Two blockbuster trades have the Celtics franchise searching for a new identity. First, Doc Rivers was traded to the Clippers for a 2015 first round draft pick. Then franchise players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett along with veteran leader Jason Terry were traded to the Brooklyn Nets for an assortment of role players and 3 more future first round picks. Furthermore, Danny Ainge quickly hired head coach Brad Stevens, drafted Kelly Olynyk and added Vitor Faverani and Phil Pressey in free agency all of who lack NBA experience. Thus it was easy to anticipate the team's early struggles in discovering their identity, best exemplified by the horrendous fourth quarter collapse against the Milwaukee Bucks. What was perhaps not as easy to anticipate was the effect it would have on the Boston fan base.
There has been a wide spectrum of fan opinions over the KG era. Rotations, trades, player values, coaching philosophies, playoff seeding and other issues have all given rise to much debate. However they all shared the same goal. Winning. Whether it was a game, series or the championship itself the object was always to win. However the monumental nature of the changes made by Danny Ainge have taken away this common goal and left the fan base in disarray.
The Popular Narrative
The popular narrative about the Celtics is certainly logical. When you trade a head coach, and three veteran players who were all part of a recent championship core for role players and draft picks you move further away from a championship. If aspiring for a championship is most likely to lead to disappointment, the smart fan looks past the season and sees light in the upcoming draft. After all, the worst teams in the NBA are generously rewarded for their incompetence by the right to pick first in the draft. Reason dictates that the fan who roots for losses and a high draft pick will suffer the least disappointment and be rewarded by one of the top young prospects next season.
There are also other factors that indicate that this is the best course for a Celtics fan. The draft class this year is absolutely tantalizing. There are elite NBA caliber athletes such as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Wayne Seldon. There are well rounded players with advanced skill sets like Jabari Parker, Doug McDermott and Dario Saric. There are even players oozing with intangibles and intensity such as Marcus Smart. An opportunity to land one of these players is not to be taken lightly.
Furthermore the current situation of the Celtics is awfully similar to 2007, when the Celtics finished with the worst record in the league. A young roster, a new coach with a lot of question marks, an injured star, and the mind that turned it all into a championship the very next year. While it is unreasonable to expect Ainge to get us a championship next year, it is not unreasonable to speculate the first step is procuring a top 5 draft pick.
We should view players in their early 20's as assets and they should be developed for the future regardless of the outcome of games. Players in their late 20s and 30s should be viewed as trade assets. After all they do not belong in the Celtics future. They should be moved for younger players and/or draft picks. Players on multi-year contracts must be dumped so we can have cap-space and financial flexibility. Trading Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Gerald Wallace for expirings and draft picks should be our top priority.
Thus the narrative is written by most of the experts. The Celtics are tanking. After all Danny Ainge revealed his hand in 2007 where his roster secured the worst record in the NBA and a top 5 pick. The Celtics are in the bottom of all power rankings and the top of all mock drafts. The smart Celtics fan should root for losses because that will put us in the best situation moving forward.
The Alternate Narrative
So why is there a divide among Celtics fans? Why is there confusion after every game on whether we should be celebrate or mourn each win and loss? Perhaps it is because it is counter intuitive for fans to root for losses. Are we forced as rational fans to discard all our instincts and root for our team to lose in order to ensure that it will succeed in the long term? Is there an alternate narrative that is also rational that would allow us to do what comes instinctive to all fans which is to root for our teams to win games? I want to propose an alternate narrative for the rational fan who wants to win games.
Brad Stevens is a prodigy. He is to NBA coaches what Andrew Wiggins is to NBA players. He is a record breaking coach who burst into the college scene and dominated the field. However several questions marks remain about how his success will translate to the NBA. There is a steep learning curve, but Brad Stevens wasted no time at all in taking his "untalented" college teams to the highest pinnacles of the NCAA. With every win the Celtics fans are witnessing the growth of a lottery pick in a sense. Brad Stevens' potential is one of the reasons Celtics fans should be rooting for wins every game. Each win is further confirmation that the Celtics have already found a core piece for our next championship.
Courney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace ARE important pieces of the current Celtics. The Celtics are forging a new identity and these are the veterans who will create and maintain it. These are players who are always in impeccable physical condition thanks to their work ethic. They are unselfish and have completely adopted the defense first mentality that the Celtics hope to build around. They are players who have both started and come off the bench in the NBA with success. They are all loyal and team first athletes, who are becoming increasingly rare in sports today. In short, they are guys who show up every day with the right attitude and help the team get better each day. Danny Ainge did not commit long term contracts to these guys by accident. He is trying to create an environment where these values are nurtured.
Barring a large trade, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk (and Pressey, Faverani, Iverson and future draft picks) are our future for now. Their development is very important. History has shown that teams without proper veteran leadership that simply give their young players playing time without making them earn it actually stunt their development. The Wizards, for example, have squandered several talented young players by giving them unearned playing time without proper veteran guidance.
Gerald Wallace is a constant reminder of how we want our players to play. He is here to ensure our young players play with the same intensity and motor that he plays with. Kevin Garnett is no longer here, but Wallace can replace that particular aspect in the locker room. Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass are guys who know their role and have played it without qualms. They are ultimate professionals who serve as a great example of players embracing their roles within a system and establishing successful careers based on it.
Furthermore, they are here to provide our young guys legitimate competition for their playing time thus ensuring that they are always playing to their best of their ability. Marshon Brooks, Jordan Crawford and Phil Pressey have to play better than Courtney Lee to see the court. If they don't push themselves to be the best they can be and keep improving every day, they will not be able to beat Lee for the back up minutes behind Rondo and Bradley. Green has former NBA all star waiting to take his spot on the starting line up if he does not make the team better with his play. Sullinger, Olynyk and Faverani have to better than Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries in order to earn playing time. These veterans create a competitive environment that constantly pushes our young players to become better because otherwise they will not see playing time. We have seen these guys step up and lead us to two wins already, and a rational Celtics fan can look forward to each victory as the building of a new winning culture that will lead us to the next championship.
The popular view holds that the contracts of Lee, Bass and Wallace as obstacles that prevent us from signing free agents. I propose that contrary to this belief, these contracts actually give the Celtics MORE financial flexibility. First, signing free agents outright with cap space is usually a very poor way to build a contender. Most free agent contracts are inflated because of competition from other teams. Unless you are signing superstars who are worth every cent of their capped contracts like Lebron James and Dwight Howard, you are usually over paying for Al Jefferson, Carlos Boozer or Amar'e Stoudemire. It is unwise to pin your hopes on a superstar free agent as Dallas found out. There are only a hand full of these players and they will almost always choose LA, NY or Miami. This is because these are markets where they can expand their brand and make much more money off endorsements.
It is a better idea to trade for a disgruntled star or a team looking to shed an aging star to start over and hope you can win games and convince them to sign an extension. This is how we landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Over the next several years any of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Larry Sanders, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Eric Gordon etc. might decide it is time to part ways with their current team. Naturally, these situations are unpredictable and may arise suddenly. You never know when a team will decide to move it's star player on a lucrative contract. It is impossible to maintain 15+ million dollars of capspace every season. So how can a team be ready when such an opportunity arises?
Here lies the value of trade exceptions, expiring and non-guaranteed contracts. These contracts allow us to absorb large salaries without having any capspace. They will not do by themselves, as we would have to send additional assets with them to incentivize the other team to trade us their star. Danny has brilliantly added expirings (nicely staggered over the next few years Humphries, Crawford, Brooks - 2014, Bass - 2015 and Wallace, Lee, Green - 2016), a 10M trade exception, non-guaranteed contracts for the next 3 years (Keith Bogans, Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey) to our nine first round picks over the next 5 years. This puts us in great position to take advantage of any opportunity that may arise over the next few years. Anytime a star becomes available over the next 3 years, we can offer a package of expirings + non-guaranteed contracts and multiple first round picks.
Thus contrary to the popular narrative, the contracts of Bass, Lee, Wallace and Green actually provide the Celtics with great financial flexibility and are a very carefully planned out aspect of Danny Ainge's vision. A large part of convincing newly acquired stars is winning. Kevin Garnett stayed in Boston because we won a championship. Dwight Howard left the Lakers to join Houston because the Lakers were an old team with no prospect of winning in the future and Houston was a young playoff team looking to make a splash in the post season. Thus the rational Celtic fan can and should root for his team to be successful and win as many games as possible.
The return of Rose, Westbrook and 35 year old Kobe Bryant are all events the media hypes up as the turning point for their respective teams. Rajon Rondo however is forgotten. The four-time all star is not viewed by most as the caliber of player that can be the center piece of a championship team. Many question how successful he can be without Doc Rivers and the Hall of Famers he has played most of his professional career with.
This is the ultimate reason rational Celtics fans should root for our team to win as many games as possible. After all, the best case scenario for us is that Rajon Rondo IS a franchise caliber player. The best case scenario for the Celtics is that Rondo puts all he has learned from his former hall of fame teammates and leads our team deep into the playoffs establishing himself as a legitimate superstar in this league. After all, Rondo is a lot closer to super-stardom than any draft prospect. If he does take the next step, then there is no end to the list of stars who would want to come here to win with the most unselfish superstar in the league. This is an alternate, if unpopular, narrative of the Celtics for the rational fan.