As the Boston Celtics hobble into the All-Star break, the fan base and media covering the team are obsessed with one issue: when and how should Danny Ainge commence the rebuilding operation. It is now clear that the Celtics have almost no chance of winning the 2012 NBA title, unless the basketball world spins off its axis entirely. The Celtics are more likely to win a playoff game or two than an entire series.
That Ainge has been looking to this day has been apparent by his refusal for years now to extend contracts past the 11-12 season, with the exception of Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. Even if Ainge stands pat, the Celtics will have room under the cap for a max-contract player. The problem is that of the two possible max contract players available—Dwight Howard and Deron Williams—neither has given the slightest indication that Boston is an option.
The question now is whether Ainge should expedite the process and cash in his aging chips for assets while he still can. This is difficult for fans and the team management because of the strong emotional attachment to the existing stars, who were the foundation of the 2008 championship team: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and, especially, Paul Pierce. If Ainge is going to deal these guys, especially Pierce, he can’t do it for a bag of dirty laundry.
In a fair world, these guys would all retire as Celtics. But the way the NBA works, if the Celtics follow that path, they increase the chances that the next decade will reprise 1993-2007. And that should greatly scare everyone who follows the Celtics.
By the March 15th trade deadline, we will know whether Ainge has decided to expedite the process. As emotionally painful as it will be in the near term, I think a case can be made that it is the best option if the Celtics want to return to contender status this decade.
This is Why You Do It
An NBA team “blows it up” when it no longer has a reasonable chance to contend, and when with every passing day it is clear the team is going to get worse before it gets better. An NBA team needs at least one top-10 player to be a legitimate contender, and usually two top-end players. That does not guarantee contention or titles; it is just the ante for admission.
Most NBA teams exist in purgatory—they do not have the necessary superstars to contend but they have neither the top draft picks or cap space to put themselves in position to get such a superstar or superstars, who are hard to come by under any circumstances. There is tremendous gravitational pull to keep mediocre NBA teams in this status. To be blunt, barring a number of injuries, there are only a handful of teams that have much of a shot at the 2012 title—Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City and maybe two or three others. That is the general state of affairs in the NBA.
Really stupid teams in the circumstances of the present Celtics have traded away future No. 1 picks and signed mediocre guys to long-term deals in the long-shot hope that they might squeeze contention out of as team. It almost never works and only puts the team that much deeper in a hole. Danny Ainge, wisely, has studiously avoided that course. He knows the situation.
The Celtics throughout their history under Red Auerbach were always working to get superstars. The way Auerbach got players like Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird was the work of genius. His last masterpiece was Len Bias.
The Celtics had a terrible interregnum from the early 1990s to 2007. That is the status quo for many NBA teams, and something along those lines will likely be the Celtics future unless the team gets lucky. Danny Ainge’s job is to put the team in the best possible position to get lucky.
Right now, looking at the NBA landscape, it is considerably easier to make a case that the Celtics will be the doormats of the NBA for the balance of this decade than that they will again be legitimate contenders. There are some high peaks in the NBA range—Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City, the Clippers—far beyond the Celtics at present course. Even the middle-range peaks look awfully high from the valley in our immediate future. Ainge is facing a high degree of difficulty.
This is How You Do It
There are three iron laws for putting yourself in position to get lucky.
First, accumulate No. 1 picks.
Second, do not waste capspace.
Third, do not fear being very bad for as long as it takes. No. 3 has the added advantage of making the No. 1 draft pick much higher than it might be otherwise. It has nothing to do with “tanking.” Guys are playing as hard as they can; they just aren’t that good, because the team’s focus is on the future, not the present.
The downside to all of this is that even a team that scrupulously follows these rules may never succeed. That can be a career-ending recipe for a GM as fans tire of a very bad team with no apparent future after a few seasons. It takes courage, vision and a degree of luck. And it takes fans with vision and an understanding of the process. The Celtics have such fans, if they sense the management knows what it is doing. See the tremendous fan support the Celtics lottery teams of 2006 and 2007 received; fans sensed the team was building to something and they were paid off royally.
So what should Ainge do now?
There are three players who deserve serious consideration for being traded. Two of them will be free agents after the season, and their market value will disappear. The other’s market value will only decline after March 15. The point is to trade them to get future No. 1 picks, promising young players and contracts that expire so as not to tie up cap space.
First: Kevin Garnett. He is in the last year of a deal at around $21 million. Garnett would be a wonderful addition to a team that is in contention. He is a still a tremendous defensive player and a very solid NBA power forward. But the salary is an absolute killer for making a trade work, unless the Celtics are willing to back bad contracts. Even then it is difficult to find much of a deal.
Conclusion: The only deal I see that makes sense for both teams would be to trade Garnett to Cleveland for Antawn Jamison and Cleveland’s top-7 protected No. 1 pick, beginning in 2013. Why does Cleveland do it? They are fighting for a playoff spot, and putting KG next to Varejao would give them a monster interior defense. This could be a team that could make sparks fly. Byron Scott would go nuts to have this defense. A nice way to say thanks to their fans, who have suffered over the past two years. The cost is not that high, and does not hurt their cap situation. If it works out, the Cavs try to keep Garnett around for a couple more years.
Why do the Celtics do it? A 2013 No. 1 pick, and Jamison comes of the books after the 2012 season.
Second: Ray Allen. Ray is 36 and in the last year of his deal at $10 million, His defense has slid but he remains an exceptional three-point shooter, with the highest percentage of his storied career. There is likely interest in him from a team, and the Celtics ought to be able to find a deal that does not require the team taking back much salary past 2012 and that includes a future No. 1 pick. It will not be a lottery pick. Teams that jump out as possible candidates are Minnesota, Utah, the Clippers and Milwaukee.
Conclusion: The team that strikes me as the best bet is Minnesota, which desperately needs an off guard who can shoot, and a classy professional workaholic veteran to put next to their kids. Minnesota can offer expiring deals (or deals unguaranteed past 2012) like Brad Miller and Martell Webster. The Wolves can offer Utah’s protected No. 1 pick beginning in 2012. If the Celtics have not been conveyed Utah’s pick by 2014, the team gets Minnesota’s 2014 No. 1 pick.
Why do the C’s do it? A future No. 1 pick.
Third: Paul Pierce. Paul has one more guaranteed year after this season and an unguaranteed (or partially guaranteed) year in 13-14. If the Celtics do go into blow-up mode the team might even consider amnestying Pierce after the season, so he is definitely someone who should be on the market. He also still has big-time game, and is a legitimate All-Star. Pierce makes $15 million so he is a bit harder to move, but it is possible. Minnesota and Houston jump out as teams that could use him; the Lakers too.
Conclusion: Houston is the best possible partner. The Rockets are playing surprisingly well and need a small forward with Pierce's skill-set. With a player like Pierce, the Rockets could move into the first tier in the Western Conference and make it to the Conference Finals. The Rockets have a ton of expiring deals for guys who are not in the rotation and a GM in Daryl Morey who like Ainge is unafraid to shake things up. The Rockets also have the Knicks 2012 No. 1 pick. The deal for Pierce works if Houston gives up Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Terrence Williams, Chandler Parsons, Chase Budinger and the Knicks No. 1 pick. The Rockets are not giving up much, except their ability to compete in the free agent market in the summer of 2012. That did not look very promising for the Rockets, so they take Pierce instead.
Why do the Celtics do it? Clear massive additional cap space in the summer of 2012, so the Celtics could sign two max-contract players. (Are you listening Dwight and Deron?) The Celtics also get a mid-range 2012 no. 1 pick and two serviceable young rotation caliber 3s in Parsons and Budinger.
After the Hurricane
If the Celtics pulled the trigger on these three deals, what would it mean for the balance of the 2012 season?
Here is the roster:
5—O’Neal, Stiemsma, Thabeet, B. Miller
4—Jamison, Bass, JJJ, Wilcox
3—T. Williams, Parsons, Budinger, Daniels, Pavlovic
2—Pietrus, Moore, Webster
1—Rondo, Bradley, Dooling, Flynn
That is 20 guys, so five players would need to be waived. Looking at these names, that does not seem like a difficult operation.
This team would likely not make the playoffs and pick between seven and ten in the first round. It probably will not be pretty.
When the dust clears, this would be the situation of the team going forward:
4—JJJ, possibly Bass (he has a player option for 2012-13)
So the Celtics have a core of seven or eight players, and, to be blunt, aside from Rondo, it is not especially impressive. It is possible that Thabeet, Flynn or T. Williams might show enough to warrant a small one or two year contract. At any rate this is a team that barring a major infusion of talent is aimed at the lottery in 2013.
On the other hand, Ainge’s pile of chips will have increased.
Future draft choices:
Boston No. 1
New York No. 1
Clippers No. 1
Boston No. 2
(Possible Utah No. 1, but more likely in 2013 when it is top-12 protected, or 2014 when it is top-9 protected)
(Possible Milwaukee no. 2 if Bucks are not a lottery team, so unlikely)
Boston No. 1
Cleveland No. 1
Utah No. 1 (may turn into Utah or Minnesota no. 1 in 2014)
Minnesota No. 2
Boston No. 2
It is crucial to remember that these No. 1 picks are as valuable as trading chips as much as they are for the purposes of drafting players. And talented young players can be parlayed into deals for superstars. Recall that Danny effectively converted Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and Ryan Gomes plus a couple of no. 1 picks into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007.
The other huge asset that is built up is capspace, oodles of it.
In the all-time dream scenario, the Celtics have a killer draft in 2012. Then Ainge convinces Howard and Williams to join the team for max deals, and he uses the two newly created $2.5 million exceptions for Garnett and Ray Allen. Then the Celtics are back on top for the rest of the decade.
But that almost certainly will not happen. What to do with the capspace then? The new CBA requires team to spend a certain percentage of the cap amount every season so teams cannot hoard capspace. But what Ainge can do is simply sign players to one-year deal. Or, better yet, he can take players off of teams that need to shed salary to avoid the luxury tax or to clear capspace for free agents. If Ainge does this he gets a No. 1 pick in exchange.
The Celtics will likely have a high draft pick in 2013, and maybe 2014. But, if Ainge drafts with his usual skill, it will be a team chock full of exciting young prospects. The future will begin to look a lot brighter quickly and the trip to the very bottom will have been brief. But there is still no guarantee this returns the Celtics to legitimate contention; it only increases the odds sharply.
The point of this exercise is not to say that these are the very best deals; it is simply to demonstrate the types of options Danny Ainge has as he looks toward the immediate and long-run future of the team. The sad truth is that it is very difficult to get a superstar and contend in the NBA. Unless a team gets lucky it likely will not happen. What a well-managed blow-up does is increase the ability to get lucky. But the sad truth is that it is anything but a sure thing.
Is Doing Nothing Really an Option?
Finally, I have sympathy for those who detest the idea of breaking up the big three, especially Paul Pierce, and “tanking” in the immediate future. Until a few weeks ago, I was doing everything in my power to remain in your ranks. I love this team and these players and I take no pleasure in writing these words. But consider this: In two months the season will be over. We will have seen flashes of lovely basketball and periods that will be deplorable. The team will likely finish in the seventh or eighth seed and get promptly eliminated by Miami or Chicago. And those may be our last playoff memories for some time. The Celtics will have the 15th or 16th pick in the draft, and the Clippers, probably around 24th or 25th.
Then comes the offseason, when many of the current players, including Ray Allen and Garnett, will be unrestricted free agents. What point will there be for Allen or Garnett to return? They can then sign with legitimate contenders at optimum salaries. And why would the rebuilding Celtics bring them back, unless the miracle of miracles happens and Dwight Howard comes to Boston as a free agent. Ainge is certainly NOT going to squander capspace and draft picks on short-term fixes to make Garnett and Allen happy so the team can finish 43-39 and get the eighth seed in 2013.
Then what happens if the Cs enter 2012-13 with Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, a bunch of kids and a handful of Dooling-type journeymen to round out the roster? It will be a team certainly headed to the lottery, but with a grumpy disposition. Paul will be 35; he does not want to go through yet another rebuild. He wants to win and win now. The karma around the team will be sour and there will be pressure on Danny to get some veterans so we can make the 8th seed again and have the much-vaunted “puncher’s chance.” Danny will be doing Paul Pierce and the Cs no favors by keeping him around just to provide a memory of better times. It could become a nightmare.
All it will do, to be blunt, is postpone and make more difficult the rebuilding process. It is hard enough to build a legitimate contender under the best of circumstances. There is no reason to increase the odds. Best to start it right now, assuming deals along the lines I suggest are indeed plausible.