by Eric Weiss
There has been much talk and trepidation about the Celtics this season. Despite the glossy record and the long winning streaks, there has been a noticeable decline in dominance against the league's elite and Boston has had more inconsistencies than a season ago.
Much of the un-ease seems to stem from the past off-season free agent (FA) decisions, where Ainge's fiscal restraint and the lack of impact veteran additions caused quite a stir with the crowd. While Boston's competition was sure to make moves to close the gap, Boston looked to rely more on internal development to show a stronger side.
There has been quite a bit of venom spewed over this last point recently, as the team has failed to overcome some of its stiffest competition. With a fan base fixated on the here and now, the recent losses have made a controversial off-season look like a "give-away" year in a window many speculate to be no more than this season and next.
While it remains to be seen whether or not this team has what it takes to repeat as champions, that chapter isn't closed. Health, continuity, and the prospect of future additions still loom as possibilities over the next 30 games. The playoffs tend to be a different animal altogether as well.
But, considering where this team is at now, let's look at some of the factors that led us to where we are and try for a second to piece together what we think we know about this team instead of what we think we know about the game.
There are a number of factors:
1. There is a team budget, no matter what. It is flexible for the right level of player at the right length of contract, but that's it - this isn't Yankee land. Boston is over the luxury tax and 1 MLE player is going to cost double the money - forget about two - you'd be spending 20-22 million to have two 5-6 million dollar players - those players better be HIGHLY productive.
2. Situational importance is huge - a Ray Allen is worth more on this team because you pay a premium for solidifying a necessary role on your team - Ray fills a much larger strategic role than Posey for instance - consistent #1 option scorers are paid the highest of any position for a reason - they are more valuable than intangible-laden role players, no matter what - there are less of them and every team needs them. The core of the payroll is built around GPA, as is the eventual flexibility of said payroll.
3. Considering point 1 as reality, Boston now has to put its estimate on the team "window" for title contention. Ainge continually mentioned competing for "5 or 6 seasons" when making before constructing this team, let's assume he meant it. You can disagree with the window projection, but its Ainge's plan, so only his opinion matters - time will tell if his strategy is sound.
4. Assuming it is sound, FA then becomes a multi-season game of selectivity. For the first 2-3 seasons the game is about playing the MLE card very selectively, getting highly movable low level veteran FAs, and using the waiver wire as a strategic asset. In those first 2-3 years the team has its starting 5 at their strongest, with 2 pieces increasing in ability as 3 pieces have subtle decline - this is the "2-3 year" window that people refer to.
5. Again, going off of this premise - Boston continues to acquire and develop younger assets with the back 4-5 slots of the bench in an effort to find players that will out-perform their rookie deals in year's 4-6 and thus become valuable commodities to both the rotation and the team's asset options. This is the stretch where the GPA trio is most likely to see significant decline. GPA is also highly likely to remain rotation caliber players in years 4-6 and their contract values will become half of what they currently are in successive seasons if they are re-signed. This opens up more liberal trade and FA options to the team as well if they deem any and all to be of less value than they command.
6. The Final premise - the notion that Rondo has a high probability to develop into an All Star and that Kevin Garnett will maintain starter level ability through his contract and potentially into another. KG has all the tell-tale signs of being one of the elite that can be highly productive deep into his late 30's. His ability to shoot, pass, rebound, and defend don't rely on speed and power as much as length and finesse. If he can lock down the PF spot for 4-6 season, the team is set at 3 position for the duration of that larger window.
Series play is also extremely different from regular season basketball, where every team is engaged in its own seasonal plot line. Its one thing to lose to an opponent and use lessons learned from that game weeks or months down the road, another to obsess over them for 48 hours or less and then go again. Teams develop different rhythms over a stretch of regular season play; the team you see in December may not be the team you face in February even if the personnel are relatively the same.
Boston doesn't have a fully functional Kendrick Perkins right now and they lost Scalabrine at a point where his skill set and actual effectiveness were at an all-time high. Sam Cassell was also clearly allowed to occupy a roster spot for some purpose, so considering his time in the system and his track record, its not hard to fathom that he will be the backup PG for the stretch run if the team fails to acquire a superior replacement. Judging Cassell's performance last season would not do justice to his career effectiveness leading up to the moment of his acquisition, nor would it factor in the exposure he now has to the system and role breakdown of the team.
Regardless, electing not to over-pursue FA options this past off-season appears to be more of a calculated risk than a miscalculation and irresponsible waste of a "window" year. There was no doubt that Ainge lost out on some key veteran additions - James Posey would be an obvious player he wished to retain. But, many FA players showed interest in this team and Boston extended offers to quite a few at all the "issue areas" most fans feel need to be addressed. If nothing else, this should show an understanding of the team's roster make-up and an ongoing concern for addressing them.
But with so much time to go before Boston heads home for the year, it appears plausible that there is more method than madness when it comes to how this team is to be built to compete now and in the future. Perhaps electing to take a higher-risk path toward contention this season is a reasonable risk if the plan is to have this group in the thick of things for more than just another year.
Who else has a more predictable path toward contention past 2010?