts and No. 1 picks to offer. The Hawks might be willing to give up something for Jermaine O’Neal. Garnett is the hardest to deal, because his contract is so large, and the contending teams that might be interested have little to offer in return. And it is not clear that Garnett would be willing to go to a doormat team eager for his presence around their kids.

I do not write these words lightly. I have watched nearly every Celtics game over the past decade and am deeply attached to the current players. When Perkins was traded I felt physically ill for a day. I wish we could somehow have won the affection of Dwight Howard so we could have been able to keep our aging stars and had a smooth transition to the next era. But for all the emotional attachment I have to these players, I can still remember the bitter taste of the hideous Celtics from 1993 to 2003. If trading our aging stars now makes a return visit to that odious decade less likely, if ending up in the next two or three or even four lotteries increases our odds of getting a superstar, and a first-rate supporting cast, sign me up right now. Celtics fans need to recalibrate their goals. Right now, if the Celtics can return to contention while Rondo is still in his prime, I think it will have been a good bit of work by Danny Ainge. And it won’t be easy.

 

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