Let me preface this by saying that I'm not as smart as Danny Ainge. Celtics fans don't need me to recite Danny's resume, but suffice it to say that it's more impressive than mine. I'd like nothing more than to look back in a year, and sing Danny's praises about the brilliant trade he pulled off. That said...
I fundamentally disagree with Danny's thinking on the Perk trade. Simply put, I think the Celtics took a step backward this year, and I think that when you're as close to a title as the Celtics are, you need to do everything in your power to maximize those title chances. Rather than maximize our chances this year, I think Danny focused a bit too much on the future.
We've all heard the stories about how Danny criticized Red Auerbach for his reluctance to trade Larry Bird and Kevin McHale as the Celtics faded from championship contention in the late 80s. I look at this as Danny's Red Auerbach moment. Rather than stay loyal to his veterans, Danny looked at Perk's impending free agency, and decided that he needed to get something for him rather than risk losing him. Danny saw an opportunity to remain talented in the present, while getting younger and adding assets for the future. In a lot of ways, this was the equivalent of trading an aging Larry Bird for Chuck Person, Herb Williams and Steve Stipanovich, or moving a banged up McHale for a younger Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. It fundamentally changes the look of the team in the present, while giving the team a (hopefully) brighter future.
It's this thinking that I think is folly. Frankly, I don't care if this deal makes us slightly better in 2012. I don't care if the team was worried about Perk re-signing in the off-season. Teams aren't given trophies for remaining relevant, or for making the playoffs. The only reward in the NBA is a championship, and today, we're farther away from that goal than we were yesterday.
From a video game / statistical perspective, Danny made out pretty well here. On paper, the decline from Perk to Krstic isn't a huge one, and the addition of Green over Nate is a massive upgrade. Danny got OKC to throw in a Clippers' draft pick? Icing on the cake, right? And hey, think of all the cool players we can sign off the waiver wire. Troy Murphy, here we come!
The logic makes sense, except these players don't play on paper or in video games. Judging this trade solely in terms of talent ignores the role of chemistry. It's that chemistry that is almost universally hailed as the reason that the Celtics have the best record in the East this year. Everyone -- from sportswriters to Dwyane Wade -- acknowledges that it's this chemistry that has set the Celtics apart. The players had a synergy on the court that in part was learned from playing hundreds of games together, and in part seemed to spring from the perfect fit of the five pieces on the floor. Doc was fond of saying that our starting five had never lost a playoff series, and I think the team genuinely bought into that. When on the court, the team thought they were unbeatable.
Along with his great defense, Perk brought a toughness and swagger to the lineup. This is a guy who recently busted his hump to come back early from knee surgery. A guy who stayed with the team during his rehab, putting in long hours at the team's practice facility. A guy who just yesterday said that he'd try to play on this road trip despite being injured because "I'm a Celtic, man." When asked about his upcoming free agency, Perk admitted that he had talked with his wife, and couldn't imagine playing anywhere but Boston. He literally shed tears when he was traded. In other words, this was a guy who embodied Celtics pride.
Nate didn't have quite the impact on the court that Perk did, but he seemed to keep guys loose in the locker room. It's hard to say whether that chemistry was worth the $4 million the Celtics were paying him this year and next, but he seemed to have a real bond with the veterans on the team, particularly Pierce, KG, Shaq, and BBD. His twitter videos during training camp seemed to bring the team closer together; rather than the fractured locker room we reportedly had last year, there seemed to be a rebirth of ubuntu that was visible early on.
I think that Danny is fooling himself if he thinks that the team won't miss a beat with these trades. With the two new players, plus J.O. hopefully returning, plus up to three free agents joining the team, Doc will be asked to incorporate up to six new players. He's going to have to do this in 26 games (or, in the case of free agents, in even less time). We've heard Doc and various players say in the past that the Celtics sets aren't easy to learn, either on offense or defense. It's going to be hard for these guys to become proficient in the Xs-and-Os of the system. Even worse, though, the Celts will be losing that almost telepathic connection that comes from a lineup that has learned to play together. Like a married couple that can finish each others' sentences, the Celtics have learned to cover for each other. These are things that can't be taught.
Perhaps as important as on-court chemistry is the stuff in the locker room. Perk was an extremely popular player, and Nate seemed to be, as well. Will the five new guys fit in in the same way? Jeff Green by all indications is a good guy, but will he bring the toughness and leadership that Perk did? Will the new players learn to adjust to the eccentricities of KG, Rondo, and Ray -- all of whom can at times be difficult teammates -- as well as the departing players did? They very well may, but it's no guarantee. (Indeed, the fact that the Celtics vets were reportedly "livid" with the trade can't be a good sign for the future.) At the very least, Doc is going to have to earn his pay check doing some mending in the locker room that wasn't previously necessary.
In an ideal world, Shaq fills 90% of Perk's role, Krstic and the buyouts improve our bench, and Jeff Green morphs into James Posey. However, I can't help but think that the best thing for this team would have been to trade Marquis and Semih for Anthony Parker, while rolling with the other existing championship pieces. Danny had a team that believed it could beat anybody in the world, and it was in need of minor tweaks, rather than an overhaul. Instead, Danny seemingly got caught up a little bit in dreaming about the future, and forgot how important it was to maximize this team's strength in the present. This was a team that was good enough to win a championship. Whether they still are today is now an open question.