To many Boston Celtics fans, the trading of Rajon Rondo signifies the dreaded "long rebuild." The assumption is that this requires a four-to-five year period of abject awfulness, comparable in both pain and patience to the Philadelphia Experiment. Many are anticipating an unwatchable product with little competitive basketball to be seen, but that will not be the case.
"Boston can't attract free agents."
"Boston doesn't have the assets to trade for top players."
These are the "nebulous truths" that don't always ring true, yet they are frequently regurgitated in arguments for the Celtics' reliance on the draft to rebuild and the necessity of "world class losing" in order for it to pay off.
Yet, is that truly the reality of the situation? What do these four teams have in common?
The answer is quite simple:
- Shrewd cap management
- Effective pro personnel scouting
- Patient asset accrual
These three elements may not be sexy to the casual fan, but they have been essential components to each of the aforementioned team's rises to prominence. Some Celtics fans may not see the relevance in these team examples, since each team has their two superstars, while Boston is still waiting for lottery luck or a friendly free agent summer to break their way.
But hindsight is a fickle thing. A cursory trip through the days of deals Christmas Past reveals that none of these modern day contenders started with the shiniest of presents under their tree.
It's a long way to the top
Stephen Curry was no surefire superstar in the making when drafted with the sixth pick and the Warriors did much more than simply bank on his potential while building the team you see today. Acquiring key components such as Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala took front office savvy to pull off. Nobody was singing the praises of the Golden State front office when they sunk two first-round picks into a cap-clearing gambit with the Utah Jazz.
When Memphis started their team anew, pundits were pounding the Grizzlies brass into oblivion for "giving away" Pau Gasol for a bag of balls. That bag ended up containing a lowly second-round sibling, Marc Gasol, who would go on to become one of the best centers in the NBA. Memphis whiffed on its highest draft pick, taking Hasheem Thabeet right ahead of James Harden, but their patience in developing a raw Mike Conley and their shrewd willingness to take a risk on Zach Randolph led to the foundation of a team many favor to come out of the West.
Houston took a slightly different route to their current incarnation. While their model heavily favors the "superstar theory" that many subscribe to, it was done in a manner that defies the tank-a-holics and their quest to hit rock bottom. The Rockets worked diligently to maintain their image as a top-flight organization to play for, all while placing a high value on remaining competitive in order to increase the value of their own assets. A combination of picks, prospects, and prosperous timing allowed the Rockets to trade for their foundation player, which increased their attractiveness to perspective free agents and led to the team you see today.
Toronto is perhaps the best example of the power of team chemistry and judicious front office maneuverings. Both of their lead dogs, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, were far from obvious team leaders. Neither player came cut from the "superstar cloth," as both took circuitous routes to their current levels of excellence. The Raptors resurgence was built on a foundation of basketball analytics. The team invested just as heavily in studying the types of people they were putting together as well as the skill sets they brought to the table. The results have led to a team that remains ripe with upside while performing at a high level in the present.
How Boston is following the same equation
There seems to be quite some disagreement regarding the current state of the Celtics rebuilding effort as well. Although the team has a number of cost-controlled young players, a clear salary cap on the horizon, and tons of draft picks, Boston's failed pursuit of Kevin Love this past summer has some members of Celtics Nation believing the future is bleak.
Common wisdom assumes that trading Rondo equates to a massive step backwards; the logic is simply that Rondo is the "best" player and the only one capable of luring other quality players to the desolation of a Boston rebuild. The fact that Danny Ainge was able to get such little tangible value in this exchange has created some backlash for the man who extracted five first-round picks out of dinosaur bones and pixie dust over the past year.
What's lost in this logic is the fact that Boston is much better positioned to move the ball forward today than it was before trading Rondo. Sure, the return on Rondo is paltry when evaluated in a vacuum, but like it or not, keeping cap liquidity and increasing the negotiable asset base leaves the team in a better position to succeed today and tomorrow.
"I think Celtics fans want to see good team basketball and winning basketball. I think we need to start moving in that direction. We need to win - play the game the right way and win. I don't know if stars are required. I mean, winning is what's important," Danny Ainge said on Thursday morning in an interview with Toucher & Rich on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
"It's assumed in the NBA that stars are needed and that's true, but there have been some successful teams without a star, but I have every intention of continuing to find stars," Ainge explained. "When I say stars, I mean great players that have a positive effect on winning, not stars that people want to watch, but stars that help winning basketball, because I think that's what Celtics fans want, is to win."
There was plenty of circumstantial evidence to provide faith that he could take the Captain's mantel...but in the end, the Rondo that Boston examined during his 23-game audition to start this season wasn't enough to take the risk in hoping that the team was better served building around what he'd shown.
This was a cold, dispassionate measure of probability in the pursuit of excellence -- the burden of responsibility for this team's leadership.
Assessing Boston's mountain of assets
It all starts with the picks
Boston has positioned themselves to be in a prime position to react to any fruitful opportunities that may arise. Cap flexibility is paramount in terms of being able to complete transactions, but when assessing the state of the Celtics, the conversation must begin with their pile of draft picks.
Boston has more first-round draft picks over the next two seasons than any other team in the league, giving them flexibility not often seen in the NBA. If the Celtics end up keeping the selections, they will be able to move within the draft like water, shapeless and able to adapt to anything. Ainge has traditionally been a big mover on draft night, so there is no saying what he is capable of with all of these picks.
But it's more likely that Boston deals at least some of these draft picks in player trades. Even though they lost Rondo, the Celtics are still in a position where they have the assets to make a move for an impactful player. Since the Celtics lost out on Love, fans now think they will never be an option for a potential star player, but beware, because recency bias is a dangerous thing. Though the Celtics are without Rondo, their collection of draft picks automatically put them in the pole position in the event of any sweepstakes.
It's probable that the Celtics will end up with six first-round draft picks (two in 2015 and four in 2016), yet the most overlooked aspects of their collection of picks are the two Philadelphia second-rounders. If the 76ers continue to struggle next season, which is not out of a question since they'll still be in the infant stages of their development, the Celtics could end up with a pick at the beginning of the second-round over the next two years.
Over the history of the NBA, teams have had a similar success rate of "hitting" on a draft picked chosen between 25 and 40. In other words, though the selection will take place in the second-round, it has the same value as a late first-round draft pick. Additionally, it may hold more value for teams pressed for cap space, since signed second-round picks often have non-guaranteed contracts.
The big trade exception
In dealing Rajon Rondo, the Celtics managed to create a large trade exception worth $12.9 million. This could be one of the hidden treasures in this deal, as long as the front office is able to find a use for it. Currently there are only 31 players in the league that the trade exception couldn't be used on, which means the Celtics can absorb the contract of virtually any player in the league.
It's difficult to project which players could be available, but Utah will need to decide between big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter either this season or next summer, and Phoenix might prefer to deal one point guard, Goran Dragic or Isaiah Thomas. Even in Minnesota, the front office may decide to go all-in with the youth movement, making center Nikola Pekovic available.
It's possible that none of these aforementioned names can be wrangled loose from their respective organizations, but Boston will remain in a sufficient position regardless of whoever becomes available.
Increased cap flexibility
In addition to having a bundle of valuable draft picks and a huge trade exception, Boston is even more versatile due to the players currently on the roster. Let's examine their current cap sheet and the 2015 offseason outlook:
The one certainty in the team's current landscape is flexibility -- the certainty that any number of moves could be executed at any given time is about as good as it gets in the modern era of NBA team building. While people lament the hazy value of a Jeff Green or Brandon Bass on the open market, their expiring contracts and productivity on the court create options in trades if the team ordains to attempt a power move to improve this season, as does Marcus Thornton's $8.9 million deal. Will they amount to such a move? Perhaps not, but certainly possible. Gerald Wallace and Jameer Nelson represent similar salary-slot matching options the following season.
In any case, the Celtics will likely be heading into the 2015 offseason with a large chunk of cap space, which is something they haven't had in their recent history. With a projected cap of $66.5 million, Boston could have an upwards of approximately $30 million in cap space. With Thornton, Bass, and Wright all expiring, and both Green and Nelson likely to decline their player options, the Celtics will be in a position to be big players in free agency.
If the Celtics re-sign Green, or if he doesn't decline his player option -- which would be stunning, since he could receive a long-term contract around $14 or $15 million per if he continues performing at his current level -- then the cap number is much more difficult to project. This is especially true if Boston decides to re-sign Brandan Wright, who could receive a deal between $8 and $12 million per -- players as efficient as him just don't grow on trees.
The 2015 free agent class will have plenty of star talent, but the majority of them are likely to re-sign with their respective teams. Instead, the Celtics could focus on bigs Paul Millsap, Omer Asik, DeAndre Jordan, and Greg Monroe, and guards Reggie Jackson, Wesley Matthews, Danny Green, and Brandon Knight, in addition to the aforementioned Enes Kanter and Goran Dragic. Considering Ainge's comments about finding "stars that help winning basketball," it is not out of the question for Boston to pursue these types of "second-tier stars."
The aftermath of this emotional turmoil is bright, albeit rife with uncertainty. Banking on probability isn't the warm blanket that affords fans the security that they desire. There is no guarantee that so many draft picks and ample cap space will yield the return to glory everyone desires. Internal player development may never yield anything more than a tantalizing taste of "potential" unrealized. Despite the risks, Ainge's "Draft, Develop, Deal" mantra is still the most sound strategy in a world of uncontrollable variables.
Ainge has repeatedly stated that he does not desire to limit the team's flexibility moving forward, thus it's assumed that the team is clearly fixated on being "sellers" -- unless a striking opportunity comes along -- while drafting the future of this team. However, his own track history suggests that he believes in building a competitive team environment from which to foment growth. By creating the potential for cap space and retaining a competitive mix of veterans and players on rookie contracts, the potential exists for moving up or down the competitive latter as situations develop in real time.
Despite Sunday night's discombobulated "getting to know you" session down in Miami, the team has shown an ability to stay in games and play at a competitive level against the best competition in the league. While the goal for all moves will certainly be made with Banner 18 in mind, it would not be surprising to see this team take calculated steps forward -- provided the price is right.
So, lament not true believers. Championship glory is hard to obtain, but the road toward its pursuit need not be paved with oblivion. There are plenty of examples in recent history that suggest there are multiple paths to contention, and the Boston Celtics are fortunate enough to be in a flexible position where they can take any of them.