The man with the plan -via 3.bp.blogspot.com
In today's NBA, you'll increasingly hear the term "assets" - a blanket term for the entities a team has control over. Assets are split between those that have value now (productive players) and those that have future value (draft picks, young players with untapped potential, or expiring contracts that will free up salary cap space). The majority of big NBA trades involve teams converting their assets from one type to another - A bunch of young players and picks is packaged for an established star (KG 2007), or a still-productive veteran sent away for expiring contracts/picks (KG 2013).
This reflects the growing dichotomy in NBA teams' thinking - increasingly you're either going all-out for a championship at the expense of the future (see Nets, Brooklyn) or abandoning playoff hopes and stockpiling future assets. The bunch of teams in the middle (fighting to make the playoffs but with no realistic championship aspirations) will be stuck on the NBA's "hamster wheel of mediocrity" (not good enough to win, not bad enough to improve through the draft) unless they have a good stock of future assets.
To this end, smart teams that aren't currently contending are looking to build up as many future assets as possible in order to see them come to fruition at a later date. The best example of this in the last few years is the Houston Rockets, who carefully cultivated assets, pouncing on teams willing to sell low and hoarding the returns until the time was ripe to cash them in for current value - the now-notorious James Harden Trade. They also maintained substantial salary cap room through this process, a future asset in its own right (although one that is hugely overrated by fanbases). This allowed for the signings of Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and, last summer, Dwight Howard. Conversion of assets requires very canny evaluation - because future assets are by their nature unpredictable, the perception of who "won" a trade can change dramatically over time. The Magic's return for Dwight Howard was initially panned as a "pu-pu platter" of players and picks, but has now grown into the foundations of what could be a strong team - although the full result is still yet to be seen.
This brings us to the Celtics. Danny Ainge and the front office took a look at the roster last season and saw a team with no realistic title aspirations, and not enough future assets to improve them to that level. They decided to cash out Pierce and Garnett, still-strong present assets that were declining in value, for future assets, punting any hope at contention and looking to rebuild via draft picks and development of their own young players. To this end, the Celtics are now absolutely flush with future assets, and could be poised to make the conversion to current assets - and title contention - sooner than almost anyone predicted.
Draft picks are the most valuable commodities in the NBA - the only way new talent can enter the league. The Cs have no outgoing first-round picks, and only a second-rounder in 2014 headed out the door. However, their incoming picks count is staggering - The less favourable of BKN and ATL's first-rounders this year (2014), The Clippers' unprotected 2015 first rounder, BKN's unprotected (this will be important later) first rounders in 2016 and 2018 and the rights to swap picks with them in 2017. For those who have lost track (I don't blame you), that's NINE first round draft picks in the next five drafts. No other team has anything close to this kind of stockpile
I like to think of the Celtics' draft picks like this. via www.regularsaving.com
When the trade with Brooklyn has announced, the initial reaction from many Celtics fans was dismay - the thought of hauling in a bunch of picks in the crapshoot that is the late first round had little appeal to a franchise trying to claw its way back to the title race. The prevailing thought was that the Celtics' best strategy would be to tank like crazy this season, snag a top-tier pick in a stacked draft class and then milk their remaining assets to get another star to go with Rondo and whatever franchise player fell to them in 2014. Some pointed out that with Brooklyn's veteran-laden roster, there was a good chance that their window would be closed and the team's picks in 2016/7/8 would be valuable, but that might be too late for the Celtics' current plan - Rondo would be 32 in 2018, and the players from those drafts would need time to develop.
Enter the whirlpool of stink that has engulfed the Brooklyn Nets and made an absolute mockery of all predictions (I'm looking at you, Simmons). The Nets are currently screwed so badly that it might just be unprecedented in the modern era. To wit: Despite offloading all future assets to contend, they are currently putting out an utterly awful product on the floor, with an average scoring margin of -7.9 - good (bad?) for 3rd-worst in the league. (as an aside, Utah are sitting at -10. Wow.)
Basically, in the last few years the Nets have traded all their future assets for current assets which have immediately plummeted in value. They bought a house and before they could sign the insurance papers it fell into a sinkhole, got hit by lightning and burned to ashes. If the three main sources of future improvement are picks, young players and cap room, Brooklyn are 0 for 3. The contracts of Williams, Johnson and Lopez will keep them capped out until 2016, with only Lopez having real trade value (Williams is an interesting case - he has a history of elite play, but has been thoroughly underwhelming recently. He's 29 years old, making a renaissance less likely, and his contract runs through to 2017, paying him an average of $21M/year. I don't see too many teams being willing to take that on)
In terms of young players? There are none. Seriously. Mason Plumlee is the only player in their rotation with much hope of improving, and... yeah. Mason Plumlee.
And now the big one - draft picks. Remember when I said they were the most valuable commodity in the NBA? Well, nobody told Billy King. The Nets have one first-rounder between now and 2019. Let this sink in. The Brooklyn Nets will make ONE selection in the first round of the NBA Draft between the years of 2014 and 2019. Did I mention that Boston have the rights to swap picks with them that year (2017)? Because they do.
They could get some traction in the glittering free agent class of 2016, when they will have only Williams under contract. But many of those names will never make it to free agency, and by that time the Nets will likely have been utterly atrocious for several years - not the most appealing prospect for a star player or players.
In brief - the Nets stink, and will probably stink for the forseeable future. Their unprotected first round picks for the duration of that sucking are under Boston's control, and they might be some of the most appealing assets in the league in coming years.
As things currently stand, the Celtics have more assets than they did in 2007, and first-rounders are as valuable as they've ever been. They have nine picks to play with, 3 of which are unprotected and coming from a team that projects to be among the worst in the league. They have young talent (Bradley, Sullinger, Olynyk) and veterans with value (Green, Bass & Lee are all playing up their value, although the market for players of their calibre looks to be pretty saturated come the trade deadline). They have a still-young star in place and a coach who is already carving his place among the league's best.
Danny Ainge has a lot of pieces on his side of the chessboard, and I can't wait to see what he does with them. I'm not sure he or the fans have the patience to simply let the Cs' massive haul of draft picks play out and go for internal development - I think he'll be calling around, pulling strings and then - when the time is right, and the first domino falls - swinging for the fences.
Draft pick info from RealGM
Salary/Contract info from HoopsHype