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Danny Goes To Market: Is Rondo In Tow?

The period between now and the NBA trade deadline on February 19 is one of unusual importance for Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are being rebuilt, so marshalling assets, managing the salary cap, and accruing young talent and future no. 1 picks is the name of the game. Some believe Ainge should use some of these assets to grab a quality veteran and make a play for the playoffs. My belief is Ainge is playing the long game, and is willing to be patient to get the talent necessary to be a legitimate contender. That means getting a genuine superstar by hook or by crook.

For that reason, I see the Celtics as sellers above all else. Ainge therefore faces some critical decisions before February 19th, in particular with four players who can become unrestricted free agents in July. 

If Ainge does not think the four players are part of the team’s future, it is in his interest to trade them, ideally for expiring contracts and young prospects or, better yet, future draft choices. There is no reason to keep them the balance of the season, taking time away from players Ainge regards as part of the team’s future.

Two of the four players with expiring deals are Brandon Bass and Marcus Thornton. These are both solid rotation-caliber players in their prime, but it is unclear if there is much of a market for them. If Ainge can move either of them they are as probably as good as gone. Dream scenario in both cases: the Celtics move each of them along with one or two of the no. 2 choices they have stockpiled for expiring contracts and a future protected no. 1 draft choice. One could see a team like Miami needing Bass or Toronto needing Thornton, due to injuries.

Ainge has proven very adept at locating these types of deals—Tyler Zeller, anyone?—so if there is a market out there Ainge will find it...or create it. 

Jeff Green is next. He has a year remaining on his contract but can opt out in July and it seems likely that he will. Green is having a good year and is a legitimate starting 3 in the NBA. At age 28 he probably has a good four quality seasons still in the tank. Were he under contract at his current $9.2 per annum for another four years I suspect Ainge would be happy to have him on board.

But it is another matter to sign a new contract for four or five years at what may well be more like Rudy Gay or Chandler Parsons money, say $13-15 million per annum. The league has grown short of quality 3s, so Green may even do better than that on the open market. In that case Green is swallowing up a lot of space under the salary cap. For a guy who is never likely to be more than the fourth best player on a genuine contender, he may be a luxury the Celtics cannot afford. Better to move him to a team that could use him right now—Toronto and Memphis both come to mind, and there are others—in exchange for expiring deals and one or two future no. 1 picks. 

In the short term the Celtics have Evan Turner to play the 3 and they can work James Young into the rotation by the end of the year. The whole idea the rest of the season should be to give as much of the playing time as possible to players who might be part of the future. 

Finally, there is the main attraction, the Celtics' best player, Rajon Rondo. What Ainge does with him by February 19 is the single great and defining issue before the team. I believe the Celtics came into the season with the hope that Rondo would play his best season to date and make the prospect of giving him a massive extension a no-brainer. Were that the case, an article on the Celtics in the trade market would not include Rondo. But instead Rondo’s season to date has been a disappointment. The Celtics must be having second thoughts about whether they want to sign him to a huge deal, one which would markedly reduce any possibility of entering the free agent market in a serious manner for the visible future.

So how is Rondo a disappointment? He remains the best passing point guard in the game, and in the first tier of best passers in NBA history. There are very few who are his equal. It is sheer pleasure to watch him make passes almost every game that no one else can make.

He is also an exceptional rebounder, perhaps the greatest 6-1 rebounder in NBA history.

That is one hell of a foundation for an NBA player, and all of this was evident with Rondo by his third season in the league, at age 23, when he destroyed the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs. Or in 2010 when he outplayed Dwight Howard and LeBron James in the playoffs and led the Celtics to the 7th game of the NBA Finals.

He was also an annual all-defense team player in those days.

But despite those virtues, Rondo was still an unfinished product. As great as he was in the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, he also disappeared and was largely ineffectual for many games. To become a genuine superstar, Rondo had to develop in two areas. First, he had to use his spectacular handle and quickness and savvy to initiate contact, draw fouls and get to the free throw line, in classic point guard style. Former coach Doc Rivers put it bluntly early in Rondo’s career when he said that if Rondo got to the line 10 times per game, he would be one of the all-time greats. Basically that is what Tiny Archibald did. Before injuries ravaged him, Archibald was a perennial league leader in scoring based on a good 10 trips to the line per game in the early-mid 1970s.

Second, Rondo had to be able to bury open jump shots, and eventually become a passable, even solid, three-point shooter when left wide open.

Both of these were realistic goals. It is what most great point guards have to do when they enter the league, from Magic Johnson to John Wall. 

If Rondo had mastered one of those two areas, he would be a top 10-12 player in the league, and arguably capable of being the best player on a championship team.

If Rondo had mastered both of those areas, he would be a top-5 player and in the annual debate over league MVP. He arguably would be the third best player in Celtics history. 

In either scenario, Rondo gets a five-year max contract offer from the Celtics this summer. The Celtics only pray that he accepts it.

Ray Allen once commented how he and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would watch Rondo routinely do amazing offensive moves in practice and want to say to him, “Dude, do you realize how good you could be?” Most Celtics fans have thought the same as they watched Rondo’s periodic dazzling, even breathtaking, performances, typified by his penchant for “triple doubles.” What if he rounded out his game like nearly all other great point guards and became a scoring threat? 

Alas, it has not come to pass. Indeed Rondo has regressed. Rondo has always been dreadful at getting to the line and making free throws compared to other NBA point guards, but his career high 3.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes in 2010 now looks like Moses Malone on steroids. This season Rondo is getting to the line at a career-low 1.9 times per 36 minutes, well below any other starting point guard.

And that doesn’t even begin to plumb the depths Rondo is exploring: In his rookie season of 2006-07, Rondo made a career-high 64.7 percent of his free throw attempts. That is a reasonable figure for a rookie and one would think that like many great guards he would see it climb towards 75 or even 80 percent as his career progressed. Instead, this season Rondo is only making 33 percent of the free throw attempts those extraordinarily rare times he does get to the line. No other player in NBA history playing 31.8 minutes per game—which is what Rondo is playing this season—has ever shot this low of a percentage. Only six NBA players who averaged more than 10 minutes-per-game and played at least 68 games in a season ever shot free throws this poorly—and the list is entirely comprised of notorious big man bricklayers like Andris Biedrins, Larry Smith, and Olden Polynice. Shaq’s worst year at the line looks like Larry Bird in his prime by comparison. 

To put it another way, prior to this season, in the entire 69 year history of the NBA, not a single player who played 31.8 minutes per game has ever made as few free throws as Rondo is making this season. For a point guard, not to mention a superstar, this production is a farce. 

At this point, Rondo appears to refuse to initiate contact and draw fouls because he is petrified of bricking free throws. It means he has taken a major weapon he needs to be an effective player out of his arsenal. That makes it much easier for teams to defend the Celtics.

Rondo’s aversion to getting to the line could be mitigated to a significant extent if he developed into a reliable shooter when left wide open. Jason Kidd had a similar game to Rondo’s when he came into the league, and Kidd never did develop much of a taste for getting to the line, usually only making 4 or 5 trips to the line per game even at his peak. After he turned 30, like most star players, Kidd stopped going to the line as much and was full Rondo by the time of his superb late-career stint with Dallas. But Kidd compensated for his free throw attempt inadequacy by becoming a solid shooter, especially from three-point land. 

A better example is Steve Nash, who only once in his storied career ever averaged as many as four free throw attempts per game. He simply did not draw fouls. But Nash became a dead-eye shooter, especially from long distance. And, like Kidd, when he did get to the line, he made his free throws.

It looked like this might be Rondo’s pattern as well. When he returned from his ACL operation early in 2014 he seemed to shoot with more authority if not a great deal more success. But this season has been regression as he is shooting only half the number of three-pointers per 36 minutes as a year ago, and at a lower percentage, just 24 percent . It just isn’t happening. He is not better at shooting today than he was early in his career.

For Rondo this offensive incompetence translates into the lowest scoring average of career per 36 minutes—9.1 points per game—around 40 percent lower than his scoring average per 36 minutes in his peak years. And this is when the Celtics do not have Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett; the team desperately needs him to score to succeed and he isn’t doing it. 

For a guy about to turn 29 and pretty much at the age where he should be peaking, this is disconcerting. Especially so since this is his contract year. If Rondo can’t get it together now, when he as much as $100 million on the line, it defies credulity to imagine he is going to suddenly get it together when the ink has dried and he is in his 30s. Just as likely, what you see now is what you are going to get.

And this Rondo can be a fine complementary piece, but he cannot be the best player on championship team, or, with the regression, the second best player on a championship team.

For these reasons I can imagine that Ainge is hesitant about building the next five years of the Celtics around Rondo. For the Celtics to be genuine contenders the team needs to get at least one player that will be a superstar and better than anyone they have at present. It will also require Ainge to draft well the next two or three years and for Brad Stevens to “coach up”  players like Smart, Young, Olynyk and Sullinger. And it will take luck. The odds of getting lucky go down if there is little capspace to play with. With capspace, young players, and oodles of future no. 1 picks, Ainge has a vast array of resources to use to draft, trade for, or sign in free agency a prospective superstar.

It might be better to clear capspace—letting these four players go would put the Celtics very far below the salary cap immediately. In the short term the team is obviously weaker—but then the no. 1 pick is higher in 2015!—but the possibility for getting back to the very top improve.

Now even if Ainge decides that the Celtics cannot afford to give Rondo a max deal and decides to trade him before the deadline, that does not mean he can find much of a deal. Other GMs see what is going on and they are unlikely to want to pay much for half a season of Rondo. His market value has dropped. And this is a golden age for great point guards in the NBA; no one would place Rondo in the top 5 and not many in the top 10. He is a middle-of-the-pack player at this point.

The sort of place where Rondo would be a perfect fit is Houston. The Rockets have a superstar scorer in James Howard and a backline defender in Dwight Howard. Rondo would be able to neutralize the truly great point guards the Rockets will likely encounter in every round of the Western Conference playoffs—Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, or Damian Lillard. He could make Houston absurdly unstoppable on offense. Houston is one team where Rondo could be the difference between an NBA title and a first or second round exit. With two superstars in their prime, there is no tomorrow for the Rockets. The supporting cast would cover Rondo’s flaws, much like the Big Three did in the Celtics recent glory days.

But it takes two to tango and other teams, including Houston, may be unwilling to give much of value for Rondo. It may get so low that it is just as well for Ainge to keep him, and let Stevens have an experienced floor general to develop the young players over the course of the season. Then just let Rondo walk come July. Sometimes teams are better off just letting players leave in free agency. Ask Atlanta if they miss Josh Smith or the Bulls if they missed Ben Gordon.

And then again, there is the possible outcome that the Celtics re-sign Rondo in the summer of 2015 at a much lower rate than anyone thought possible just a few months ago.

Recent reports have indicated Danny Ainge is burning up the phone lines in his trade negotiations with GMs across the league. This is his playoffs, and what he does before February 19th may prove to be decisive for determining the future of the franchise. Who wouldn’t love to be a fly on the wall in Celtics headquarters?

Boston's Rebuild After 16 Months: Time For Patience And Optimism

As the NBA training camps for the 2014-15 season open, it is a good time to take stock and assess where the Celtics rebuilding effort is at. The proper place to start is not 2013 with the trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but to go back two years, to the summer of 2012.

The fifth year of the Big Three era had just ended, and by all rights the Celtics should have been planning to enter a full rebuild mode. The 37-year-old Ray Allen and 36-year-old Kevin Garnett were unrestricted free agents, along with Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, and it was time to move on, clear capspace, accrue young players and draft picks, and commence the same sort of visionary rebuild Danny Ainge had launched in 2003 upon taking the job.

It did not look to be a fast turnaround. The Celtics had two no. 1 picks in 2012, but both picks were deep in the round, and they had no additional no. 1 picks in subsequent years. Nor did the team have a lot of assets. A full-throttle rebuild could hardly have been an appealing prospect to Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, or, especially, coach Doc Rivers.

So Ainge elected not to rebuild. The Celtics had a mediocre regular season in 2011-12, but the team blossomed in the playoffs, winning two series and taking the eventual champion Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. The backcourt of Rondo and Avery Bradley looked intriguing, and their defense combined with that of KG looked championship caliber. If the Celtics could take the champs to 7 games in the ECF, how might they do if they picked up a couple of free agents, saw Bradley improve, and got Jeff Green back from his heart surgery? Ainge decided to go all-in. There were no protests from anywhere in Celtics Nation. The taste of the playoffs was far too sweet to willfully abandon, even if the hopes of an actual title were remote.

In the summer of 2012 Ainge made a series of whirlwind moves dedicated to immediate success and with no concern for any eventual rebuild. Short of trading future no. 1 picks—Ainge is no dummy—all resources were applied to winning in the here and now. Ainge:

- signed Garnett to a three year $30 million deal, that would take him to his 39th birthday

- signed the 35-year-old (and rapidly fading) Jason Terry to a three-year $16 million with the MLE slot

- was surprised when Ray Allen rejected the large three-year offer from the Celtics to accept a much lower two-year deal with the Heat; this was not a good sign

- to compensate for losing Allen, made a complicated sign-and-trade deal including three future no. 2 picks to acquire Courtney Lee and a four-year $21 million contract

- signed Brandon Bass, a reserve forward, to a three-year, $20 million deal

- signed Jeff Green to a four-year, $36 million deal

When the dust cleared Ainge had added a lot of guaranteed salary for the subsequent three seasons, and two of the deals went a fourth year. None of the deals, except perhaps that of Green, made any sense unless a team was playing for all the marbles now, or was convinced global warming would lead sea levels to rise 10 feet by 2015.

It was not long into the 2012-13 season that most of the above deals began to smell like month-old fish left out on the kitchen counter. Terry sucked. Lee sucked. Bass and Green were overpaid. Garnett and Pierce still had game, but they were past their prime. Bradley battled nagging injuries. The team had no chance of playing with the contending teams in the league. Any hope had been dashed in January when the team’s best player, Rajon Rondo, tore his ACL and would be out the rest of the season, and half of the following season as well. The one exciting development, rookie no. 1 pick Jared Sullinger, had season-ending back surgery around the same time. The skies were dark in Boston.

So by May 2013 there was no debate over whether the Celtics should launch a full rebuild; it was the only option available. So there was Ainge with a mess largely of his own making. Untradeable contracts. Salary cap leaving little or no maneuverability before 2015 at the earliest, and probably 2016, barring deals for Green and Lee. A depleted number of no. 2 picks, thanks to the Lee deal. And his only keepers on the roster looking ahead to when the team might contend again—Rondo, Sullinger, Bradley and Green—all had serious injury concerns, and only Rondo was a clearly above-average player. No one else on the roster had a future with the team.

In short, in May 2013 the Celtics were entering a full rebuild with little in the way of assets. One suspects that very few, if any, other teams in the league would have traded rosters and future draft picks with the Celtics. It was that bad.  

Rivers saw the imminent demise and wanted no part of a series of 28-54 seasons that might lead to another series of 28-54 seasons. He had been through two rebuilds in his coaching career and that met his quota. Generally regarded as one of the premier coaches in the game—and beloved by his veteran players as well as the fans—he did not need to do the rebuild thing anymore. But he was under contract, so he could not just take another job without the Celtics getting compensation. Ainge traded Rivers to the Clippers for a 2015 no. 1 pick. The rebuild had begun. There was a 180 degree shift in direction for the franchise.

Next up were Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. With Rivers' exit, they had to ask themselves whether they wanted to do the rebuild thing during their last two or three years in the league as they were entering their late 30s. The answer was no. But what could Ainge get for these two aging superstars? Pierce only had one year left on his max-contract deal, while Garnett had two more years, but he was talking about retirement. Ainge faced the distinct prospect of just releasing them or letting anyone take them who would swallow their contracts and send him back an expiring deal. He certainly had no place for them on a rebuilding team; they might help win enough games to cost the Celtics a high lottery pick, and for what? At best, Ainge might get a contender to send a future lottery-protected no. 1 pick for each of them. Even then, as one perused the NBA rosters in June 2013 there were not many options discernible. Perhaps none.

At this point, the skies opened, the sun shined through, and Red Auerbach smiled down on the Celtics. It just so happened that the New Jersey cum Brooklyn Nets wanted to make a big splash. GM Billy King thought adding Garnett and Pierce to a line-up of Derek Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez would vault the Nets to elite contender status. That acquiring the huge contracts would give the Nets a payroll comparable to the senior executives at Goldman Sachs—with a massive luxury tax bill that could subsidize the Newark, New Jersey public school system—was of no apparent concern to Mikhail Prokhorov.

King’s thesis was not necessarily wrong; the devil came in working out the details of the deal. King was negotiating against himself to acquire KG and Pierce. There was no market otherwise. Once Ainge realized King was committed to getting Pierce and Garnett at any cost, he made a deal for the ages. The Celtics traded Garnett, Pierce, and the execrable Jason Terry to the Nets for the expiring deals of Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks, the three-year entirely unguaranteed deal of Keith Bogans, and the one bad contract in the mix: Gerald Wallace’s $10 million per year deal that extended through 2016.  The Celtics also got a $10.7 million trade exception, which was put to good use. They also got some draft picks, which I turn to below.

Taking Wallace’s dreadful contract wasn’t that big of a deal for the Celtics, because thanks to Ainge’s contracts from the summer of 2012, there would not be any appreciable capspace until 2015 or 2016 anyway, so nabbing major free agents was not a big concern. If, in the summer of 2015, Ainge wanted to shed Wallace’s final $10 million to clear capspace, he could use the stretch provision to pay Wallace $3.3 million annually for three years.

So what did Ainge get by, in effect, taking Wallace’s contract off of the Nets hands? When one includes how Ainge parlayed Humphries, Bogans and the trade exception, this is what he has gotten (so far) in return for the deal:

- Tyler Zeller

- Marcus Thornton (deal expires in 2015)

- Dwight Powell

- Brooklyn Nets 2014 No. 1 pick—James Young

- Brooklyn Nets 2016 unprotected No. 1 pick

- Brooklyn Nets 2018 unprotected No. 1 pick

- Boston right to swap 2017 No. 1 picks with Brooklyn; if Boston does so, Brooklyn gets Boston’s 2017 No. 2 pick

- Cleveland top-10 protected 2016 No. 1 pick

- Cleveland 2016 No. 2 pick

- Cleveland 2017 No. 2 pick

- Washington top-49 protected 2015 No. 2 pick

- $4.3 million trade exception (through July 2015)

- $5.3 million trade exception (through September 2015)

When one adds in the 2015 Clippers No. 1 pick for Doc Rivers, and the 2015 and 2016 Philadelphia No. 2 picks as well as the 2016 Miami No. 2 pick that were acquired in small part for MarShon Brooks (as part of a deal including Jordan Crawford and Joel Anthony), this is a rather extraordinary haul. And, of course, the Celtics have all their own no. 1 picks going forward. In the next four seasons, the Celtics have eight No. 1 picks and eight, possibly nine, No. 2 picks. And that doesn’t include Young and Zeller and the trade exceptions that remain and should be parlayed into more players or draft picks.

The exact value of this haul will be determined by where Brooklyn’s draft picks land and how well Ainge drafts or uses these assets in trades. If Brooklyn descends into the deep lottery, which is possible, this trade could boggle the mind; it will become the stuff of legends. Even if Brooklyn stays out of the lottery, what remains undeniable is this: Danny Ainge has a pile of assets like almost no other rebuilding team in the league. And, if he chooses, he will have a considerable capspace, too, by 2016. He could even have a lot of space in 2015 if he wished to maneuver to create it.

Ainge has done some other housekeeping as well besides the great Brooklyn heist and its aftershocks. He hired Brad Stevens to replace Doc, and the preliminary returns are glowing; he seems the ideal coach for a rebuild. Ainge moved up three spots to grab Kelly Olynyk with the 13th pick in the 2013 draft. In 2014 he took Marcus Smart with the 6th pick overall, and James Young with the 17th pick overall. These look like keepers, though the jury is out to varying degrees on all of them. Ainge picked up Vitor Faverani form Europe. He dumped Courtney Lee’s contract at the cost of shipping out a future no. 2 pick. Slowly the assets pile is getting larger, and the debit pile is shrinking. When the 2015 season concludes, Bass, Joel Anthony—who came in the MarShon Brooks/Jordan Crawford deal and it the reason why the Celtics got those three second round picks— and Marcus Thornton will be off the books, and Gerald Wallace will be the last negative contract around.

There are far too many variables to predict how the Celtics will do in 2014-15, or when the team might return to legitimate contention, but this much is clear: Since Ainge made his 180 in May 2013, he has done a remarkable job of implementing a serious rebuild and putting the Celtics in a position to succeed. That means the future is less up to chance and more under the control of the Celtics. At this point, that is the best we can hope for.

Tanks But No Tanks: Danny Ainge’s (Nearly) Impossible Mission

The Boston Celtics are in the midst of one of the most difficult tasks in all of team sports: making an NBA team a legitimate contender. Why so difficult? Because only a handful of NBA teams are ever genuine contenders in any given season, and those are the teams that have superstars, top 5-7 players in the game, as their best players. Contenders usually also have at least one or two other top 15-20 players. The surest route to getting such superstar is to have a very high draft pick, among the top two or three picks overall, in a year where superstar talent is available. By most accounts, the 2014 draft is such a year, so the best thing for the Celtics would be to “tank” and make it possible to grab up the sort of stud who could be the best player on 62-20 teams for the next decade. 

But one-third of the way through the 2013-14 NBA season, the Celtics are doing a dreadful job of tanking. Why that is and what that means for the immediate and long-term prospects for the team is the subject of this piece. First, however, some context. 

Rebuilding the Celtics in Context

Danny Ainge is overseeing the rebuilding project for the Celtics. It is his second rebuild, and the degree of difficulty is high. No matter what he does he may not succeed; it will require more than a little bit of luck. 

When Ainge made the deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007, he officially completed his first “rebuilding” project, one that had been in existence for the franchise since at least 1992. Ainge did not luck into Garnett and Allen; he had patiently accumulated young prospects and expiring contracts to make each of the deals possible. It was some superior GM work on Danny’s part to convert the train wreck he inherited in 2003 to a contender by 2007.

After the summer 2007 trades, the Celtics now had a bona fide superstar in Garnett—a top-5 player as well as a top-15 player in Paul Pierce and a perennial All-Star in Allen. They were now contenders, or at least as long as Garnett and Pierce were close to their primes. For Ainge, everything would be done to make the team win in the here and now. There are only a few legitimate contenders in the NBA and once a team achieves that status it should do nothing to undermine its immediate chances.

Because the Celtics’ star players were over 30 in 2007, it was understood that the contender “window” would only be open for a brief time. It lasted four seasons, generating one title and a glorious season where the Celtics lost the 7th game of the Finals on the road. A 2009 knee injury to Garnett is arguably what kept the Celtics from winning three consecutive NBA titles from 2008-10. Before his injury, the 2008-09 Celtics were playing the best basketball in the league by a clear margin, and the best basketball of the “Big Three” era.

After the 2010-11 season, it seemed pretty clear that the window had just about closed. Garnett was only a shadow of the player he had been before his knee injury, though he remained arguably the best defender in the league. The lockout that occurred in the summer and fall of 2011 meant that Danny Ainge was unable to wheel and deal and commence the rebuild. During a lackluster 2011-12 regular season he pondered “blowing it up,” or at least trading Ray Allen, but elected not to pull the trigger on a trade deadline deal. 

Then something odd happened: the Celtics played inspired hoops in the 2012 playoffs, and took the eventual champion Heat to seven games. In particular the defense provided that season by Garnett, Rondo and second-year guard Avery Bradley put up numbers that had almost never been seen before in NBA history. Doc Rivers had no interest in a rebuild, nor did Garnett or Pierce. Ainge wanted to re-sign a rejuvenated Garnett who was a free agent, so Ainge went “all in” in the summer of 2012 to keep the team a contender for another year or two. This was drawing to an inside straight, but given the roster, the coach and the success in the 2012 playoffs, it was understandable. 

How did he do that? After inking Garnett to a three-year $30 million deal, he signed the atrophying Jason Terry to a three-year, $17 million deal. He signed Bandon Bass to a three-year $20 million deal. Then, when Ray Allen left to take a substantially weaker deal with Miami, Ainge traded three future second round picks to sign Courtney Lee to a four-year, $22 million deal. All of these moves only made sense if the Celtics contended. If they did not contend, then clogging up the payroll with long term deals for guys who were not even starting caliber players was a clunker move, that would tie Danny’s shoelaces together if he attempted to commence any rebuild before 2015 or 2016. 

End of Contention

Ainge rolled the dice and he lost. By the spring of 2013, the window of contention had been painted shut. Ainge’s best player, Rajon Rondo, had a serious knee injury and would be out until early 2014, at best. There was no way to know how good he would be upon return. Nor was there much reason to believe that Rondo was good enough to be the best player on a championship team. He fit the profile of an ideal No. 2 guy. That left Ainge with the hardest job of all for a GM: getting a player better, even much better, than Rondo on his roster.

To top it off he had a roster filled with difficult-to-move contracts and no capspace anywhere on the horizon to utilize for prospective free agents. The deals for Terry, Bass and Lee began to smell like month-old fish left on a counter. Moreover, the Celtics had a mid-first round pick in the 2013 draft, which was considered one of the weakest in years. To top it off, the drafts in 2014 and 2015 looked like they might be chock full of game-changing superstars, but the Celtics were unlikely to be crappy enough to get a top-3 pick.

This looked like another long rebuild, not the wonderful quickie rebuild like in 1969-72 when Red Auerbach corralled JoJo White, Dave Cowens and Paul Silas and built a terrific team that won two titles. Or the quickie rebuild of 1977-80 when Auerbach got Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and built the 80s dynasty team. Instead, there was mediocrity as far as the eye could see. A reprise of the tortured years from 1993-2007 seemed possible, even imminent.

Begin the Rebuild

The good news for Ainge by May 2013 was that the team’s fall from contender status was obvious to Rivers, Garnett and Pierce. And since none of them had any interest in a rebuild it both forced Ainge’s hand and opened up opportunities for him. He parlayed Rivers into an unprotected 2015 first round pick from the Clippers. That will likely be a low first-rounder, but injuries could change that, especially in the hyper-competitive western conference.

With regard to Pierce and Garnett, he needed to find a team or teams to take their contracts. There was not a long list. It seemed that there might not even be a market for Pierce or Garnett, or at least a market where a rebuilding team could get anything of value in return. In fact, it is unclear if the list extended past one team, the Brooklyn Nets and its delusional gazillionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov—who apparently had not yet had the NBA salary cap explained to him. Prokhorov thought he was an inch away from a championship team and the addition of Pierce and Garnett was all that was needed. Ainge looked to the skies and thanked his lucky stars.

Ainge gave up Pierce and Garnett—two guys he really had no need for—and the worthless Jason Terry. In exchange he took back one very bad contract in Gerald Wallace—three more seasons at $10 million per—plus three other contracts that would expire after one season. One of these was for Kris Humphries, a serviceable big but vastly overpaid at $12 million for the 2013-14 season.

Why would Ainge make this trade? Look at what else he got: the lower of the 2014 first round pick of the Nets or Atlanta. Right now it looks like the Celtics will get Atlanta’s pick, which is presently in the 17-20 range. And that is just the beginning. The Celtics also get the Nets' unprotected no. 1 picks in 2016 and 2018. The Celtics also have the right to swap no. 1 picks with the Nets in 2017. 

This boggles the mind. The Nets are an old team. They do not have their own first round pick again until 2019. (Atlanta has the right to swap first round picks with the Nets in 2015.) They are way over the cap. Their management seems to have graduated magna cum laude from the Donald Sterling-Ted Stepien Leadership Academy. They are poised to be declining in two or three years, if not sooner, and have little recourse to improve their situation for the balance of the decade. Some or all of those three no. 1 picks the Celtics will be getting from the Nets from 2016-18 stand a decent chance of being lottery picks, even high lottery picks. 

So Ainge parlayed Garnett, Pierce and Rivers into four additional unprotected no. 1 picks—and a right to swap picks in 2017. In early May it looked like he might get nothing for nearly expiring assets. 

Oh yeah, there is one additional important return for the deal: The Celtics get a $10.2 million trade exception through June 12, 2014. This can be used in a number of ways, not the least of which is to swallow a bad contract in exchange for a no. 1 pick. So, for example, if the Lakers want to clear space to make a run at two bigtime free agents in the summer of 2014, they could trade the final year of Steve Nash’s contract to the Celtics ($9.7 million) to the Celtics and the Celtics could get a distant no. 1 pick for doing so.

Red is smiling down on Danny. Good work! 

Look Out Below! Tank Time!

Almost immediately all talk in Celtics Nation was about the need for the Celtics to tank in 2013-14. Rondo would miss much of the season. And the 2014 draft looks like one for the ages. There are a good 5-8 players who would be legitimately in play for top-two caliber picks in the majority of years. This was a great year to tank because even if you whiff with the lottery balls, the 5th or 6th pick overall might still net a superstar.

There is a lot of confusion about tanking. It does not mean that a coach tries to lose and that the players try to lose. It means that all personnel decisions are made with an eye to the future, and nothing is done to enhance the immediate prospects of the team. Good veterans who will not be around in two or three or four years have no role to play so they get traded or benched. A team plays young and inexperienced guys who will likely lose, even trying as hard as they can to win. But if the team does ever contend, these are the players who will be on that team. The coach will work hard to install his system and teach the players to play properly; he is not trying to allow bad habits to form. This was how the Celtics tanked in 2007, after Pierce went down with his injury. As one who watched nearly every Celtics game that year, I can state that it was an entertaining team.

This seemed like the likely course for the 2013-14 season. Three problems emerged in the first six weeks of the season that may have tanked the prospect of tanking. 

First, in replacing Doc Rivers, Ainge went out and hired the person he considered the nation’s finest college coach, the thirty-something Brad Stevens of Butler. In a revealing interview just before Ainge hired Stevens he said that there are few coaches in the NBA who were so great they could actually elevate marginally contending teams into champions. Ainge termed them “Michael Jordan” coaches, and indicated that any team would want a coach like that. Ainge then went out and signed Stevens, who took Butler to two consecutive NCAA title games. The roster on his 2011 team was bereft of talent—more than one observer noted there were few Big Ten teams with less talent—but there Butler was playing UConn for the championship. Ainge signed what he believed to be a Michael Jordan coach, or someone with that sort of potential. Those type of coaches are obviously not ideal for a tanking.

Second, Ainge’s roster cupboard was not bare. There were a number of intriguing young players like Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani to go along with young starting talents like Avery Bradley and Jeff Green. And there were holdovers like Bass, Lee and Jordan Crawford too. A third of the way through the season it is clear that most of these guys are average to above-average NBA players. Sullinger as age 21 has the ability to be an All-Star, or at least an above average starter. Whether it is due to Ainge’s talent judgment or Stevens’ coaching or a number of other factors, what is striking is that most of the players are playing as well as they ever have. The team is well coached, and the players are buying into Stevens’ program. It is not going to go 22-60. And that is before Rondo even returns to action.

Third, the Eastern Conference royally sucks. It is atrociously bogus. Some teams, like Toronto and Philadelphia, are indeed tanking. Some teams have piles of injuries and some are simply bad. But a team could conceivably go 36-46 and still make the playoffs. It looks like the Celtics are probably in the playoffs, barring unforeseen injuries. And if the Celtics do miss the playoffs, they likely draft between 8th and 10th overall.

Is there a Plan B...or Plan C?

So if tanking is off the table, if the Celtics are not getting a high first round pick in 2014 or in the visible future, can they ever get the superstar necessary to contend? After all, most the guys who are the best player on championship teams were drafted in the top three and usually first or second overall. 

Have Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens cooked their own gooses? Will Toronto and Milwaukee and Utah and Philadelphia all be laughing at them when their superstar-led teams are contending in a few seasons and the Celtics are mired in the purgatory of endless 48-34 seasons? Visions of teams like the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks and 1990s Indiana Pacers come to mind. Regular season battlers; playoff clunkers.

In one sense Ainge has his bases covered by trading for future unprotected first round picks. He may well get his cake and eat it too if the Nets flatline. Don’t forget that the draft picks that brought Magic Johnson and James Worthy to the Lakers were from similar trades for unprotected first round picks many years down the road.

But there is a much greater chance the Nets will not provide a high lottery pick.

And, of course, there is always a chance that Ainge could strike gold with a pick at the end of the lottery or in the mid-first round. That is where Paul George, Kobe Bryant and John Stockton were drafted. But those sort of picks happen once every 15 years or so. So look for that again around 2025. At any rate, it is nothing to plan around.

What then? 

This is where the changes in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement comes into play. With the maximum contracts and the shortened length of contracts, superstars are far more inclined to move to new teams, and do so more regularly. Before the 2000s, superstars rarely moved from their first team, except at the end of a career. Consider, for example: Bill Russell,  Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas and Hakeem Olajuwon. And if they did move in their prime, it was usually at their demand and only once, as with Kareem or Elvin Hayes. 

Not so in the 2010s. Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James have moved once, and odds are they will do so again. Dwight Howard already has moved twice. If Oklahoma City is not winning or Minnesota is not contending, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love will almost certainly wish to leave. It is the new world order.

Ideally a team like the Celtics could devote several years to shedding deadweight contracts so it might be in position to have the capspace to sign a maximum-contract free agent. That is how Houston got Dwight Howard. But this is actually more difficult than it seems. Free agents have to select a team voluntarily. And they are not going to voluntarily go to a lousy or even mildly decent team as a free agent since the money is the same wherever they go. Instead they want to go to a team that looks like it will immediately contend for a title. The sort of team that has lots of capspace is unlikely to be so positioned. 

And if a superstar is willing to pick a team for criteria outside of potential championships, it is usually a city with terrific weather and/or lots of glamour. Boston flunks that test. It will only attract superstars because it offers a chance to win and win big.

Danny’s dilemma

Nowadays, most superstars are traded before they hit free agency, so the team holding the contracts can get something in return. That is the likely way Ainge will get his next superstar, as he did with Garnett in 2007.

To put the Celtics in a position to be attractive to a prospective superstar free agent, Ainge has to walk a very fine line. He needs a team that is competitive and promising such that a superstar will feel like he can immediately contend. Yet at the same time, Ainge has to resist the temptation to sign up a lot of supporting cast players to three or four years deals at salaries above the MLE level. These are players that are difficult to trade and that clog up capspace. They are the sort of guys who make a team permanently decent, but never a contender.

The dream scenario for Ainge is to have a combination of young talented players at rookie contract scale, guys like Sullinger and Olynyk and the 2014 draftees. He will want maybe one or two veteran guys on big time deals, who will complement the superstar. Rondo, in my view, is a sure thing to be extended for another four years. Whether Jeff Green remains past this contract is a decision that is very much up in the air.

The balance of the roster should be made up of players on expiring deals, or guys whose future seasons are unguaranteed. These players are very attractive as cap filler in making trades for superstars. (Regrettably, Courtney Lee and Gerald Wallace have no value—not because they cannot play but because they are so absurdly overpaid through 2016—and Danny will likely have to hold his nose until these deals expire.) In addition, Ainge wants to have future first round picks that can be used to sweeten trades for superstars. He has done what he can by accruing four additional first round picks between now and 2018. 

The dilemma Ainge faces will become more apparent in the weeks before the trade deadline. Three players in particular require hard decisions: Brandon Bass, Jordan Crawford, and Avery Bradley.

Bass is playing the best basketball of his career; he has evolved from a rotation player to a legitimate NBA starting forward. He has become a superb defender who can take on the top scoring forwards on the opposing team. He has gone from a player with little positive trade value to a player who could contribute to a contender. Bass also plays the same position as Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. He really needs to go, to create space for the kids. At the same time to trade Bass will almost certainly make the team weaker in the short-term. That is exactly the right thing for the Celtics to do, but it will still be a difficult move for many to accept. It will take cojones

Likewise, Crawford has been a revelation. Ainge basically got him for free last season and then decided to not to pick up his option for 2014-15. In an astonishing turnaround, Crawford looks like a legitimate solid starting NBA point guard. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the Celtics would be 4-20 rather than 10-14 at the time of this writing if Crawford had not emerged as such a good player. Crawford  just turned 25 and this is his first season at his natural point guard position. He could get a lot better. At the same time, Crawford is not a shooting guard and he is still no Rajon Rondo. Moreover, he is an unrestricted free agent after the season. It makes no sense for the Celtics to re-sign him at the rate he is likely to attract. Those are exactly the sort of contracts the Celtics are wise to avoid for the time being.

It seems obvious: Crawford should be traded. He should net either a future first rounder or maybe the Celtics could get someone to swallow Courtney Lee’s contract, or both. But if the Celtics do not trade him before the deadline they will lose him and get nothing in return. That would be senseless, as the Celtics are not going to contend this year. 

Finally, Avery Bradley will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014. The Celtics can match any offer he gets. Bradley is a mind-blowing defensive player with an improving offensive game, though it has a long way to go to reach All-Star status. The Celtics need to think long and hard if they want to devote $32-40 million to Bradley over the next four seasons. It would really clog up the salary cap and make it more difficult to get the necessary superstar. If the answer is “no,” the Celtics might be best off trading Bradley before the deadline. The Celtics would be able to get considerable value for Bradley then. It would be ideal to have Bradley be part of the future of the team, but the new economics of the NBA might make that a short-sighted decision. 

Watching a GM build a contender is one of the reasons people flock to the RealGM website. Danny Ainge has built one champion and is committed to doing it again. The next two months will provide crucial insights into his strategic thinking.

The Superstar Theory, Part Two: What Every NBA GM Needs To Know (Section A)

The Superstar Theory does not explain who will win every title before the season or before the playoffs; it simply explains who is in legitimate contention, and provides guidance to teams that would like to become legitimate contenders.

What The Superstar Theory Means For NBA GMs (Section B)

What The Superstar Theory Does And Does Not Explain (Section C)

The Superstar Theory is not the Nostradamus Theory; it does not predict who exactly will win championships. It only explains, with considerable precision, what teams will be in legitimate contention. The games still have to be played.

All Superstars, All The Time: The Secret To Winning Or Contending For An NBA Title (Section A)

Most championship teams have at least two players from the list of the best 95 players in NBA history on their roster in their prime. Smart GMs understand the superstar thesis and take steps to increase their odds dramatically.

Who Are The Best Players On Teams That Won And Contended For Titles? (Section B)

Every single NBA champion has been led by a player on this list. So if your team does not have as its best player one of these guys, or someone likely to get on the list, your chances are virtually nil.

Additional Superstars Needed For Championships (Section C)

It is not just having a platinum or gold superstar that matters, it is having additional superstars that separates the champions from the pretenders.

The Art Of The Managed Blow-Up

With the Celtics no longer a true title contender, the question now is whether Danny Ainge should expedite the process and cash in his aging chips for assets while he still can.

Danny Ainge And The Art Of The Rebuild

The Celtics are no longer a title contender and how Danny Ainge plays his cards over the next year or two will determine whether they can hit the trampoline and regroup, or return to their mediocrity treadmill from 1993 and 2007.

Occupy the NBA? The Players’ Nuclear Option

The NBA owners need to face the full fury of a more truly competitive market. This is it. It is the only leverage the players have and would ultimately drive up salaries because of actual market competition.

The Path To A Permanent Peace Between NBA Players And Owners

At a labor impasse, maybe the NBA needs to eliminate individual contracts between players and teams, and establish a salary structure that encompasses every player. Here's how it could be done.

Whither The Celtics? Four Paths to the Future

There are four distinct directions the Celtics could take moving forward, each with legitimate evidence to support it, and each with its perils and promise.

The Rondo Paradox

Rajon Rondo's trips to the line this have been infrequent and largely unsuccessful. If he commits to getting to the line, Boston's chances of a title increase, as does Rondo's ability to be an MVP candidate.

How To Solve The Owners-Players Squabble And Avoid A Lockout In 2011

The NBA should have a historically great playoffs and here is a multi-step way to follow excellent basketball with labor peace.

Reconsidering The Superstar Theory, Part 1 & Part 2

Throughout NBA history, teams that win, or even compete for titles, almost always have one or two of the absolute best players in the game. The Heat will test this theory in a unique way.

Reconsidering The Superstar Theory, The Conclusion

Throughout NBA history, teams that win, or even compete for titles, almost always have one or two of the absolute best players in the game. The Heat will test this theory in a unique way.

The Path To A Permanent Peace Between NBA Players And Owners

The NBA needs to eliminate individual contracts between players and teams, and establish a salary structure that encompasses every player. Here's how.

The Miami Heat And Uncharted Waters

In a sport where teams with genuine superstars do disproportionately well, the Miami Heat are a frightening proposition.

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