If you plan on following the Celtics beyond 2014, you should be happy with what Danny Ainge has done. Acknowledging that the recent Celtics-Nets trade was the correct move for the Boston organization does not mean you’re burning your Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett jerseys.
The argument I’ve heard levied against Ainge’s decision to send his stars to Brooklyn goes something like this: ‘Yeah, Danny Ainge got a good haul but it was heartless and I can’t believe the team is gonna be so bad now and it really stinks that they let Paul Pierce put on another team’s jersey. KG, Pierce, and the fans all deserved better.’
I have to call this out as an appeal to emotion that’s admittedly tempting, but still logically fallacious. Basketball is a business, and Danny Ainge has just pulled the trigger on one of the boldest and most complete rebuilding jobs in NBA history. So many organizations pussyfoot around the rebuilding process. So many teams with past-prime stars or not-good-enough cores of youngsters toil in the futility of mediocre seasons and first-round Playoff exits without ever really taking the rebuild red pill. In the NBA, you have to see the metagame.
Sometimes that means signing a guy who helps your chances against a specific rival, a la the Celtics signing Dennis Johnson in 1983 partially because he was reputed to defend Magic Johnson better than most. Sometimes it means filling a need of your own while snatching an important piece of a rival’s team, a la Miami scooping up Ray Allen. (Bravo on that one, Pat Riley. A move that both bolsters your team and weakens a perennial conference rival? Score. And the whole thing looks especially resplendent now, since Ray-Ray single-handedly won them Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.)
Bottom line: in this Boston-Brooklyn trade, the Celtics read the metagame and the Nets didn’t. What’s the Eastern Conference landscape for the upcoming season? The Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers, and the Chicago Bulls (with Derek Rose) are going to be better teams in 2013-2014 than the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets will be; they were going to be better than the Celtics and Nets before the KG-Pierce-Terry trade, and they’re going to be better than the Celtics and Nets after it. Even if you're a little more optimistic about the Nets' chances than I am, can you really argue they're favorites in the Eastern Conference?
As Chris Rock tweeted: "The nets just traded 3 first round picks to be in fourth place for 1 year."
Ainge saw that Boston couldn’t realistically contend with teams like Miami, Indiana, and Chicago, and he saw that this offseason might be his last chance to move KG and Pierce for a significant return, so he said, "Let’s blow it up"; the Nets saw that same landscape and said, "Screw it, let’s go all-in!"
I want to talk about the return the Celtics banked on this trade and about their outlook over the next few seasons, because I’ve found some pretty bad appraisals, like this one by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst:
"It’s not a good trade for them. They were handcuffed because they had such limited options thanks to the Garnett no-trade clause. They also made sending Pierce to a contender a priority, which is honorable but doesn’t really serve the needs of the franchise. It probably would have served them better if they just were heartless and sent Pierce to the highest bidder. They cleared some long-term salary, but they’re still going to be paying Kris Humphries and Wallace more than $22 million next season. That’s not good. I suppose they’ll sell all those draft picks but, in case you didn’t watch the draft, those picks can be crapshoots."
Even Bill Simmons was despairing! He called it a "video game trade … that the trade machine would have rejected on behalf of the Celtics." I look forward to reading his full set of thoughts when he inevitably publishes a piece about this trade, but yeah, I just don’t get it. I’m looking at the long-term plans and feeling pretty swell.
In the 2014 draft, the pick Boston got from Brooklyn will be approximately #23 or #24 because the Nets will lose in the second round of the Playoffs. (Who disagrees? I dare the Nets to prove me wrong.) That’s not a high pick, but the 2014 draft class is stacked, so it could be worth more than you might think. In the 2003 draft class—the last ‘deep’ and ‘special’ draft, the one to which many have compared 2014—the 23rd overall pick was Travis Outlaw. You could do worse! Rajon Rondo (who might be in Dallas or godknowswhere by the time you’re reading this) was the 21st overall pick in 2006.
The draft is never a sure-thing, but neither is it entirely a crapshoot. If the Celtics evaluate and develop talent intelligently, even ‘late’ picks from the Nets can pay off. Remember that Danny Ainge either drafted or helped develop or 'stuck with' Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins, Jared Sullinger, and Avery Bradley, all of whom were/are at least solid role players (the "were" is mostly for Perk--RIP, bro).
Oh, and the Celtics will still have their own pick in 2014, which will almost assuredly be a ticket in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. Boston has some good players left on its roster like Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, and Jared Sullinger, but they’ll certainly delay Rondo’s return until February or so, and then they’ll probably just tank on purpose even when he comes back. I think they’re headed to a bottom-six record, easy. So a pick somewhere between #1 and #6 in an awesome draft. Awesome.
Then, in 2015, they’ll stink again. Some pieces will shift around. Maybe Rondo will be there; maybe he won’t. Argue with me if you want, but I’m pretty sure the current roster, which doesn’t even constitute a ‘core,’ plus whomever the C’s land in the 2014 draft (fingers crossed for WIGGINS!!!) will be insufficient to lead the 2015 team out of the lottery basement. So I’m penciling them in for a pick somewhere between #1 and #12. Solidly lottery, but maybe toward the latter half of it. They could always pull a 2008 Chicago and snag the #1 pick with almost no chance to do so! I wouldn’t complain. The Celtics do have an unprotected first round pick from the Clippers here, too, but you know, Chris Paul. It could easily be in the #27 to #30 range.
This is when the decisions will get really tough. At some point, Gerald Wallace’s contract will need to be traded (yikes) or waived (also yikes), not only to clear cap space for the summer of 2015, but also to prevent the Celtics from winning too many games in 2014 and 2015.
If Rondo’s still in town, Ainge will finally have to decide whether the talented-but-erratic point guard is the future of the team or not. Can Rondo and the Celtics endure a few seasons of abject futility and still find a way to stick by each other as Pierce and the Celtics eventually did? I don’t know. Rondo is such an enigma to me. I can see him taking the two-ish seasons of lottery-level play as opportunities to rehab from his injury, work on his jump shot (pleasegod), and learn to lead young teammates. I can also see him being such a brat that he earns a ‘bad for your locker room’ stigma and forces Ainge to dump him for nearly nothing in return.
Rondo’s a tough case. When he’s been good, he’s been so good it’s absurd (see: 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2). When he’s been bad, he’s earned suspensions for bumping refs, tallied 20 assists but lost the game for his team because he just couldn’t hit a 15-footer…hell, at least when the Celtics were sticking with Paul Pierce as their guy, Pierce was a picture of consistency—performance-wise, if not emotionally.
The one criticism I’d mount against Ainge’s rebuilding plan would be that while it includes a whole lot of draft picks, it has not, as of yet, brought any young, blue-chip talent back to Beantown, and I think he knows that needs to be a goal; if he can get a sure-thing young guy on the level of Eric Bledsoe or Ricky Rubio (though not those guys, specifically) in return for Rondo, I think he pulls the trigger. In order for the Celtics to get back to greatness, Rondo’s presence on the roster must not ruin their stock with free agents.
And the summer after the 2015 season will be the correct time to make a run at free agents like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. (Can you guess who I’m voting for? If this article isn’t already too long-winded for you, revisit my impassioned plea, "Come to Boston, Kevin Love.")
Very, very tentatively, here is some idea of the roster Boston will be pitching to guys like Kevin Love:
Rajon Rondo (maybe)
Jeff Green (expiring contract)
Fab Melo (who?)
2014 Lottery Pick (#1 - #6)
2014 Late First-Round Pick (#23/#24)
2015 Lottery Pick (#7, #12, #1…anyone’s guess)
*Sullinger and Bradley would both actually become free agents after the 2015 season ends, but Danny Ainge would be very wise to sit the two of them down in a room, tell them they’re a big part of the team’s future—Sullinger as a 10-10 guy with good defense, Bradley as a 15 PPG guy with phenomenal defense—and extend them.
**I'm assuming that, come hell or high water, there will be a blank space here and no Gerald Wallace here.
So here we are in the summer of 2015. Provided the Celtics don’t botch their lottery pick(s) and provided they successfully woo Kevin Love (or, I guess, somebody else good), you’re probably looking at a solid, young team. Whether or not they can even dream about being title contenders going into 2016 depends, of course, on how well those drafts work out and on the quality of the free agents they secure.
But wait. With the Celtics off to the races sporting a young core that fiercely desires to erase the memories of how shitty they were in 2014 and 2015, the rebuilding is over, right? Sort of.
Here’s where I’d like to point out that the Nets sent unprotected (or, as I like to say, "bareback") 2016 and 2018 picks to the Celtics in this KG-Pierce deal, as well as the right to switch picks in 2017. By the time the 2016 season rolls around, KG and Pierce will be retired and Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez will both have giant, expiring contracts. Nobody can predict how 2016 and 2018 will go, but the Nets could end up being pretty bad past 2015—maybe sooner if the 36- and 37-year-old players they just traded for don’t hold up, though obviously I’m not rooting for that. They could end up with cap issues and ship Johnson/Lopez off to wherever, potentially increasing the value of the 2016 pick they sent to Boston.
Honestly, I don’t think Brooklyn will win now (2014), I certainly don’t think they’ll win later (2015, 2016), and when it’s time to rebuild (post-2016 and then 2017 and 2018), Boston will have all their picks. The Celtics can steal amazing talent from a floundering Nets organization and still march an exciting, potentially Playoff-contending team out onto the floor in 2016 and beyond. Oh, and Brooklyn’s a divisional rival, so their bust is the Celtics’ boom completely irrespective of all this draft business, anyway. Having cake, eating cake too.
I love Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. I’m sad that their time in Boston is over. But if you want the storied Celtics franchise to get back to contending for titles, you can’t think along the lines of ‘Ainge was heartless’ or ‘Not letting Pierce retire in green was wrong.’
Pierce and Garnett wanted to play basketball on a contending team one last time, and they will. They wanted to go together, and they did. Nobody will remember Pierce as anything but a Celtic, and his jersey is still going to the rafters of the TD Garden. Remember that KG had a no-trade clause that he waived in order to let this deal happen. Goodbye, in this case, does not depreciate love. We’ll always have 2008, we’ll always love how these guys played when they were with us, and now there’s a bright future for the franchise in their wake—that the Celtics were able to get so much value in return for a couple of very old, very close-to-retirement players is nothing short of a godsend. I’m choosing not to think of this trade as Boston dumping its stars; I’m choosing to think of it as Pierce and Garnet leaving Boston a final gift.
You can see more posts like this on my site, www.mikeoftheoldrepublic.com !