Dec 16, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics power forward Jared Sullinger (7) looks for an opening around Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) during the fourth quarter of Boston

Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and the 3-year Celtics Rebuild

One faithful midsummer weekend caused the Celtics fan base to collectively lose their minds. Kevin Love, a top 10 player in the NBA by any statistical measure, came to Beantown for a visit. Maybe he was taking stock on a city he will one day call home, or maybe he was just taking a much-deserved vacation in a city that’s absolutely beautiful over the summer (or at least beautiful when compared to Minneapolis). He partied on the rooftops with Rob Gronkowski. He kicked it with Rajon Rondo at Fenway Park. He got unofficially recruited by none other than David Ortiz.

The Cleveland Cavaliers appeared unwilling to give up Andrew Wiggins, while the Golden State Warriors appeared unwilling to give up Klay Thompson. Minnesotta Timberwolves president Flip Saunders has gone on the record saying he preferred legit-NBA players (which the Cavs and Dubs could provide), over draft picks (which the Celtics could provide). But all of a sudden it appeared as if the Celtics had the best offer, simply because other teams were not ready to part with some of their top assets. Speculation ran wild, maybe this Celtics rebuild would be easier than we thought.

But then LeBron James, via the most dramatic homecoming since Heisenberg went back to New Mexico from New Hampshire, is back in Cleveland. And a few days later this happened…

Whether that starts a bidding war with the Warriors matters not. The Celtics simply can’t put together a package that can compete, at least in the eyes of Flip Saunders, with what Cleveland or Golden State can offer. It appears on the surface as if the ship has sailed on Love coming to Boston. Which in turn puts the Celtics in a similar position to the one they were in last year heading into the season, albeit with a slightly more talented roster. We’re likely in for another roller coaster season filled with a few more lows than highs. It’ll be about the young players improving rather than the number in the win column, again.

And that’s fine. In fact, that’s to be expected. The Celtics rebuild is so dramatic it was never going to be fixed with one offseason. Much the chagrin of Kanye West, Rome wasn’t built in one day.

The biggest myth in the NBA is that you need to acquire multiple superstars via trades or free agency. Yes, the Celtics managed to snag Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen pretty much all at once and turn themselves into a championship team. The three amigos teamed up in Miami and went to four straight Finals. However, for the most part, modern-day contenders aren’t built overnight. Unless your team plays in New York or Los Angeles, you need to accept the fact that the arduos climb to contention will be just that, a climb. You don’t reach the top by throwing all your eggs in one basket and taking the steepest/riskiest route. You reach the top by pacing yourself, taking the longer/safer path, and using your head.

In order to do so you need quality, and patient, asset management (check). You need to understand the cap (check). You need to establish a unique basketball culture (check). You need to cater your roster to the current trends of the league (work in progress). You need to scout and draft well (undetermined). And perhaps, most importantly, you need to get a little lucky (obviously no check here).

Not every franchise in fortunate enough to be blessed with the opportunity to win the lottery and draft LeBron, Derrick Rose, or Tim Duncan. I say “blessed” because I struggled to find a decent synonym for “gift-wrapped by David Stern”. Getting a transcendent player (like Duncan/LeBron) or elite talent (like Rose/Wiggins) certainly helps speed things up. But you can still build a title team without lottery luck. The two best recent examples of this are the Detroit Pistons and the Dallas Mavericks.

Let’s start with Detroit. The Pistons signed Chauncey Billups, drafted 3rd overall by the Celtics in ’97, to a reasonable contract (worth about $5 million a year) in 2002. At that point, Billups was considered sort of a bust. He wasn’t a terrible player, but was far from the guy the Celtics thought they were getting when they drafted him. Detroit saw something in him. They believed his elite defense and three-point shooting would make him a dominant player with the way the NBA was trending (at that point, low-scoring as whole). They were right.

The rest of their core consisted of another elite defender in Tayshaun Prince (who they drafted 23rd overall). They got a smooth wing scorer in Richard Hamilton (who they all but stole from the Wizards). They found a diamond in the rough in Ben Wallace (who had a disappointing start to his career, but blossomed into one of the best rim protectors of all time) via trade for an injury-prone Grant Hill. Then there was Rasheed Wallace, a talented but mercurial player who the Pistons thought their established culture could keep under control (who like Ben, they got on the cheap via trade, a trade that actually netted the Celtics a pick they would later use on Tony Allen).

Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the Wallaces. All good players, especially in the defense-heavy NBA at the time. But none of them were superstars. None of them required multiple first round picks or max contracts to obtain. For more on how Joe Dumars built a championship team in Detroit, here’s a nice piece.

May 2, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) during the game against the San Antonio Spurs in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Dallas won 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks realized that in the late-2000’s the NBA was now dominated by uber-athletic wings. But instead of following that model, they constructed a team built to stop and score on those uber-athletic wings. Having an elite player like Dirk Nowitzki certainly helped, but it’s not like the Mavericks won the lottery to get him back in 1998. They worked out a draft day trade with the Bucks and got Nowitzki 9th overall. Recognizing that elite rim protectors were more important than ever, Dallas ripped off Charlotte and got Tyson Chandler (also acquired the defensively-effective Brendan Haywood as a backup).

The Mavericks weren’t going to destroy you in transition. They were too old and too slow. But they knew that. They realized if they could fill the floor with shooters, they could prevent those elite wings (like Dwyane Wade and LeBron) from wrecking their usual havoc on defense. So they got Caron Butler (in the trade Washington that also got them Haywood and Deshawn Stevenson). They signed Pejá Stojakovic, one of the best shooters in league history, to a VETERAN MINIMUM deal. They held on to Jason Terry, who everyone thought was overpaid, because they knew his combination of shooting and ball-handling was extremely valuable.

 Perhaps most importantly, they got past-their-prime veterans who dramatically adjusted their games to adapt to what Dallas was trying to do. Jason Kidd, who they traded for in 2008, became a knockdown shooter from above the brake despite being a pretty awful perimeter shooter for most of his prime. They traded for 4-time All-Star Shawn Marion, and then signed him on the cheap. They didn’t expect Marion to average 20 points and 10 rebounds like he did in his prime. They got him because he had the body and athleticism to slow down players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

They brought up Jose Barea, a 5′ 8″ undrafted point guard out of Northeastern, from the D-league. He proved to be the playmaking and penetrating spark the team needed seeing as Jason Kidd had certainly lost a step. This all culminated in the Mavericks winning the ’10-’11 title. As a team, they shot a very impressive 39.4% from deep during the playoffs. On his own, Jason Kidd hit 43 triples in the playoffs. As a team they blocked almost 5 shots a game in the playoffs. Shawn Marion held the Artest formerly known as Ron to a putrid 32% FG shooting. Then he frustrated Kevin Durant to the tune of just 42.9% FG and 23.3% 3pt. We know the rest of the song. Marion threw LeBron completely out of his element during the finals.

The Celtics don’t have a Dirk Nowitzki. They aren’t so close enough to contending that adding a few solid veterans would really help. It’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to find three different redemption projects, and successfully execute them, like Detroit did with Billups and the Wallace’s. But like Dallas and Detroit they have a smart and frugal GM (note: in the years since, Joe Dumars has been anything but frugal). They’re loaded with draft picks that they can use to acquire pieces. With Brad Stevens around for the long haul, they appeared to be building a basketball culture as well.

Ainge didn’t give Stevens a 6-year contract because he thought the Celtics would be contending right now. Brad Stevens, and his operations assistant Drew Canon, were at the forefront of the analytics movement in college basketball. Canon was the first purely-stats guy to be hired by a D-1 basketball program. Oft-referred to as the Bill James of college basketball, he now works for the Celtics. Stevens is still a coach however, and that’s important. If us stat guys ruled the world players like Jordan Hill would have max contracts. In this outstanding piece by Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe, you can see some comments from Stevens on how he feels blending new-age analysis with old-school adages is the way to go.

The Celtics primary focus last season was player development. That was pretty clear. The two best examples were how the team used Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger. With Rondo only playing 30 games, Stevens had no choice but to let Bradley work on his ball-handling. Bradley played 21% of his minutes at point guard, with mixed results. He was effective defensively at the point, holding the opposition to an eFG of just 43.9%. But he can’t dribble or initiate the offense. His assist-turnover ratio as a PG was exactly 1, which is terrible. Sullinger shot 208 three-pointers and Stevens encouraged that despite his percentage being just 26.9%. This was all fine last year. Stevens and Ainge wanted to take stock of what they had and let players develop.

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That will likely again be the plan this season. Don’t be surprised if you see Sullinger shoot 200+ 3’s again. Hell, the Celtics could get real experimental and try some three-guard lineups with Marcus Smart playing the SF. He certainly has the length and strength to guard that spot.

Boston is not a “destination city”. And the team simply doesn’t have the proven assets (outside of Rondo) to make a trade for a superstar. When they got Kevin Garnett they had Al Jefferson, one of the most exciting young big men in the league at that time. Other than Rondo, there’s not a single player on the Celtics roster that carries anywhere near the trade value that Big Al did in 2007. The Celtics rebuild is likely going to go by a five-step process that looks like this…

  1. Unload the veterans while you can still get something for them (Done)
  2. Stockpile assets and ensure future salary cap clarity (Sort of done)
  3. Take stock of your current roster (Upcoming season)
  4. Make the moves necessary to build a championship core (next 2 calendar years)
  5. Fill out roster with roster with role players whose skill sets are invaluable within the current NBA landscape

Number 3 on that list is what fans should be focused on right now. Is Bradley really the 39.5% 3pt shooter he was last year? Or he is he more like 33.5% 3pt shooter in he was in his three prior seasons? Does Sullinger really have a future as a stretch four? Or is he strictly going to be a rebounding specialist? Does Kelly Olynyk’s unique skill set make him a building block? Or does his lack of athleticism and physicality make him a role player at best? Is Marcus Smart the point guard of the future? Or will he prove to just be an athletic defensive-specialist? What about Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green? Are they part of this teams future? Or are they ultimately going to be trade bait?

All of those are completely legitimate questions that the Celtics need to figure out the answers to this year. Rondo is on the last year of his contract. If the team wants to build around him, they need to extend him as soon as possible. If they don’t, he needs to be moved before the trade deadline so you can get something in return. Stevens will again experiment with different lineups and offensive sets to try and answer these questions. At Butler, he showed the willingness to use different sets depending on who was on the court. Baseline spread, flexes, typical motion offense, etc. Steven’s Butler squads ran them all.

Apr 11, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens watches from the sideline as they take on the Charlotte Bobcats in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated the Bobcats 106-103. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The next two off-seasons will determine the Celtics fate. Gerald Wallace and his $10.1 million cap hit will be off the books in two years. Jeff Green’s contract may be gone after this year depending on what decision he makes with his player option. If Rondo is gone, the Celtics will have as much money to spend as anyone in the 2016 off-season. Free agency that year could possibly include players like Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Dwight Howard.

I’m not saying the Celtics plan on making a run at any of those guys. But they will have the money to build their squad through free agency. They currently have, and still will two years from now, the assets to work the trade market. The only guaranteed contract on the Celtics books two years down the road is that of Avery Bradley at $8 million a year. The Celtics will have plenty of decisions to make in regards to qualifying offers and team options on rookie contracts, but the cap space will be there.

The Celtics will have as many as 8 first rounders over the next four drafts. Whether they use those to select players or make trades, the cupboard is still loaded. They have an exciting young coach in place. The have the future cap flexibility to make pretty much any move they want. A year or two from now, Boston could very emerge as a place a superstar wants to go.

Kevin Love would’ve been nice. He’s the best power forward in the game at the moment and would’ve formed an unstoppable pick-n-pop combo with Rondo or Smart. But the more we hear, the less likely it seems that Kevin Love is coming to Boston. Celtics fans won’t give up for Love until he officially signs a long-term deal with someone else. Maybe it’s time to let go. The wise thing to do is focus on what the Celtics have, rather than what they hope to have.

What the Celtics have is a GM who has proven that he can make the moves necessary to build a title team. They have a coach who isn’t afraid to try new things and break old-school formulas. They have a slew of exciting young players. They have a boatload of draft picks. They have Rajon Rondo. As far as a rebuilding effort goes, you could do a lot worse than the Celtics have done over the last calendar year. For proof of this, look at the Lakers or Jazz.

It’ll likely be a long season that consists of no more than 35 wins, and that’s being generous. But the Eastern Conference is a big fog right now. There are teams (Toronto, Washington, and Charlotte) that have made great improvements but still appear to fall short of true contender status. There are teams that, due to aging players and/or future cap outlook, are likely to fall off sooner rather than later (Brooklyn, Miami, and Indiana). The two favorites (Chicago and Cleveland) are by no means unbeatable dynasties.

With patience, smart asset management, and a little bit of luck in the draft, the Celtics could very well emerge as one of the most promising teams in the East by 2016. Boston fans are used to competing every year in every sport. If you’re looking for a team trying to grab one more title in their closing championship window, watch the Patriots or Bruins.

But don’t sleep on the Celtics just because they probably aren’t going to get Love. If you do, there may be no more room left on the bandwagon when this proven franchise turns things around.

Tags: Boston Celtics Brad Stevens Kevin Love

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