Yesterday, Jeff ran an article/poll about which Celtics you're following in the playoffs this year. Of course I'm rooting for The Captain and KG in Brooklyn, but I can't get myself to get behind Doc and the Clippers. When he and Jermaine O'Neal started jawing at each other last night, I found myself cheering on JO, JC, and the GSW. I'll hate on Ray and the Heat the rest of the way too, but what's really got my attention is that 2-7 matchup in the west. It's early, but Memphis and OKC are tied 1-1 and the Grizzlies now have home court advantage.
I'm still debating what's worth more: one Kendrick Perkins or Tony Allen plus Courtney Lee? My heart says Perk--especially after he pulled down that clutch rebound and finished off that put back that sent the game to overtime last night--but I love seeing Allen and Lee terrorize OKC's back court. It just makes me happy to see these Celtic alums thriving elsewhere, but then I eventually think to myself, why didn't we just keep everybody?
Happy to see my bro @CourtneyLee2211 balling.— Jared Sullinger (@Jared_Sully0) April 22, 2014
That's the rub, right? Basketball is a business. Rosters get turned over like cover crops on the farm in the hopes that next year's yield is better than the last. That's certainly something Ainge is thinking about right now. Does he slash and burn all his assets right now and go for something big or go the way of the tortoise?
The history and lore of banner 17 looms large over the rebuild. In one fell swoop, the Celtics went from cellar dwellers to raising the Larry O'Brien in one year. Ainge could have options like that, including lighting off some Kevin Love fireworks or going against his word and trading Rajon Rondo. With the bad taste of 2013-2014's tanktastic season in our mouths, a quick turnaround would be great, but it's unlikely. Ainge has talked about the perfect storm of circumstances that brought together The Big Three and the current CBA makes it very difficult to replicate in free agency.
But that's OK. We can look towards the Grizzlies and Thunder for guidance.
It's hard to argue about Oklahoma City's success; they've finished first in their division for the last four years and either first or second in the Western Conference in the last three seasons. They've built the team through drafting smart in the draft and spending responsibly in the free market market. Along with Portland, they boast the highest number of homegrown players (9) that were either drafted or traded their draft rights for in the league. It's allowed them to sustain a high level of excellence in the current CBA climate that has more high profile teams overspending and underperforming.
Then there's Memphis. This was supposed to be a forgotten year for the Grizzlies. Last summer, they didn't re-sign head coach Lionel Hollins after he lead the team to a franchise-best 56-26 in 2013 and a trip to the conference finals. They had traded former franchise player Rudy Gay to Toronto and it seemed like they were due for a regression. The team gutted out a sub-.500 start this winter and finished the year 30-12 with another 50-win season. The kept their core together and their identity intact.
Doug Collins calls it "sweat equity" and usually the best teams have to build that equity up before they truly become contenders. He used that phrase in describing the Bad Boys and their quest to overcome Boston and Los Angeles. He talked about how the Pacers have been banking it for the last two post-seasons and how they could finally cash in this June.
It's possible that last season was a wash. It seems like every team takes their turn as NBA junkyard once in while and last year, it was our turn. Brooklyn dumped a bunch of their overpriced contracts on us and drove away with a pair of classic cars in good shape. We sold some scrap parts for a couple of bucks and we'll save that money for later when the mechanic knows what he wants and when I say "the mechanic," I'm not talking about Ainge. That's Brad Stevens.
I've mentioned it before, but he's a helluva coach. The Celtics played in the fifth most games decided by five points or less in the last five minutes. They were 15-34 in those close games, but their record is inconsequential. Actually, I take that back. It means everything. It means that this team fought and considering their circumstances, that's a victory in and of itself.
We're talking about a locker room that started out with its star player on the mend, disgruntled veterans coming in, and orphaned role players lost without purpose. But Brad Stevens made it work and they worked hard. That's sweat equity. After a season like this, you rarely hear veterans on expiring contracts talk so glowingly about the possibility of returning for the rebuild, but if you listen to Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless, they'd be happy to come back to Boston and put on a hard hat. And since the end of the regular season, Ainge has done less teasing about what could happen this summer and talked more about the improvements that did happen. He seems less interested in what he could possibly pull out of the ether and more interested in the development of guys like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk. Ainge could nothing and see how another season with this squad turns out. That's sweat equity, too.
It shouldn't surprise anybody that teams like Memphis, Washington, and Golden State have taken control of their respective series even as underdogs. For the most part, their rosters have remained intact for a few years now and they would rather enjoy the taste of champagne rather than the bitterness of losing again. Is it masochistic to want that for these Celtics? You can call it tanking, but I want a season like this to fester with these guys. All summer, the team should be simmering. Everybody talked about how much they hated losing, but the big question ahead of them is how much it motivates them to get better together. That's sweat equity.