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Understanding Our Options

Taking Stock in What’s In Hand

aljeff2.jpgOne of the main issues that Celtics fans have gotten drawn into this season is argument about the potential of our current players. The constituency of the fan base has become more polar in their opinions than a political debate. One group defends the virtues and potential of the team’s young players while the other side aims to expose them for their weaknesses.

There is no questioning the current record of the team and it’s indisputable that the current players are not good enough at the moment to win in this league. However, this season has also proven that this team has some young players who are on the upswing developmentally. So, the real argument of importance is "which of these guys can play?" The final level of growth for these players has yet to be determined, but if the plan is to build a team with Pierce as the centerpiece, there are timetables involved that just don’t allow for an open-ended level of patience with that development.

It's clear that Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Tony Allen, and Delonte West have separated themselves and shown that they can be consistent, quality NBA players that any team could plug into their rotation. This means that the team has four young players who are beyond potential and have arrived at an actual value, whatever level of value may be. Without pigeon-holing them into roles or placing mantels of expectation on them beyond what they’ve shown, the team can move forward and at least count on these four to be productive and reliable when building offensive and defensive schemes that incorporate their skill sets.

These four players may not have the most potential of all the team’s young assets, though Jefferson is widely considered to be in that category, but they are the most “game-ready.” It should also be noted that these four all have complementary skills, play different positions, and will be affordable when they come up for contract renewals. Jefferson is the only one amongst the four that stands to get a deal over 8 million annually. Gomes and West are more than likely mid-level players or below, while Allen’s injury probably will limit his earnings potential further.

These aren’t the type of factors that most fans want to focus on, but building a winning team starts with building chemistry and having complementary players who bring something to the table. These four have shown that if nothing else, they can be those types of players.

Taking that into consideration, one must then move into the realm of additional asset evaluation and the return that can be expected or sought from them. The draft pick this season will be the primary asset if the team retains the core youth that are furthest ahead developmentally. The value of this pick will be maximized once the lottery order is established and teams begin to turn their focus solely to scouting. Once the NBA season finishes General Managers begin to become fixated on the concepts of potential and the lure of the unknown, which is an advantage for a Celtics team that is basically attempting to sell those concepts as their currency.

Gerald Green and Rajon Rondo are the other two principle commodities the Celtics have to offer. Both are highly regarded by other organizations as young talents, but neither has displayed the type of consistent production the aforementioned four have. Both of these players may very well be high-end talents in the long run, but if this team is set on building around Pierce and committing to a core these players may serve that strategy better as assets.

Whether or not one wants to move the longer-term assets (Green, Rondo) or one or more of the shorter-term assets (Jefferson, etc) depends on return and direction. But all these players CAN be moved to upgrade the team's stability as it pertains to building around Pierce and making a highly competitive playoff team. The only question is which players will be moved and for what. The problem over the past two seasons hasn’t been whether or not other clubs value our youth, but it has been the discrepancy in valuation between those clubs and Danny Ainge that has prevented a significant move.

To Build Around Pierce Ainge Must Accept Less

For the past two seasons Ainge has held out for a perennial All Star/HoF caliber player as a return for the young players he has collected. But opposing teams aren’t going to easily be persuaded into giving up a franchise cornerstone in return for players who haven’t displayed any level of consistency. Everyone around the league is aware of the raw talent inherent in most young and unproven players, but there is no urgency to acquire these types of players in return for franchise caliber talent.

Only the rarest of circumstances even make these types of players available. When these players come on the market a General Manager’s career livelihood rests on obtaining the soundest value in return. Speculation into raw talent is essentially a gamble, tantalizing but not pragmatic.

Paul Pierce's recent statements to the media about his desire for veterans and his current age stipulate that Ainge should take one last bid at that high-end market: Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett, and Jermaine O’neal are all worth pursuing certainly. Shawn Marion, Ray Allen or any other players that may come onto the market are also viable to inquire about. But after that, there is another tier of players: Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Rashard Lewis, Jamal Magloire; these players are well within the "price range" of our available assets while still retaining a youthful core, but they’ll come at a price as well.

This is the direction that Ainge is going to have to move toward if he hopes fulfill Pierce’s needs and put a competitive playoff team on the court. There are feasible combinations available, quality lower-end veterans that teams will trade for the Celtics talent. But, they’re price isn’t going to be cheap. Coming to terms with this reality is something that Celtics fans and management must do to move forward going into next season.

Ainge probably could have had Allen Iverson, and he could most likely land Gasol as well. But he hasn't been willing to move four or five young assets in exchange for one, which is what any team is going to demand for that caliber of player because the young talent hasn't shown itself to the level that say Chicago's has.

With Pierce turning 30 next year, Ainge will have to re-calibrate his approach to the market. One last bid for the top-tier players is justifiable, but then a look toward the next tier must be done. He will get a lesser player in return, but he'll be able to do so without giving up the volume of assets he was reluctant to part with in the higher end scenario.

BibbyWe may all want KG, but settling for a Bibby and a Magloire at the end of the day may be best if we want to keep Jefferson, Gomes, and West. Bibby could easily cost Ainge Rajon Rondo-which is something the constituency of this board is loathe to do-but if that's the cost of keeping the most game-ready players around Pierce, that is what the plan will have to adjust for.

The point is that the team situation will remain liquid, and always will be as long as there are quality assets, something Ainge has been adept at acquiring. If the team doesn't bring in a "superstar" to go with Pierce the team won't be "instant championship contenders" but they can easily move into the range of playoff contenders by taking some stable veterans who are at least starting caliber players. Cleveland, Toronto, Washington have role-playing veterans that surround their star players and that defines those three teams. Only Washington has more than one star amongst the three. Team’s that aren't true championship contenders, but are still in the process of building off of their playoff experience.

It is paramount to remember that a trade involving any of the youth isn’t an end-game proposition. It’s inevitable that good portions of these players aren’t going to manifest into a finished product while in Celtics green. Moving forward from this offseason, the Celtics will have more picks in which to acquire more young players. Not a single contributing young player on this team has been taken earlier than pick 15 and with Minnesota’s first round selection in hand, there is sure to be a pick in the future that will hold some value as well. There will be chances to replenish the roster or make additional moves with which to continue the construction project.

The team has been looking for the "home run", a phrase that Ainge used in the past which has set the tone for many fan's expectations. But building a championship team is typically a matter of base hits, not home runs. This team may not have the time or resources to touch all the bases, but they can certainly hit a double and continue to build toward driving things home.

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