Around this time last pre-season, I tried to predict what the rotation might look like with the Celtics looking as deep as they ever had at the start of the year. They were stocked with returning players, veteran role players, and some young talent looking to crack the lineup. Mostly everybody was a known commodity and it was easy to mix-and-match players together because we knew their strengths and weaknesses and how they might fit into Doc's system.
This year is different.
We know virtually nothing. All the analytics from last season is moot, so Stevens has spent the last week finding combos and lineups that work well together. He's been very adamant that the Celtics are looking to win games and not tank, but the specter of a rebuild hangs over this team, so while our head coach manages the troops on the ground, his GM is thinking about the war and not the battle.
In an oddly candid interview with Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, Ainge was very honest about his role as general manager, the responsibilities he has towards his players as individuals vs. the good of the team and its fans, and the business of basketball:
He wished he could have straightened out the roster for Stevens. The Celtics have five big men who deserve to play, said Ainge, but there won't be enough minutes for all of them. Shooting guard remains a mystery. There is no point guard to start in Rondo's absence. And the best Celtics players to start the season, Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green, are both small forwards.
"I've experienced that," Ainge said of his four seasons as coach of the Suns, "where you win a game, but [there]'s not as much joy as you would like it to be because there's three or four guys who are not happy with their roles. In a lot of ways you're managing corporations, because how you play them and how many minutes they play and what roles they play have a great deal of effect on their career earnings. That's going to be a tough deal for Brad this year, the logjams at the different positions."
And yet Ainge likes this roster more than the one he inherited when Boston hired him in 2003, or the one he handed over to Rivers as new coach of the Celtics one year later. The current goal, which surely could change based on the events of this season, is to renew the strategy that led to the 2007 trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett: To develop the team's current young talent and to draft well without necessarily earning a high choice in the lottery. Al Jefferson, who was the key player in the trade for Garnett, had come to the Celtics as a No. 15 pick three years earlier.
"Rondo is a player that has value in our league, and there are teams that like him; there [are] questions about his injury," said Ainge. "People like Jeff Green: He has great character, he has a decent contract for the kind of player that he can be. Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk -- all these guys have value. So that's the good news. But you still need some breaks along the way. You still need to draft well and develop your players, and those players have to be wanted commodities around the league."
It's jarring to hear Danny talk like this. For a guy that's been known as a pretty ruthless and cutthroat GM, the fact that he brings up the correlation between how he and Stevens plan to utilize each player on the court could and how that could affect how much money they make in their career with the Celtics or another team is brutally honest. I'm sure it's something that Ainge doesn't like to talk about and frankly, this is an article I hate writing. There's such a good vibe with the team right now and you hate to commodify their efforts. It's great to hear that guys are unexpectedly stepping up in practice but on the other hand, it's hard not to think that they're getting fattened up for the trade slaughter. Alas, let's do the dirty.
It's as pretty simple equation really:
(PLAYING TIME * ((POINTS + REBOUNDS + ASSISTS) / HOLLINGER PER) / (UPSIDE² - OTHER TEAMS' INTEREST) + (SALARY * YEARS LEFT ON CONTRACT / EXPECTED CHAMPIONSHIP WINDOW) * (WHAT WOULD THE SPURS DO - WHAT WOULD THE KNICKS DO)
OK, maybe Danny's job is more difficult than managing my fantasy baseball keeper league team, but this is the hard math that every GM deals with when they evaluate and re-evaluate and re-re-evaluate their rosters. And there's still the matter of the #NINEFIRSTROUNDDRAFTPICKSINTENYEARS. That hashtag is the battle cry for fans looking for the team to tank this season and maybe the next half decade. It's that kind of advanced calculus where we're talking about limits and infinity and existentialism that I'd rather stay out of. Plus, as stated, Ainge and Stevens are looking to develop talent from what they currently have. We'll worry about the two in the bush later.
Let's talk about what we have definitively: fourteen signed contracts (some good, some bad), a borderline franchise player, potentially a budding young superstar, and a rookie coach looking for a rotation in 2013-2014. The team is overloaded at the wing and lacks true size, but that could work offensively and defensively in Stevens' system. To further simplify the playing time equation, we'll breakdown the positions to simply smalls and bigs and assume that Stevens will predominantly have three wing players and two F/C's on the floor at all times. That's 144 minutes on the perimeter and 96 in the paint.
Kris Humphries (28 years old, 1 year @ $12M): Despite his less than enthusiastic performance at his introductory press conference, he's been the good soldier so far and a stand out at Salve Regina. He's in great shape and his rebounding could be a key component if the team does decide to get out in transition this season. It behooves the Celtics to give him some run before the February trade deadline. His contract is a cap killer, but if he can regain the double-double form he showed two years ago, he's an enticing role player for a championship-caliber team. Odds are, if he can rehabilitate his career over the next four months, Ainge could flip him for some nice young pieces or just let his contract expire next summer. My dream scenario would be getting Kevin Love or Lamarcus Aldridge for Hump's expiring contract. PLAYING TIME: 25 minutes as a big
Gerald Wallace (31 years old, 3 years @ $30M): Oomph. That's a ball and chain for most GM's. The bright side is, he could be a perfect fit for the new Celtics, but there's no way he's in the championship plans. They could opt to use the stretch provision on him, waiving his contract, and spreading out his salary over 7 years at $4.3 million per. It's an expensive luxury for a team probably not looking to spend a lot of money during a rebuild, so the alternative might be to showcase him. PLAYING TIME: 20 minutes as a small, 5 minutes as a big
Rajon Rondo (27 years old, 2 years @ $24.8M): He's the Paul Pierce of this new generation of Celtics. Without Pierce back in 2007, we probably still make the trade for Ray Allen, but it's PP that ultimately draws Garnett to Boston and gets him to sign a new deal. Rondo's style and competitiveness makes the Celtics an attractive destination for free agents, but he'll have to prove he's healthy first. Look for Danny to extend him two more years if all signs point to a full recovery. He'll want to lock him up at a hometown discount before he hits free agency. PLAYING TIME: 35 minutes as a small
Jeff Green (27 years old, 3 years @ $27M with a player option in the 3rd year): The pressure is officially on. Green played great down the stretch last year as the third option to Pierce and Garnett, but let's not forget that he actually lead the team in scoring in the playoffs. With both of them gone now, he'll get every opportunity to be The Man and at Media Day, he was saying all the right things about taking on that responsibility. He's played the 2, 3, and 4 so far in training camp, so expect one of the team's most versatile players to carry a heavy load. PLAYING TIME: 30 minutes as a small, 5 minutes as a big
Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass (28 years old, 3 years @ $16M and 28 years old, 2 years @ $13M): Lee and Bass are hold overs from the The Big Three era who signed on as role players at an affordable rate. They were rewarded with long term contracts, but now in a rebuild, how do they fit the long term goals of the team? You could argue that at 28, they've peaked. They'd be better served getting shipped out to a contender for expiring contracts and younger players. My guess is that Danny's already making and taking calls on both, but in the meantime, he has to keep their value up. For Stevens, the decision to play them is pretty easy. Bass has already been vocal about taking leadership of the defense and Courtney Lee is one of the best two-way guards on the team. However, be very wary about falling in love with either one of them. Because of their skill set and contractual obligations, they're perfect candidates to be part of a trade package down the road. PLAYING TIME: Lee: 25 minutes as a small, Bass: 25 minutes as a big
Avery Bradley & Jordan Crawford (22 years old, 1 year @ $2.5M and 24 years old, 1 year @ $2M): It seems sacrilegious to lump these two together. When practice opened to the press on Saturday, Bradley and Crawford were playing side-by-side. They may seem like basketball's Felix and Oscar, but this odd couple makes perfect sense. On the floor, they're perfect complements. While Bradley covers Paul, Westbrook, Rose et al on defense, Crawford will be asked to put equal pressure on them on the offensive end. Financially, they're in the same boat. After both being drafted in 2010, they're facing show-me-something circumstances heading into a qualifying offer year.
There's been talk about Bradley getting extended before the November 1st deadline, but there haven't been formal discussions and he'll probably head into next summer as a restricted free agent. I'm sure Danny has a number in mind and whatever cap gets vacated by expiring contracts or trades will get eaten up by Bradley's new deal. He's only 22 and Stevens is already praising him as one of his best players.
Crawford's fate may not be so rosy. Even though Stevens has said that Crawford's ability to score will force him to find Steez PT, we're talking about a 180° makeover. He's saying the right things and so far, he's doing the right things. If it works, maybe Danny can afford him and Avery next July. Avery's future with the Celtics seems more secure, but Stevens seems confident in Jordan's abilities and more importantly, his attitude. PLAYING TIME: Bradley: 30 minutes as a small, Crawford: 15 minutes as a small
MarShon Brooks (24 years old, 2 years @ $3.4M): You know how Nikola Vucevic became the diamond in the ruff in that huge four-team trade last year? My fingers and toes are crossed that that's what happens with MarShon Brooks going forward. With two very manageable years left on his rookie deal, he'll have a chance to turn his upside into actual production. I like him as a sixth man as a tall 2 and a quick 3. PLAYING TIME: 25 minutes as a small
Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger (25 years old, 3 years @ $6M, 22 years old, 4 years @ $9M and 21 years old, 3 years @ $5M): Initially, I thought a conversation about the future of Boston bigs would only include Sullinger and Olynyk, but Faverani has gone from wild man to wildcard to "our only true center" pretty quickly. All three are rookies (by virtue of Courtney Lee's rule that you're still a rookie until you play 82, Jared) and they'll spend the next four years developing in Stevens' high-low system as stretch bigs. Next year's loaded draft is dominated by wing players so their job security is fairly solid.
However, a note of caution: there's a slew of young big men that could be hitting the market very soon. Even though DeMarcus Cousins signed an extension with Sacramento, he could easily implode and ask to be moved next summer. There's also LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland and Kevin Love in Minnesota. If either situation turns sour, Ainge could trade a promising big and a pick for a more established post player. This three-headed monster will still have to prove their worth though. The trick will be how quickly Stevens tries to mature these players. Too much time could burn them out and too little could stunt their growth. For what it's worth, Kevin Love (the player most commonly compared to Jared Sullinger) averaged 25 minutes a game his rookie season. Dirk Nowitzki, the original Kelly Olynyk, logged twenty minutes a night in his first year in Dallas. PLAYING TIME: Olynyk and Sullinger: 25 minutes as bigs, Faverani: 15 minutes as a big
Keith Bogans and Phil Pressey (33 years old, 1 year @ $5M and 22 years old, 1 year @ $0.5M): Both will offer leadership to this young team, but it'll most likely come from the bench and in practice. Bogans' contract is great trade filler going forward and Pressey's minimum rookie deal will give Stevens and Ainge a nice look-see for a player that they both seemed to like out of Missouri. PLAYING TIME: none
So my math sucks. I'm totaling at 305 minutes with only 240 minutes to dish out. If I'm Ainge and Stevens, it would be easier to try and figure out how they can get every game to go triple overtime rather than figure out a rotation with all the players they want to play. Over the next few preseason games, Stevens has cautioned fans not to read too much into the starting lineups and rotations, but he's hinted at a few things to look out for. He's talked about a "central" figure to whatever five is on the floor (think Rondo, Green, etc.) and duos that work well together (Olynyk/Sullinger, Green/Wallace, Bradley/Crawford).
Based on what we've seen so far in training camp, my guess is that he'll want a defensive guard paired with a scorer, a slashing, scoring swingman, and a pair of high low bigs on the floor, but it'll get interesting when Stevens starts experimenting. Here are some lineups I'm looking forward to:
Bradley - Brooks - Green - Wallace - Olynyk: With all that length and speed and Bradley, Green, and Wallace generating turnovers, it could turn into a track meet.
Lee - Green - Wallace - Sullinger - Bass: Stevens has talked about Green playing some shooting guard this season and I like the idea of putting a lot of beef in the front court if that happens. With Jeff utilizing his size to post up smaller guards, I like the idea of surround him with shooters for the kick out.
Crawford - Brooks - Green - Sullinger - Faverani: It's more Globetrotters than championship contender. I doubt we'll see this five come up a lot in the Synergy analytics, but it'd be fun.
For what it's worth, I tried to put this jigsaw puzzle of a lineup together, and it's a mess. I'm sure I'll crumple this up after tonight:
Stevens will probably go with a more situational approach with playing time. Depending on match ups and the score, he can go big, fast, small, defensive, pound-and-ground, etc. The options are limitless, but by the start of the season, it's important that this team has an identity going into Game #1. Versatility is a luxury for a young team, but at some point, something has to define them.
UPDATE: A. Sherrod Blakely has the first glimpse of the starting lineup.
I doubt that it'll look like this in November, but I like that it's all the returning players from last season. Knowing what we know about Stevens, I wouldn't doubt that this is at some level a hat tip to his vets.