Year one of the Danny Ainge era is nearly in the books, so its time to review and look ahead. I’ll spare you the play by play analysis of each of Danny’s moves in the last year because there have been way too many of them. Instead, it may be better to take a step back and look at where we were last year, and where we are today.
Last year we were a playoff team in a weak Eastern Conference. We had a coach that was respected by the players and a dedication to defense. We were good enough to knock off an undisciplined Pacers team, but not in the class of Jason Kidd and the Nets. There was a nucleus of Paul, Antoine, and some veteran role players in Eric Williams, Tony Battie, Tony Delk, and Walter McCarty. We lived and died by the 3 pointer and a fronting, trapping, overplay defense. That was a team that was flawed but just good enough to win 44 games and a first round series.
On the other hand there was a very uncertain Vin Baker situation to consider and no cap room to speak of. If Vin comes back clean and sober for the whole year, perhaps you could make a case that they were a few pieces away from challenging for the Eastern Conference Finals again. On the other hand, how can you acquire those pieces when you have 3 max contracts, no cap room, and few tradable assets? And what happens if a few of the key players go down with injury. Battie will never have fully healthy knees again and Eric Williams wasn’t getting any younger. We’ll never know how far that team could have gone if it had been kept together, but few could make a case for it challenging the powers of the West for a Championship.
Fast forward to the present day and the team has done a complete overhaul. Provided we win the Vin Baker case, we’ll be down to just one max contract. Raef LaFrentz and Ricky Davis both have long term contracts, but the two of them combined make what Antoine Walker would have made had he been resigned for another 3 or 4 years. I miss Walker as much as anyone, but if you offered me a trade of Walker for Raef and Ricky, I’d take that. Next, instead of Eric Williams, you have Jiri Welsch. Jiri currently lacks the leadership and presence that Eric reportedly had, but he’s similar in that he does all the little things that it takes to get the win. Take out Delk and JR Bremer and replace them with Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks and we’ve upgraded our point guard position.
Also, and perhaps most importantly going into the offseason, we now have options. Having 3 first round draft picks is a good thing. Having the ability to use the mid level exception is another good thing. And if a trade is more your flavor, we’ve got lots of choices there too. Yogi Stewart has an expiring $4.8M salary that any number of teams in need of cap room would be want either this offseason or at the deadline next year. McCarty and Jumaine Jones both have salaries under $2M and Mihm is a restricted free agent. All of these pieces could be mixed and matched to offer around the league and could fetch us that one piece that is missing. If you were a capped out team looking for some breathing room and young blood, wouldn’t a package of Yogi’s expiring salary, a first round pick and maybe a role player like Jumaine Jones seem pretty attractive? Its not going to fetch an all-star, but it could bring a solid starter back. And don’t forget about the expansion draft. There are several opportunities for a savy GM to negotiate with the Bobcats.
Finally, we have the option of selecting a coach that fits the style of play that Danny Ainge is looking for. The candidates will range from Westphal to DJ to Doc Rivers and others. Any one of who will look to put their own spin on Danny’s vision.
The bottom line is that this franchise had two options last year. They could add a piece or two and make another run in a weak East, or they could blow everything up and start over again. They chose the latter and that kyboshed any hopes of challenging this year. On the other hand, the team now has options for the future. How Danny goes about using those options will determine how quickly this team returns to competing for the Championship.
In the offseason I'll do what I can to break down the draft, expansion protection lists, and coaching options. For now, there is the little matter of the playoffs to concentrate on. Let the scoreboard watching begin. Cavs hit the rookie wall (even if LeBron hasn't) and the Knicks really aren't all that money. I think we've got a shot at the 7 spot, but the team has to show up and not lose to teams like the Bullets first.