I'm just now getting over that fifth stage of grief. It's been almost two weeks. Maybe it's because the season could end tonight, but I've made peace with the whole thing. The season's almost over and I can turn the page. "101-88" doesn't mean anything to me anymore. "28-15 in the 4th quarter" are just numbers now. Stage 5 is acceptance and I'm over Game 7.
Ugh, but I wanted it so badly as a fan and more so, for this team. They were such a gritty group that deserved better than to be failed by Father Time, some Chris Bosh three-pointers (!), and the short end of some bad whistles (grrr). These days, I relish in the small victories. I take comfort in the fact that because we took the Heat to the limit, Lebron is suffering from cramps. Let me say that again: Lebron has cramps. Cramps, everybody. I love that.
OK, maybe I'm not over it.
I wanted to see that Spurs-Celtics Finals. It would have been the perfect send off to two Hall Of Fame power forwards and the greatest of their generation in Garnett and Duncan, tactical warfare between teacher-and-student Popovich and Rivers, and a mano-a-mano duel between two of the more underrated point guards in the league today with Rondo vs. Parker. A younger generation may not have appreciated it as much, because of the fewer dunks and highlights plays. I try and convince my younger cousins that there would also be fewer free throws, but that would be less time for texting, I suppose. You could have called it "ugly," but it would have been old school and I would have loved it.
Alas, it didn't happen and with the Thunder and Heat in The Finals this year (and potentially for years to come if Stern has his wishes), we're ushering in the new age of the NBA. Gone are the days of fielding a defensive-minded center, a back-to-the-basket power forward, a versatile small forward, a shooting guard with a reliable jumper, and a distributing point guard. Since the 80's, championships teams have been built with that blueprint more or less, including last year's Mavericks team. That is not OKC or Miami. Offenses revolve around getting Lebron, Wade, Harden, Westbrook, and Durant at the top of the key and having them break down their man, collapsing the defense, and either taking the shot, taking it to the rim, or finding the open man for an open jumper. I used to think that that wasn't winning basketball, but one of these teams is going to lift the Larry O'Brien in less than a week and prove me wrong.
Thankfully, my beloved Celtics are going down this route. Even when Danny pulled off one of the greatest off-seasons any GM has ever had in 2007, he did it with the mind that he was trying to find players that would complement each other on the court. He wasn't looking to pair together superstars that would simply take turns at shouldering the burden on the offense. He wanted to put together a team that would be the epitome of basketball harmony and over the last five years, he's done a pretty good job at it. He's made some mistakes and bad calculations here and there but I think this summer could prove to be one of his best even if it means basically standing pat. With only four guaranteed signed players for the 2012-2013 season, some fans expect some sweeping changes and a large overhaul, but Danny knows what's been working and his best move (at least in the immediate short term) might be to stick with the bird in hand. Ainge gave a very extensive interview with WEEI's The Big Show yesterday and may have tipped his hand on a variety of topics.
First thing's first: we all know that this off-season and more importantly, the success of next season hinges on Garnett's decision to return. Everybody from Perk to Flip thinks he's coming back, so the question now is for how much. If we know anything about Garnett, it's that he's fiercely loyal and motivated by "the competition, the naysayers, and the owners that talk too much" out there. He's still Danny's "option A" and it sounds like Boston is his first choice, too:
"We'll talk within the next week, but I'm not sure that's a decision day for him," Ainge said. "He may want to wait and see what kind of team we have. I know that he wants to come back. I know that he likes Boston and I know he loves playing for Doc and loves everything about the team and the city and so forth, so I think that his decision is going to be, ‘Do I really want to play or do I want to not play.'"
I can really see him doing something radical in the next ten days, something you rarely see from a professional athlete of his caliber: he'll play for the love of the game. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I bet/think/hope/pray that Garnett doesn't only just return and retire a Celtic, but does it for pennies on the dollar. Salary cap experts have pegged his future paycheck around $10 million per year for two years with the second year as a player option; it mirrors the contract that Ray signed when his deal was up in 2010 and frankly is a steal in light of how KG performed in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. It's easy to say that "he's made his money" and is looking just to win now, but with Garnett, I really believe that. I don't think he'll play for the mini mid-level, but as the consummate team player, I can see him taking much less than $10 mil/year. He's been an MVP, made the max, and extended for the max. I won't be surprised if his selflessness on the court extends to off the court because that's just the type of guy he is. KG's decision to stay is linked directly to how competitive the team can be next season. He won't come back to the organization if it becomes a teaching hospital where he's mentoring young Celtic bigs, but I'm certain that if Danny can prove to him that they could conceivably be playing next June, I'm certain that #5 will be back in Celtic green.
Really, how far are they from a return to The Finals anyway? The idea that the Celtics are heading into a rebuilding period is absolutely absurd to me. We're talking about a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals and outplayed Miami for four straight games. This is a team that lost four rotation players in Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O'Neal, and Avery Bradley. This is a team that took the Heat to seven games with two of its starters dealing with a bum knee (Pierce) and bone spurs (Allen) and their defensive stopper off the bench (Pietrus) looking forward to off-season knee surgery. Remind me again what needs to be rebuilt. They may have fallen just short of a third trip to The Finals in five years, but they reaffirmed Danny's faith in the idea that they could still compete for a championship in 2013. Ainge hinted yesterday that his best option could be getting the band back together next season and propping open that championship window one more time:
"I thought where we got -- with a chance (to make the NBA Finals) -- was expected when the season started, when we looked at our roster and we thought we would have Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, (as well as) Brandon Bass coming off our bench," said Ainge. "I thought that was a very good team with high expectations. Not only with the three guys (Bradley, Green and Wilcox) that we didn't have in the playoffs, but Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen) were not 100 percent through playoffs and those guys gutted it out and were very gritty. They had some spectacular games, some flashbacks, but in the end we just didn't have enough."
"If we had our 24 (Jeff Green) and 21 year olds (Avery Bradley) healthy, we could have been playing in the NBA Finals right now," Ainge said. "The reality is we're not old. We don't want to bring Cousy and Russell back. Our guys are still performing. Our guys are still playing well."
That might sound like sour grapes or an excuse for not advancing further, but those comments shouldn't fall on deaf ears. Glenn Ordway and Michael Holley brought up Ainge's (in)famous comments about how he would have traded Bird and McHale if he was in Red's shoes and Danny shot that down immediately, stating that the big difference between Red's situation and his was that his Big Three was still performing at a high level. It's clear Danny still believes in this team, even if he didn't believe on March 15th when the Celtics were barely over .500. At the time, there was popular opinion that he needed to trade his assets to get younger. This wasn't just a thought; it was almost a reality. Reports surfaced after the trade deadline that Ray Allen was being sent to Memphis for O.J. Mayo and a pick and The Captain was offered to the Nets for their lottery pick. Thankfully, both deals fell through and the rest is history. The Celtics made a gutty run through twenty games of the playoffs.
And it's not like the team isn't getting younger right now. The Celtics have two first-round draft picks in a very deep draft and JaJuan Johnson (and E'Twaun Moore, if they bring him back) waiting in the wings. If two out of four of those guys pop and become rotation players during the length of their rookie contracts, we'd have a pretty good nucleus for the post-Big Three era without ever having to make a nuclear option trade. Consider what the team might look like after Paul Pierce retires as the all-time leading scorer in Celtics' history in the summer of 2014: Rondo and Avery will still be under contract, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass could conceivably be here, and 2-4 of the 2011 and 2012 rookies could be contributing. Dependent on how he spends over the next couple of months, Danny could also have cap space next summer in a free agent class that includes Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, and Kevin Martin. But this is all two years down the road. There are a lot of uncertainties, but we can be confident in two constants: Doc and Rondo.
I'm man enough to admit that I got a little choked up after Game 7 and it wasn't because of the loss. Doc was wrapping up his post-game press conference just as Rajon was taking a seat next to him for his turn with the media. Doc put his hand on his point guard's shoulder and called Rondo "wonderful." It was one of those moments that I'll remember forever because as much as Doc has praised RR as "the smartest player (he's) ever coached," it was the first time that I'd ever seen it when they were in the same room together. I felt lucky to have these two guys as the faces of our team for the foreseeable future. There's a simpatico to their relationship that is as unique as Rondo's game. I can't think of a better player/coach combo in the NBA where a player's talent and ability suits so well to their coach's strengths. They may butt heads at times, but there isn't a better point guard out there that can execute Doc's brilliance with X's and O's. In a Q&A with a Timberwolves blogger, I wrote:
I always think of Rondo as that guy that shows up at the park with short shorts and spends a good five minutes stretching. He seemingly has never played basketball in his entire life but inexplicably drops seven buckets in a game to 13. When he's supposed to go left, he goes right. Scoop shots and fall away jumpers that shouldn't go in, go in. Everything seems so unorthodox and on accident. That's Rondo.
He's a basketball savant. People who have played basketball at any level know that it's a choreographed dance; when you give someone a pick, you can either roll, slip, or fade; when someone cuts to the basket, both offense and defense shift to correct the spacing on the court. Like a chess master, Rondo knows all this and knows everybody's tendencies, offense and defense, and does what you least expect. Watch him on a fast break: instead of trying to throw a fake and jab stepping in the opposite direction, he drives it right into the defender's chest because that's the least likely option. Actually, it's not even an option to begin with but Rondo makes it so. He's not trying to draw a foul (yes, I'll give you that he's a poor free throw shooter). He's just trying to play outside of the box.
People can argue that Paul, Westbrook, Rose, and Williams are better and they'll qualify it by saying that Rondo is a "pure point guard" but I hate that comparison because that's just a nice way of saying that Rondo can't shoot and he makes up for it because he's just really good at passing. That's hogwash. Compared to those guys, what makes Rondo a great player--and puts him in a class unto himself--is that he actually makes his teammates better by amplifying what they're already good at. I think with those other players, they make the game, for lack of a better word, easier for their team. Kevin Durant doesn't have to score as much on his own because Westbrook will pick up the slack. Blake Griffin and Carlos Boozer will have a little more room to operate because Paul and Rose attract so much defensive attention. But with Rondo, he works in spite of those conventions: he doesn't score a lot of points and he rarely commands a double team. Doc calls him the smartest player he's ever coached and I believe him. What Rondo does is manipulate the entire court so that his teammates can excel at what they're best at. Sometimes it's as subtle as shifting his shoulders so that the defense thinks he's going in one direction or as deliberate as cupping the ball with his giant hands and faking out his defender, the help defender, and the guy selling hot dogs in the third row. Watch him tonight, especially in transition. He's got a very distinct voice and you can hear him orchestrate every play on both sides of the ball. He may not be a franchise player, but I think he's definitely a guy that franchise players want to play with.
Because the Celtics have essentially run the same five plays for the last five years, it's tempting to say that Rivers also prefers a system on offense. But that wouldn't be quite correct; the Celtics' offense could more accurately be described as a series of quick-hitters out of which there are various reads, rather than a continuous system. Indeed, Rivers' real talent is for designing plays that cater to the unique talents of specific players -- witness Rondo on the low block.
On offense, Rivers is a master of misdirection and has become one of the premier tacticians on sideline out-of-bounds plays. Even when the odds are stacked against him, he'll find a way to use screen-the-screener actions to get Ray Allen wide open for a big 3-pointer. He likes to use the same play multiple times in a season, each time adding a new wrinkle that takes advantage of his opponent's scouting report.
It's basketball bliss. I'd be remiss not to throw Danny into the mix of the Celtics' brain trust with Doc and Rondo because it'll be his job to find players for these guys to work with. If Rondo's an extension of Doc on the court, Danny's an extension of Doc in the front office. I think Ainge has really matured as a GM over the last two years. That sounds really condescending, but if you look at the kind of players he brought in this season, it shows how he's valued character and all-around skill over upside and untapped talent. Look no further than the much bemoaned trade of Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green. Although they sent away one of their most beloved teammates, what they got back was a more well-rounded, five-tool player who wasn't great at anything but good at everything. I love Perk and by no means am I insinuating that he wasn't a high character guy, but his one-dimensional nature as a post defender has been exposed over the last two post-seasons. Of course, Green hasn't proven anything but there were glimpses last season where he showed potential in so many areas including running the floor with Rondo, spotting and posting up, and playing one-on-one defense on Lebron.
A few months after trading for Green, Danny would use the same judicious philosophy in drafting JJJ and Moore. Both were four year seniors from Purdue who were fundamentally sound picks that weren't exactly flashy because of their proverbial upside, but plain ol' solid ballplayers. His recent successes with Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley have shown a shrewdness in Danny and so far, bringing in blue collar guys has worked. You can also see it in Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox, and Mickael Pietrus, players who brought a lunch pail to work and stayed overtime to get the job done.
I think you'll see the same rationale at play next Thursday at the draft. Some mock drafts have us picking Fab Melo or Tony Wroten, but this seems highly unlikely to me that he picks a project but opts for polish. Danny has made the mistake of falling in love with potential in the past and it's bit him in the butt more than once. He's failed with rookies like J.R. Giddens, Gerald Green, and Billy Walker, mid-season trades for Nate Robinson, and the free agent signing of Stephon Marbury and Shaquille O'Neal. These are Ainge's tempered comments regarding the draft yesterday:
"[The draft is] not that deep, no," Ainge said Wednesday afternoon. "It won't have as many transcendent players as [the 2003] draft had. But I think when people say it's deep, I think that you might get a player that can break into your rotation at 30 or 40 in the draft. That's unusual, but this draft, it might be that you get some good players. I think that we're going to get two good players, but not transcendent players -- players that might be starters someday, players that might come off the bench and contribute, but probably not stars."
I think Danny plays it safe and goes with some combination of Jared Sullinger, Andrew Nicholson, or Royce White at 21 and 22. If I had to narrow it down, my bet is with Nicholson and White, mainly because I don't think Sullinger is going to drop that far down even with the medical red flag. Nicholson and White are both well-regarded as all-around players with a variety of skills in the paint, active motors, good work ethics, and high basketball IQ. Versatility is key because the more ways a player can score, the more options it gives Doc and Rondo. In every draft, there are always one or two players that just sound like Celtics and Nicholson and White fit that bill.
Even though Evan Fournier and Moe Harkless have also been rumored to be on the Celtics' radar, I doubt Danny goes small in this draft. I'm a big believer in the idea that you can't teach size and length. Skilled big men are a premium in this league and I've always contended that it's much easier to sign or trade for a scoring 2-3 than it is a quality 4. And with that, that brings us to Ray Allen.
For continuity sake and sentimentality, I want him back. He's a pro's pro and a great guy, but the bottom line is that he's strictly become just a jump shooter, albeit the greatest jump shooter in the history of jump shooters, but still a jump shooter. I fear that he's in Kendrick Perkins territory as a one-dimensional player who's coming off ankle surgery and had difficulty on defense when he was healthy for a team who defines itself by its defense. Unless he comes back at hometown discount, I'd rather Danny use the cap space to go after a young stud like Eric Gordon or settle for Ray Allen Lite with mini-mid level vets like Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, or even Marco Belinelli. Outside of Terry and his championship pedigree, those guys should never be mentioned in the same breath with Allen, but if we're simply looking for a shooter to space the floor and Allen's price tag is too high, I can see Danny going elsewhere. For what it's worth however, I think if KG takes a pay cut, Ray will, too. Even though Ray was always cagey when asked about his future, he doesn't strike me as a ring chaser. Can you really imagine a scenario where Ray's catching a pass from Kobe Bryant or Lebron James? Plus, he can get that ring right here. #18.
Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics! Let's Go, Celtics!
I may have to end everything on CelticsBlog with that chant. Still gives me chills.