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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)

In Part One of this series, I provided detailed evidence for the Superstar Theory. (You should look at Part One—which has sections A, B and C—before your read what follows; it will not make much sense otherwise.) This is the idea that the key to winning or even contending for an NBA championship is dependent upon having a bona fide superstar, someone who would rank among the top 35 players in league history. Then it is imperative to have at least one, and maybe two, other superstar players, guys who would rank in the top 100 players in league history.

The evidence is clear: teams that fit this profile win almost all of the NBA titles and are the teams that seriously contend for all NBA titles. Everyone else is spinning their wheels and hoping their fans don’t notice that they are a hepped-up version of the Washington Generals. NBA team marketing departments aside from a few places like Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles certainly do not want this truth to get around. But basketball lovers revel in this truth because in few team sports can individual athletic genius be put on such magnificent display, yet require a commitment to team success to be realized.

Let me repeat from the earlier piece that merely having a superstar or two does not guarantee a title or even contention; it is simply the ante for admission. A team still needs role players, good coaching, experience, etc. 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.

For NBA GMs and serious fans—if not the marketing departments—the truth about how NBA championships are won cannot be glossed over. That is why I have done this research and written this piece. Let’s start by looking at the current NBA superstars are who are in their prime, and who looks most likely to join them. Then we can see where the championships will come from for the visible future, or until another generation of superstars enters the league.

After getting the lay of the land, I will assess how NBA GMs have acquired superstars traditionally and what their options are today, under the current collective bargaining agreement. I conclude with a few brief comments of how a fan night evaluate an NBA GM’s performance…if the goal is to have a team that actually contends for and possibly wins an NBA championship.

Who are the current NBA superstars?

Platinum Medal: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan

Gold Medal: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki

Silver Medal: Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, Blake Griffin

Bronze Medal: Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce, Paul George

Honorable Mention: James Harden (3.8 points, barely missing bronze status; seems likely by 2014 unless injured) 

The superstars who will be under 35 in the 2013-14 season are listed in bold. I have bold-faced and italicized the superstars who are under 25, as they may still be in the process of rising up the charts. Superstars generally reach their level fairly early in their careers, by their mid-to-late 20s. Each of the seven superstars (including James Harden) who are under 25 could shoot higher on the list if they remain healthy. How far up the list these seven guys climb in the next few years will go a long way toward determining how successful their teams will be. The others are probably slotted where they will remain.

This is a pretty small group of players, especially in the platinum and gold medal levels where most championships can be found. Even tossing in the silver medal level, this only leaves only a handful of NBA teams with a shot at the title, and only four that have at least a gold or platinum medal leader.

Nor are all superstars in their prime. Tim Duncan’s exceptional year in 2012-13 was an anomaly; most players on this list who are 35 or older are past their prime, even well past their prime, and only a few of them will even have qualifying seasons in 2013-14. Some are approaching the “victory lap” stage of their careers.

So the first question is this: Are there young players in the NBA right now who will join this list and rise rapidly to the top? If there are then there may be more competition on the horizon for championships than this list suggests.

For the sake of this discussion, the bronze medal superstars are less important. They almost never lead teams to championships; they are tremendous players—routinely make the All-Star Game and most will go to the Hall of Fame, they are among the best 100 players in NBA history—and often necessary sidekicks on contenders and champions. But even having two bronze medal superstars on your team is insufficient to win an NBA title, the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics notwithstanding. What we want to determine here is whether there are young players on the horizon who can go silver or, especially, gold or platinum.

Fortunately, there is a remarkably accurate way to know if any current young players in the NBA not on this list are likely to make it: seeing their age the first time they make first-team All-NBA. What is striking, as the chart below demonstrates, is the players who become platinum, gold and silver superstars tend to make first-team All-NBA teams very early in their careers. They almost always make second or third team NBA right way. (I use the player’s age at the beginning of a season, November 1.)

Platinum Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
1. Michael Jordan 23 21 1
2. Bill Russell 24 23 2
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 23 22 1
4. Larry Bird 22 22 1
5. LeBron James 20 19 2
6. Magic Johnson 23 22 3
6. Bob Pettit 21 21 1
8. David Robinson 25 24 1
9. Kobe Bryant 23 22 3
9. Tim Duncan 21 21 1
11. Jerry West 23 23 2
12. Wilt Chamberlain 23 23 1
13. Bob Cousy 23 23 2
13a. Bill Walton 24 23 3

Gold Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
14. Karl Malone 25 24 3
15. Kevin Durant 21 21 3
16. Elgin Baylor 24 24 1
17. Oscar Robertson 21 21 1
18. Shaquille O’Neal 25 21 2
19. Dwight Howard 21 20 3
20. Hakeem Olajuwon 23 22 2
21. Julius Erving (ABA) 22 21 1
22. Chris Paul 22 22 3
23. Bill Sharman* 28 26 3
24. Kevin Garnett 23 22 4
25. Moses Malone 23 23 2
26. Dolph Schayes* 23 21 1
27. George Gervin(ABA) 25 22 2
28. Dirk Nowitzki 26 22 3
29. John Havlicek 30 23 2
29. Charles Barkley 24 22 2
31. Walt Frazier 24 24 3
31a. Sidney Moncrief 25 24 3
31b. Maurice Stokes * 22 1

*Career-ending injury after third season

Silver Medal Superstars

  AGE First-Time AGE First-Time First Season
  1st Team All-NBA Any All-NBA Team Any All-NBA
32. John Stockton 31 25 4
33. Gary Payton 27 25 4
34. Dwyane Wade  26 22 2
35. Tracy McGrady 22 21 4
36. Steve Nash 30 27 6
36. Patrick Ewing  27 25 3
38. Scottie Pippen 28 26 5
39. Rick Barry 21 21 1
40. Paul Arizin  23 23 2
40. Derrick Rose 22 22 3
42. Jason Kidd 25 25 4
43. Nate Archibald 24 23 2
44. Dave Cowens * 24 3
45. Bob McAdoo  23 22 2
46. Elvin Hayes 29 27 5
47. Grant Hill 24 23 2
48. Allen Iverson 25 24 4
49. Isiah Thomas 22 21 2
50. Ben Wallace NA 27 6
51. Alonzo Mourning 28 28 7
52. Sam Jones NA 31 8
53. Dominique Wilkins 25 25 4
54. Dennis Rodman NA 31 6
55. Spencer Haywood 22 22 2
56. Amar'e Stoudemire 23 21 3
57. Billy Cunningham 25 25 4
58. Blake Griffin NA 22 2
58a. Willis Reed 27 24 3
58b. George Yardley 29 28 4
58c. David Thompson 22 21 (ABA) 1
58d. Gus Johnson NA 25 2
58e. Neil Johnston 23 23 2
58f. Paul Westphal 25 25 5
58g. Mark Price 28 24 3

* Cowens won the league MVP at age 24. He never made first-team All-NBA thanks to Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. 

Take a close look at the ages of these players when they make All-NBA and first-team All-NBA. Platinum medal superstars all make all-NBA within a year or two of entering the league and all make all-NBA first team before 25, and usually long before that. In the case of everyone on that list, people knew very early in their careers that these were players who were going to be dominant. Late bloomers need not apply.

The same pattern hold true for gold medal superstars. The only exceptions to the first-team by age-25 rule are Bill Sharman, who did not play a full season until he was 25 and John Havlicek who almost immediately earned second team all-NBA honors for the dynasty Celtics but did not make first-team all-NBA until he turned 30. (Then he made it several years in a row.)

There is a little bit of slippage with silver medal superstars—just over one-half made first-team All-NBA by 25—but not that much. Here the laggards tend to be the great defensive players like Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Alonzo Mourning and Gus Johnson. But the all-Defensive team was created for exactly this type of player. The first three won eight Defensive Player of the Year awards between them, and Gus Johnson might have finished second to Bill Russell a few times had the award existed when he played.

The evidence does not merely suggest that making first-team All-NBA early in one’s career is necessary to attain platinum-gold-silver medal status. The evidence leads to an even stronger conclusion: if a player makes first-team all-NBA before their 26th birthday they will almost certainly become a superstar of the platinum-gold-silver variety. You know early in a player’s career if you have the real deal.

Since 1955, 52 players have made first-team All-NBA by the season in which they began at age 25. Fully 50 of those 52 players, 96 percent if you are scoring at home, went on be superstars. This includes all 14 platinum medal superstars; 16 of the 20 gold medal superstars and 15 silver medal superstars. Only five of the 49 bronze medal superstars distinguished themselves with first-team all-NBA honors by age 25. So this is a measure of who will rise to the top of the superstar list, not just who makes it.

Who were the two exceptions? Earl Monroe and Latrell Sprewell. Monroe had an odd career; he made first-team All-NBA in his second season but never made any all-NBA team again. Sprewell had the exact same record with regard to All-NBA teams. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The two current 25-and-under players have already made first-team All-NBA—Durant and Rose—are shooting up the superstars list. Three more on the list—Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love—have made second or third team All-NBA but as yet have not made first-team All-NBA. It is not unthinkable, especially for Griffin. Two young players, Paul George and James Harden, who are at the end of the list, made third team All-NBA in 2013. I like them both and it is possible they make first-team All-NBA in the next two years before they turn 26. If they do, they will almost certainly become silver medal superstars, with an outside chance at gold. That would bode well for Houston and Indiana.

But George and Harden may also stagnate, even Love, Westbrook and Griffin for that matter. By that I do not mean they will get bounced out of the NBA and end up playing in the Philippines B-League; rather I mean they will have very good solid careers, likely All-Stars, but they will not be the type of player who leads teams to championships. The difference between platinum-gold-silver superstars and bronze superstars, and between bronze superstars and everyone below them including routine all-stars, is like night and day. On paper, the Al Horfords and LaMarcus Aldridges of the world may not seem that far from the Duncans and the Howards, but in the real world they are living in different universes.

That is why making first-team all-NBA is so crucial. Just making a second or third All-NBA team by the season of one’s 25th year does not indicate a future on the superstar list. Since 1955-56 fully 64 players under the age of 26 made second or third All-NBA teams but did not make first-team All-NBA teams. (Some would do so after they were 25.) Of these 64 wunderkinds, only 28 ended up on the superstar list, and 16 of those 28 ended up in the bronze medal “baba louie” category. So less than one in five of the players who made second or third team all-NBA (but not first team) before 26 went on to be platinum-gold-silver superstars.

The seven under-25s on the superstar list are likely the only current NBA players who will make the list and stay there. The best bets from remaining NBA players are Andrew Bynum—if his knee has a magical recovery—and the first overall picks in two recent drafts, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. They both have a lot of talent. If they are superstars, we will likely know by the spring of 2014. Stephen Curry looked like one of the best 15 players in the NBA at times during the playoffs, but he’s older than Durant without an All-Star Game appearance. Larry Sanders is another dark horse, simply because he has Defensive Player of the Year type talent, and that tends to win a lot of games. Those guys tend to be late bloomers who have very long productive careers once they get into gear. Andre Drummond has ridiculous talent as well. But the odds are they will all go the route of the vast majority of talented high picks: nice careers, maybe All-Stars, but no way a superstar. John Wall, anyone? Andre Iguodala? Joakim Noah? Zach Randolph? David Lee? Rudy Gay? Chris Bosh? Pau Gasol?

One other possibility: Deron Williams, who was rising on the list a few years back before his career got derailed with injuries. If healthy and on top of his game, Williams could force his way back into bronze medal status despite being 29.

The odds are that aside for the youngsters already on the list, the next generation of platinum, gold and even silver medal superstars is not yet in the NBA. Reports suggest some may be in the 2014 draft.

That means the relevant teams we are looking at for contenders in 2013-14 are:

1. Miami, with James and Wade

2. Oklahoma City, with Durant and Westbrook

3. Los Angeles Clippers, with Paul and Griffin

4. Houston, with Howard and Harden

5. San Antonio, with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili

The next tier includes:

6. Chicago, with Rose

7. New York, with Anthony and Stoudemire

8. Brooklyn, with Garnett and Pierce (and Deron Williams)

9. Indiana, with George

10. Los Angeles Lakers, with Bryant and Nash

By the Superstar Theory, nobody else has a prayer.

I should add that I don’t think the second tier teams really have much of a chance, but I am open to Rose and George elevating their games in a dazzling manner. I think New York and Brooklyn are all too old and not talented enough to get through Miami and whoever conquers the west. If Deron Williams returns to superstar form, their chances improve. I’m also pessimistic about San Antonio, but I would not bet against them. The Lakers are included out of respect for Kobe Bryant, and for no other reason.

CLICK HERE to read Section B: What The Superstar Theory Means For NBA GMs

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

The moral of the story could not be clearer: Smart GMs, and smart fans, have to always be thinking about how their team can get a hold of a platinum, gold or a couple of silver and bronze superstars. It is the single most important issue—the defining issue—before an NBA GM. Once you have your superstar(s), then your job is to surround him with the pieces to win a title, but that is a day at the beach compared to trying to get a platinum, gold or even silver medal superstar in the first place.

As a GM, that was always the genius of Red Auerbach. He brilliantly planned far ahead to have his team stocked with a fresh superstar when the current one retired. From landing Russell to stealing Havlicek to drafting Cowens and then Bird, Red was playing the proverbial chess game to everyone else’s checkers. His capstone deal was the trade of Gerald Henderson to the draft pick that became Len Bias. Unbelievable genius by Red; incredible tragedy for the Celtics and the NBA.

Jerry West showed similar genius as he built the Lakers around brilliants maneuvers for Magic and Shaq and Kobe.

What Auerbach and West knew, and only a few still seem to comprehend today, is that it takes patience and planning to get in position to grab a superstar talent.

Yet there is a certain tragedy, an unconquerable degree-of-difficulty, to being an NBA General Manager or team president. Your job is to build a team than can contend and win a championship. Realistically there are never enough superstars to go around—if there were, it would be a different sport—and only a handful of teams in the league are legitimate contenders at any point in time. The vast majority are always on the outside looking in.

For that reason I have considerable sympathy for any NBA GM. They are supposed to win and win as quickly as possible. Sports media and fans are often impatient, as are owners. But achieving short-term success can come at the price of sacrificing the ability to get a superstar in the long run.

There is a powerful gravitational pull on a GM to produce a team that will make the playoffs, even if it cannot win a championship. This leaves teams in a purgatory where they never are bad enough to get high no. 1 picks, and they never have enough cap space to be players in the free agent market for superstar players. It takes courage, vision, patience, smart fans and a smart and supportive owner to overcome these obstacles and institute a plan that take a team off the treadmill and into contention.

What is maddening is there is still no guarantee that even the most visionary, patient and talented GM can pull it off; it requires a bit of luck as well. That is why so many GMs opt for the short-term program of immediate enhanced mediocrity rather than roll the dice on a long-term plan to win all the marbles.

There are three routes to acquiring a superstar in the NBA: the draft, free agency and trades.

The draft is the traditional and obvious route to get a superstar, because once you get one you seemingly are set for a good decade.

When one looks at the draft, it does not take a genius to see that a team has to have a very high draft pick to get a superstar player. Let’s see at what point in the draft the superstars were taken.

Where players were drafted by overall Pick No. (not round):

  No. 1 Nos. 2-3 Nos. 4-5 Nos. 6-14 Nos. 15-30 Funky Undrafted
Platinum Medal: 7 5 0 1 0 1 0
Gold Medal: 5 2 6 2 0 4 0
Silver Medal:  6 8 4 6 5 3 1*

*Ben Wallace

The “funky” category refers to players like Larry Bird, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Spencer Haywood, George Gervin and Paul Arizin and a few others that did not go through a conventional draft process where they would be picked and then play for an NBA team the next season. This was due to arcane rules like the territorial draft or to the existence of the ABA. All of these guys would have been first or second overall in a conventional draft, and should be regarded as such. Many of the guys picked in the 2-5 range were selected in years where there were other superstars selected before them; otherwise they would have been No. 1 overall. (The draft is funny; it has bumper crop years like 1960, 1984 and 2003, and stretches of no-superstar years like we had from 1999 to 2001.)

So what does this mean? If one converts the funkies into top-3 picks, it means 41 of these 66 superstars were picked in the top-3. If the odds of getting a superstar are long in the top three picks of the draft—exactly 22 of the 120 top-3 NBA draft picks between 1971-2010 have gone on to make platinum-gold-silver superstar status—they barely exist as one goes deeper into the first round. Note that several of those No. 1 picks between 4-14 were either in superstar heavy years like 1984 and 2003, or were high school picks like Garnett, Bryant and Amar’e Stoudemire. But since 2006, drafting guys direct from high school has ended and it is far harder to steal a great talent after a player has spent one season in college basketball. Had any of those three guys played a year in college, where do you think they would have gone in the subsequent draft? Almost certainly first or second overall.

This is no surprise: the greater the player, the earlier in his career his greatness becomes obvious, even to the untrained eye.

This is why the smart move, even to a dummy, is to finish with the worst record every year and eventually, probably within four or five years, you will have one or two platinum or gold medal superstars. Then you are off to the races for 12-15 years of basketball nirvana and bliss. The problem is that if every team without a superstar rationally decided to tank, the league becomes a total joke, with a first division of five or six contenders playing their butts off and another 20-25 bumbling slapstick knuckleheads competing to go 0-82 as if it were the premise of a Will Ferrell comedy; it undermines the credibility of the league.

This is why the draft lottery exists in the NBA but in no other team sport. (It is also the tacit recognition by the NBA for the Superstar Theory.) If the worst team got the highest pick, or even had a coin toss to get either the first or second pick in the draft as once was the case, it would be extremely rational for teams to tank their season once they determined they could not contend for the title. Especially if a no-brainer platinum or gold medal superstar was going to be in the upcoming draft. The fact is, that even with the weighted lottery, it still is quasi-rational, especially in years like 2003, 1984, 2007—or 2014?—when the top of the draft is crawling with superstar talent. But, that being said, the lottery has reduced the odds dramatically. My beloved Boston Celtics tasted this bitter fruit twice, in 1997 and 2007. It truly is like playing the lottery.

The odds are today if an NBA team ends up in the lottery for several years it would still not get a superstar, and the owner and fans would grow impatient. GM heads would roll. Tanking is an option that has to be done carefully and intelligently.

One approach smart GMs like Auerbach and West have used to address the dismal prospect of tanking (and now the low likelihood of winning the lottery) is to make trades to get future No. 1 picks from desperate teams that probably are going to suck down the road. They follow the maxim of General Patton who implored his troops not to die for their country, “but to make the enemy die for his country.”

The NBA has been and is littered with short-sighted teams willing to trade the future for a slightly more mediocre present. This was how the Lakers got the picks that became Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Every NBA team used to have Cleveland’s Ted Stepien on speed dial and all the owners would race at the league meetings to be the first to get Stepien alone in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Finally the NBA put in the Stepien rule preventing teams from trading future No. 1 picks in consecutive years.

Even poorly managed teams are wary about trading future No. 1 picks these days because it could blow up in their faces, so they put restrictions, such as lottery-protection, on them. It is rare for a traded first round pick to not have restrictions on it. That makes the deals that netted Magic Johnson and James Worthy for the Lakers far less likely.

The rule changes as well as the use of restrictions on traded No. 1 picks make it harder to use the draft unless a team is picking first overall and/or it is a year crawling with superstar talent. As a rule, approximately just four platinum and gold medal superstars enter the league every decade, as well as around six silver medal superstars. So there are drafts, many of them, with no superstars in them at all. Kenyon Martin, anyone? How about Andrea Bargnani? Or Anthony Bennett, if the scouting reports are accurate, for that matter.

Bottom line: Tanking makes sense in certain years and certain situations. But the lottery makes it an implausible course on an annual basis. Smart GMs try to get future no. 1 picks from other teams that are unprotected many years down the road. That way your own team does not need to stink in order to have a shot at a top pick in the future. This has gotten a lot harder to do, though it is not impossible.

One of the underappreciated aspects of the Celtics trade of Garnett and Pierce to the Nets is that the three No. 1 picks the Cs receive are unprotected. That won’t matter in 2014, but in 2016 and 2018 that could be huge, as the Nets are an old team with an inflated payroll and few options to rejuvenate themselves when Garnett and Pierce meet the end of the road. The Celtics also have the right to swap No. 1 picks with the Nets in 2017. An absolutely brilliant trade for the Cs. If the Nets do not win a title in 2014, it could go down as a miserable trade for them. If the Nets do win a title, it was well worth the cost. It’s not like they were going anywhere otherwise.

Free Agency & Trades

As using other team’s draft picks has become less effective for netting superstars, free agency—and trades associated with impending free agency—have grown in importance. This is now the standard way teams acquire superstars.

In the 1980s and 1990s, with the salary cap and Bird Rights rules, it was almost impossible for a superstar to switch teams in free agency. Most teams were over the cap and could not compete, those that could compete tended to be lousy teams, and the team holding the superstar could always exceed any outside offer. The rare time this did occur, Shaq to the Lakers in 1996, it was because Shaq wanted to be in Los Angeles so badly, he was willing to accept the salary the Lakers were in a position to offer. Jerry West did everything in his power over two years to get under the cap far enough to make a competitive offer. Bravo, Jerry West.

This is unusual, and had a lot to do with Shaq liking Los Angeles. But aside from Shaq, free agency was not a viable way for a team to grab a superstar.

That is no longer as true, due to an unintended consequence of an important change in the 1999 collective bargaining agreement. When the NBA instituted its “maximum” salary, it meant that a team with sufficient cap space could offer a superstar nearly the same salary as the team holding the superstar’s Bird Rights. Interestingly, it took until the summer of 2010 for NBA superstars to understand this was something they could exploit to cherry pick the team and teammates they wanted. That was the beginning of the new world order.

This is why and how James, Carmelo and Howard switched teams; such a prospect would have been unlikely before the era of the maximum-contract.

Some cities and franchises will always have more pull than others if salary is off the table, and each superstar may have his own tastes for where to live and play. This puts pressure on teams to create an attractive environment for prospective free agent superstars. It is almost like college recruiting. That tends to be easier for Miami, New York, and Los Angeles than it is for Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.

Because of this change, having cap space has become far more important for an NBA GM. If a team is far enough below the salary cap, it can sign a maximum contract superstar without having to worry about what anyone else will do. The most recent example: Houston and Dwight Howard. The increasing importance of cap space makes those four-year, $20 million contracts to mediocrities like Courtney Lee far less palatable than in previous CBA’s. Teams that have superstars and are in serious contention can afford to add journeymen at such rates—Mike Miller, anyone?— but for non-contenders it is suicidal to waste serious money in deals for mediocre players. Joe Dumars’ insane decisions in 2009 to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to five-year mega-deals are exhibits A & B. That team did not have a prayer of winning or contending for the NBA title even with the free agent signings. Far better to sign anyone to one-year deals and keep the option of cap space alive for the next year (and have expiring deals in the meantime).

One other advantage to clearing cap space: it makes it far easier to do “sign-and-trades” for restricted as well as unrestricted free agents.

One mechanism that remains underexploited by NBA GMs is to add an unguaranteed year (or years) to the end of contracts. This allows teams to trade players in the off-season before their final unguaranteed year for the value of the unguaranteed deal, and then the team that gets the player can release him. It is, in effect, a way to easily create effective cap space for trades. Expect to see a lot more of that in the future.

One other consequence of the maximum-contract and the emergence of free agency as a viable way of acquiring superstars is that trades have again become an important tool.

Previously, no rational team with a platinum or gold medal superstar in his prime would ever trade him unless forced to do so by the superstar. There was simply no price on earth that was acceptable compensation, unless it was another platinum or gold medal superstar in his prime. Between 1960 and 2010, seven times platinum or gold superstars have been traded while in their prime in deals that did not net the trading team a similar superstar in return. In six of those seven deals, the team that got the superstar went on to win an NBA title in short order, while the team that traded away the superstar never won anything with what it got in return. They usually went into a tailspin. The only traded gold-medal superstar who failed to win a title with his new team was Charles Barkley, whose 1993 Phoenix Suns made the Finals and gave the Bulls a serious run for their money but could not win the title. As for the 76ers, after Barkley was traded they continued to rebuild for a decade.

It brings to mind Kevin McHale’s maxim for judging any NBA trade: whoever gets the best player wins the trade. Period. (Ironically, McHale broke his own rule when he traded Garnett to Boston—where Garnett immediately led the Celtics to the 2008 championship—but who was equal to or better than Garnett in 2007? Duncan? LeBron? Kobe? Think those guys were on the trade market?)

Moral of the story—you never win by trading a platinum or gold medal superstar.

But now that has changed. On the one hand, teams that know they are going to lose their superstar, like Cleveland in 2010 with LeBron James, will do a sign-and-trade so they can get one or two No. 1 picks and create a massive trade exception. Miami does it so they can add a year to James’ deal and pay him at a slightly higher rate.

On the other hand, trades play a much larger role because teams know in the new era of free agency it is better to trade a player before he hits the market and you may get nothing back in return. Denver did this with Carmelo Anthony, Utah with Deron Williams, New Orleans with Chris Paul, and Orlando with Dwight Howard.

What this means for an NBA GM is that free agency and trades associated with free agency are much more important than they used to be, and the draft is less important. That is where the great GMs put their energy: create cap space and accrue assets like No. 1 picks and promising young players to make deals for superstars possible when they present themselves. Just as important: make your team a place a superstar would want to hang his shingle. Often times that means already having a superstar or potential superstar in tow. The nature of the current system reinforces the Superstar Theory because the rich get richer.

CLICK HERE to read Section C: What The Superstar Theory Does And Does Not Explain.

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.

Danny Ainge?s Critical Juncture

It is now obvious the Celtics will not win the 2010 NBA title and their chances of winning in 2011 are even more remote, but Danny Ainge has a chance to reload quickly.

The Rondo Era Begins Here And Now

If the Celtics are going to win the NBA title in 2010 it is going to require that the transition from the Big Three Era to the Rondo Era almost immediately.

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