The Boston Celtics' future stands on a razors edge. The cruel bounce of fickle ping-pong balls cost us a big chance to make life a lot easier for Danny Ainge, but there's still some hope for this team and its General Manager. Time is running out though. The time to act is now. He needs to put the pieces on the court to make the playoffs and compete with the best in the East this year. There will be no more tanking, no more weighing of the lottery odds, no more excuses. Just win. Now.
How can it happen? To understand the future, we have to look to the past.
How Did We Get To This Point?
As you have heard 1,000 times in the last two weeks, ten years ago the Celtics missed out on Tim Duncan. That loss combined with Rick Pitino's disastrous tenure left the franchise reeling. By the time Ainge took over, the team consisted of 3 max contracts and nothing else. One of those contracts belonged to the lone bright spot, Paul Pierce. The other two belonged to a chucker (Antoine Walker) and a drunkard (Vin Baker). Ainge looked at the roster and correctly decided that it was going nowhere. He knew he had little to work with and decided to rip the team apart and start over.
His first coach, Jim O'Brien couldn't stand the rebuilding and walked away from the team after some of his favorite players (like Eric Williams) were traded away. When Ainge hired Doc Rivers, he made sure that the coach could cope with a long road of rebuilding and development. Rivers has held up his end of the bargain, always accepting the long-range vision over short-term wins and losses.
That initial rebuilding phase resulted in a 45 win, Atlantic Division winning team that consisted of Pierce, Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Raef LaFrentz and Walker (back again). However, the team ended up losing in the first round to an undermanned Indiana Pacers team. The Celtics were exposed as a mismatched, dysfunctional group of talented but unmanageable players.
Once again, Ainge looked at his roster and decided that it was going nowhere. So he decided once again to rip the team apart and start over, determined not to make the same mistakes twice.
Walker and Payton were not invited back, Blount and Davis were soon traded away, and later LaFrentz was as well. Only the oft injured Wally Szczerbiack and Theo Ratliff were brought in. The team took several large steps backward by design.
That's not to say he hasn't tried to add veteran players. The difference is that he's switched from adding B-class talent to bidding on superstars. Rumors indicate that he attempted to trade for a number of big name players like Baron Davis, Chris Paul, Ron Artest, Carlos Boozer, and Allen Iverson. In each case, he couldn't find the right deal. In most cases, he just wasn't willing to give up the young talent that he drafted.
Throughout his tenure, Ainge has found great value drafting outside of the lottery. Solid rotation players Tony Allen, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, and Kendrick Perkins were all found at or below 24th pick in the draft. Even rising star Al Jefferson was found at 15 and potential phenom Gerald Green slipped to the 18th pick. The problem is, most of those players have limited upside and Ainge hasn't drafted high enough to pick a truly special franchise player.
Ainge didn't intend to lose 58 games this year. A healthy Paul Pierce would have made sure that didn't happen. Armed with young talent and Theo Ratliff's favorable contract, he wanted to make a big trade either before or during the season. Pierce's injury and the emergence of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden in college changed his plans and set a new course for the team.
By design or implicit allowance, losing became the name of the game. The more ping-pong balls, the better the chance to finally land that franchise player without needing to pay through the nose to get him. Throughout it all, Doc Rivers has worked hard to maintain the locker room and keep the young players working hard on development. Doc accepted the long-term vision and sacrificed the short-term focus on wins and losses (something O'Brien couldn't stomach) so he was recently rewarded with a contract extension.
Leading up to the lottery, Ainge worked overtime trying to convince people that all is not lost if the team didn't win the lottery. He wanted to set people up to deal with the disappointment. Smart. Now we have to regroup, take stock, and go back to the original plan.
So, Now What?
Paul Pierce is by no means an aging player. But like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, the clock is ticking like this (stomp, stomp, stomp). He's a good solider and enjoys playing big brother to the younger players, but he needs some peers to take his game and the team to the next level. Szczerbiack and Ratliff can't help from the bench and Ainge is going to need to put some veterans around him or bite the bullet and trade Pierce before his age starts to become a factor and his value starts to slip.
By all accounts, the team is fully behind Pierce and is willing to do what it takes to put a team around him. Adding just another talented but too-young player from the draft just won't do the trick. Without an instant impact guy like Oden or Durant, the team is back to shopping for stars on the open market.
Putting all your hope in players that are essentially being given up on by their former teams is always a risk, but a risk the team has to take. Danny has been building for this moment for years. He has methodically built up the chips to put him in a position to make a major move. He just needed the right time, the right trading partner, and the right deal.
The time is now, there are plenty of teams willing to deal, all that is left is for Ainge to find the right deal.