When the Celtics traded Jason Collins and Leandro Barbosa’s expiring contract to the Wizards for Jordan Crawford last February, the deal didn’t exactly stir up much excitement within NBA circles. Less than a year later, of course, Crawford has ascended into the team’s starting lineup and begun to draw some serious praise on a Celtics team that has—like Crawford himself—exceeded wide-held expectations.
Through the season’s first 22 games, the 25-year-old has proven indispensible to the Celtics offense. With Crawford on the floor, for instance, the C’s have an offensive rating of 103.3, which still would place them only 19th among NBA offenses. But without him on the court, the team’s offensive rating drops to 95.2, a mark that would be dead last in the league.
In many ways, Crawford is but the latest example of Boston’s successful work in player development and Danny Ainge’s repeated ability to buy low on (and draft) undervalued or underutilized players. In recent seasons, the Celtics have been rewarded for taking chances on players who, for multiple reasons, were unfairly doubted or wrongly perceived by other NBA teams. They’ve nabbed Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley in the draft, signed Vitor Faverani from Europe, and added Jeff Green in a trade for Kendrick Perkins, who (it now must be said) has been in decline ever since.
The prevailing theme here is the Celtics’ ability to find talent from a variety of sources and mold that talent into something useful. During Ainge's tenure, the gold standard in this process has been Rajon Rondo, and given what NBA GMs had to say about Kelly Olynyk in the preseason, it appears Ainge's eye for talent hasn't diminished.
In Crawford, the Celtics saw a player with an ability to score and create his own shot, but someone who also needed to be reined in and made more efficient. During his time with Washington, Crawford quickly earned a reputation as a gunner, a player whose selfishness and quick trigger were a detriment to his team’s overall success. Given the job he has done spearheading Boston’s offense in 2013, it now appears Crawford may have been unfairly maligned, and more a product of the muddled environment around him.
All of which brings us to the Celtics, and what they are truthfully looking to establish here in the 2013-14 season. While with the Wizards, Crawford was among a group of young, undisciplined players who were vying to prove themselves more than anything else. In Boston, Danny Ainge and the team’s top decision-makers are trying to establish a winning culture, an organization marked by discipline, consistency, and commitment rather than one depending upon striking draft lottery gold. Developing young players within a system and culture that nurtures their talents, tailors to their skills, and molds them into a useable piece for the team’s benefit is the end goal.
As teams like the Pacers and Spurs have shown, you can leverage a superior player development staff into a successful and sustainable contender. In fact, in an NBA landscape dominated by star players, such a model has become a viable option in place of simply hoping to attract top talent via free agency. The Pacers have built themselves into the foremost challengers to the Heat’s supremacy by drafting and patiently cultivating young players like Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson, none of whom were considered sure things on draft day. San Antonio has similarly found underappreciated players who fit their system, most notably Danny Green, who landed with the Spurs only after the Cavaliers had released him.
Considering how hung up teams and fans can get with courting stars, it is fair to ask how much we underrate the importance of a team’s player development staff. The NBA is largely devoid of any minor leagues, and there is far less exposure (and patience) given to young players who have potential, but just need a few seasons to grow and improve. As the Pacers have shown especially in recent years, being able to develop young players is vital to an organization.
So far in his tenure with the Celtics, Danny Ainge has shown a similar knack for finding players who have some ability, but need to be guided along patiently rather than relegated to the bench or thrust into a situation for which they are unprepared. More than anything, Ainge’s continued work on this front will determine whether or not he can bring another championship contender to Boston.
By the looks of things, the Celtics have already begun building a solid foundation and a culture that will allow young players to thrive. Of course, all this could ultimately lead to Ainge just blowing things up with a couple of blockbuster trades like he did back in 2007. But even that would be the result of Boston's player development staff creating quality NBA talent.
All statistics courtesy of 82games.com.
Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to CelticsBlog. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.