Prior to the trade deadline on March 15, this entire piece would have been centered on the Celtics’ gritty spirit but overwhelming lack of size… but, let’s be honest, the only thought or issues to discuss this go-round are the passing of the trade deadline and the current buy-out season.
Thoughts and Issues:
- So, Danny Ainge decided to do nothing at the trade deadline. Why?
1) Honestly, he was forced into doing nothing by the lack of a viable trade option. No GM offered Danny a game-changing talent in return for one of his stars. If someone had, I’m certain Danny would have traded any of the Big-4 without hesitation. Despite the criticism Ainge takes from myself and others, he’s actually quite shrewd, and he always has a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C…seemingly endless plans. His one constant goal is to make the Boston Celtics better. That being said, if he had traded Pierce, KG, or Allen, I would have ignored the remainder of the season. [I don’t add Rondo into that group because Ainge’s best shot at getting a game-changing talent in return was trading Rondo. And, I still don’t believe Rondo is the leader for this team in the future.]
2) The Celts already own two 1st-round draft picks. Danny may have been able to grab another 1st-rounder as part of a deal, but it likely would have been from a contending team in need of a PG (Rondo) or a veteran presence (Big-3), and therefore the pick would have been lower than the two the Celts already own. There is no need to stockpile picks in the late-20s.
3) Allen’s $10 million and KG’s $20+ million come off the books at the end of the season, as do the contracts of O’Neal, Wilcox, Dooling, Pietrus, and potentially Bass. If Ainge wants to he can amnesty Pierce’s remaining contract. Basically, Ainge can begin this off-season with a nearly clean slate. He can even trade Rondo this off-season, if he’s offered a nice deal. Ainge had no need to trade his players when he wasn’t offered what he wanted.
4) All these points lead to one inevitable truth: Ainge knows the Celtics aren’t winning the championship this season. If he thought that a trade could have brought in a player who made this season’s team better (without killing the long-term), he would have. He used that exact mindset last season when trading Perk for a young talent at the backup 4/5 position. It backfired because Ainge forgot about a little thing called team chemistry; however, Ainge thought the team had a chance to win it all, so he went all-in. He could have let Perk walk at the end of the season – we all know he wasn’t going to pay him – but instead he traded him for what he thought was a potential game-changer (Green) who improved that year’s squad. This season, he knows the team isn’t going to win, so he was looking long-term (young talent + draft picks), and he didn’t receive any offers that validated trading Rondo for a different building block or one of the Big-3 for young talent and/or more cap space.
It’s nice to see that he didn’t panic-trade a member of the core in order to grab a young body or two. There were absolutely no bigs worth trading for and the young guard crop is constantly shifting. I’m excited to watch the Big-4 give it one final go this spring. I’m not optimistic about their chances, but I’m excited to see them go down swinging. Knocking off the Heat in any round of the playoffs would make me the happiest I’ve been since they won it all in 2008.
- Free Agent Big Men.
The Celts obviously need size, but with only 22 games remaining this season, and precious little practice time, what can the team realistically expect from a free agent pick-up (i.e. stranger)? In my opinion, very little. Yes, the team needs height and rebounding. But, consider these facts:
1) The options are slim. Right now, the Celts can pick up a season-long free agent like Rasheed Wallace, a buy-out player like Ronny Turiaf, or a D-Leaguer like Chris Johnson. Or, me, right off the street. I’ll take half of what they paid Troy Murphy last season. In all seriousness, the options are slim.
2) The Celts are not considered a top contender like the Heat, who also happen to need a big. The Celts may be a last resort for many of these guys. If the option is there, available bigs will sign with teams higher up the NBA ladder. And, don’t think players will overlook what happened with Carlos Arroyo and Troy Murphy last season. Those guys came in expecting to play minutes and they ended up riding the pine. See #4 below. Players like to get paid, but they also like to play.
3) The Celts run very specific packages on offense and defense. Incoming players will have very specific, yet highly detailed, roles. Any player, especially a big man, will need to learn fast on their feet in order to contribute. Yes, the team wants rebounding, but they don’t want their big in position to rebound if it means being out of position within the system. A lack of size contributes to their rebounding woes, but let’s be honest, so does Doc’s system (the past three seasons they’ve finished 29th, 29th, and 30th in the league in total rebounding – that’s more than a lack of size). It usually takes a big half a season to learn the mechanisms of the Celts’ help defense, so why should we think Turiaf can come in and contribute immediately? Chris Johnson has a leg up by already knowing the system, though he lacks in talent compared to guys already in the league (there is a reason he has a hard time sticking with a pro team).
4) Hand-in-hand with the point above, Doc doesn’t trust new players. He doesn’t trust them to contribute to the system he has in place. Players who cannot conform to the system do not play, no matter how tall they are. Troy Murphy is 6’11” and was one season removed from averaging a double-double, and he couldn’t earn anything other than garbage-time minutes.
5) Buy-out bigs have to clear waivers, which means teams have to pass on them. This is the least of the Celtics’ concerns, but don’t assume that Miami will pass on a potential game-changing big if he happens to reach waivers. It could push them over the top.
Seeing all these obstacles in retaining the services of a contributing big, who do I think the Celtics will eventually sign? Former D-Leaguer Chris Johnson. Yep. And, it’s entirely because he knows the system. So, the Celts will enter the playoffs with KG at the 5 and two former D-Leaguers backing him up. Who, exactly, does that leave to back up Bass? I’d love to see JaJuan get some more meaningful minutes over the next few weeks.
By the way, Kaman is about the longest shot possible at this point. The NBA (owners of the Hornets) would have to buy him out, he’d have to clear waivers, and then he’d have to choose the Celtics, when all they can offer is the exact same amount every other team can offer. Why come to Boston when he can go to the Heat or the Spurs?
- The elusive 6th seed.
Before the season, did anyone really conceive the Celtics would be struggling to reach the 6th seed? I predicted a 3rd seed finish, with the team much closer to the middle-of-the-road teams than the two Eastern powerhouses. Age, offensive inefficiency, and a lack of rebounding have left the team struggling to maintain the 7th seed.
Unless Atlanta freefalls, I cannot realistically envision the Celtics getting into the 6th seed, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. I am adamant in my belief that the Celts would be better off facing the Bulls or Heat in the first round, where they could potentially catch them by surprise playing on fresh legs. If they knock off either the one or two seed, they avoid playing the other until the Conference Finals. The difficult part for the Celts would be beating the Bulls and Heat consecutively in the later rounds, after a hard-fought and draining battle against a younger, more athletic team. If Boston knocks out a heavyweight in the first round, they can then throw a few haymakers at a younger, less experienced team who may be in a bit over its head come the second or third round. The Celtics have the talent (especially in their starting five), but will they have the legs to carry them?
- The draft. I am still all-in this season, but I’m going to begin looking at draft possibilities. This does seem to be an especially deep draft with a lot of scorers who also happen to play defense – the kind of guys the Celtics should covet. Seeing the wealth of talent on teams like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas really makes me wet my lips for draft day. There are a number of terrific SGs/SFs who drive hard, pull up and hit shots, and play staunch defense, as well as a few talented 7-footers. I’ll rank the possibilities, position by position, in my next post.
The next eleven games finds the team returning home for a few tough matches against the Heat and the Spurs, while facing bruising road challenges in Atlanta, Philly, Minny, Chicago, and Indiana. That is not an easy schedule and there are three more back-to-backs to boot. I can’t envision the team getting through the next eleven games with a winning record, which could create a battle between the Celts and Knicks for the 7th seed.
I hope my next update finds them with a record of 34-21, but I’ll settle for 29-26. Go Celtics!