Brad Stevens got to “coach” in his first All-Star Game, Isaiah Thomas tried to dunk, but it was the news that DeMarcus Cousins would be joining All-Star MVP Anthony Davis in New Orleans that stole all the headlines. Was this opportunity lost for Danny Ainge to cash in his chips, or was it a careful show of restraint in order to maintain team chemistry and the long-term plans of the team?
Bobby Manning: The Celtics are aiming to get Banner 18 to the Garden, and while draft picks, cap room, Brad Stevens's wizardry and Danny Ainge's foresight are reasons to be optimistic it takes a truckload of fortune to land among the contenders for a title. Few make it to that point, and while the Cs could do it through patience, there's good reason to take a risk.
The risk on a man named DeMarcus Cousins was massive. If it went wrong he could've torn a hole through the sensational team dynamic that's been built and would have run the Celts into trouble through 2018 when he becomes a free agent. That's so much lighter than the reward.
People talk about Cousins as if he's not on par with Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain and the other overwhelming physical specimens to patrol the low block. He's a machine, a basketball weapon, and his greatest "weakness" that is his explosive personality could have been a quiet strength in my eyes.
You hate that guy until he's on your side.
While Cousins's blowups have been highly documented, there's an appeal to his unwillingness to be friendly with anyone on the court. The Celts have displayed it themselves, especially in their scraps with the Washington Wizards. Buddy ball with opponents doesn't work, and the Thunder showed that getting pummeled by LeBron James in 2012. To beat James it takes nastiness, the kind of pure hatred for your opponent that Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett displayed toward those Miami teams. Cousins would bring that animosity vs. Cleveland alongside the fury of 1,000 suns and the physicality to bump and bruise with LBJ.
In addition, he fits the Celts’ system perfectly. He's a skilled big man who excels in perimeter shooting and ball handling. He can dominate opponents putting the ball on the floor, posting up or facing up from 30 feet. He and Al Horford would have been a polarizing, brilliant duo who could bring excellence on both the offensive and defensive end. Further, the culture of Boston has played well for players doubtful of coming initially like Isaiah Thomas. The risk was there, but you can't win a championship without cashing in on a risk. The Cs have been seeking a game changer for years to add to their core, and Cousins was that guy.
Bill Sy: I get it. I love Cousins's nastiness, too. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Cousins are like the Russian stacking dolls of bully ball. And there's no doubt that basketball-wise, he's a great fit. And it doesn't even seem like much of a risk considering the pu pu platter of picks and expiring contracts that the Kings got in return. Let's first consider what Ainge would have had to offer to get this done. Say he had to outbid Divac, and the package included Jaylen Brown and the 2018 Nets pick (and Amir Johnson). I totally understand cashing in your chips and going for #18, but Brown and next year's Brooklyn first rounder could project to both be stars and could set up the franchise not just for one banner, but a decade of contending.
BM: Opportunity is about weighing chances. What was the best forgone option here? Jaylen Brown projects to be great; I love him and his potential as do the Celtics, but he’s an unknown. The Brooklyn Nets pick, as beautiful of an asset as it is, has a 75% chance of not being #1. Meanwhile, this Celts team has tremendous potential behind Isaiah Thomas's legendary season that may or may not translate to future seasons. The Celts are a team of present and future contenders thanks to their asset pool. They could've pushed a deal that maximized this squad's ability to push for #18 without throwing the future completely out the window. Now there's certainly truth to Golden State being a nearly inevitable champion even if the Celts knock off the Kevin Love-less Cavs. But making it as far into June should be a goal that builds up the prestige of the Cs as players in the NBA. Free agents will absolutely look at a squad that knocked off Cleveland in a better light than one that couldn't escape the second round. Then there's the fact that players enjoy Boston more once they get in the environment. There's no saying Cousins was an automatic 1.5 years then gone.
BS: By most accounts, it doesn't look like Ainge and/or Stevens wasn't interested in Cousins, but Ric Bucher is reporting that one of the reasons Boston didn't make a godfather offer was because they're "too focused" on acquiring Jimmy Butler. The price is probably going to be a little steeper, but if they do add him, do you think he's a better fit than Boogie?
BM: No way. He's a very close second, but it's ironic we talk about Cousins's fit (from a personality standpoint) because his game is as Celtics as it gets. He's mobile, owns property outside of the three-point arc, is another ball-handling outlet, and more than anything he's the best player in the league at their biggest position of need. Jae Crowder and Cousins pairing up makes sense. Crowder certainly isn't anywhere near Butler at the position, but he's excellent value at a position that would become redundant and more expensive. Of course, the Celts play the sort of positionless basketball that he would thrive in, but he's also a streaky shooter who plays a heavy dose of in-between basketball in Chicago. It was highlighted in Thursday night's game as Butler routinely stepped inside the arc for turnaround twos while Isaiah Thomas spotted up from three. This is no knock on Butler, who has an intensity a slight notch below Cousins's without the baggage. But in terms of their game fitting the Celtics system, DMC inside with Al Horford permanently at the four as a defensive blanket makes a ton of sense.
BS: We might have to agree to disagree on that point. I'm as big a fan of Cousins's game as you are, but it's clear how Brad Stevens wants the Celtics to play: space the floor and use the bigs above the break. Sure, if Brad had Shaquille O'Neal, he'd figure something out, but with the modern game changing and the Celtics changing with it, Stevens wants to be at the forefront of the movement. If I'm Ainge, I'm putting my money on the perimeter. Hence, Jimmy Butler. Think of it this way: would you rather have Butler and a bargain big like Kelly Olynyk, or Cousins and an average 3&D on the wing? You also have to think that Boston has Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele stashed, too. It's less a matter of risk taking as it is being patient and waiting for the flowers to bloom.
BM: We have to remember that Kelly Olynyk is a free agent this summer, and no matter what upgrade the Celts make he's likely out of the equation, as are Johnson, Jerebko and Zeller. A black hole gets even thinner. Yabusele and Zizic are intriguing without a doubt, but their monster numbers have to be tempered in expectation against international players in completely different styles. Patience may be a virtue with how good LeBron James and Golden State are right now, but as time passes the assets will become less valuable, and there's more unknown. I love Markelle Fultz, but he could be Evan Turner when it comes to the pro level (all love E.T., you changed the Celts' fortune, but you weren't the guy we expected out of Ohio State). Right now we KNOW DeMarcus Cousins is a game changer. What we also don't know is if Butler will ever become available. It still doesn't make a ton of sense for CHI to move him unless the godfather offer is on the table—in which case, why not get Cousins at better value?
BS: To be fair, what we know is that Ainge could have topped NO's offer but didn't. Whether it was personality fit, basketball reasons, long-term planning, or some combination of all three, Boogie-to-Boston is dead. Regarding Butler, we know that Danny has at least talked to the Bulls at some point. That happened last summer, rumors have swirled that they've talked since then, and they'll surely talk this week. It really doesn't matter if Butler is available or not because there's a long game at play here. If it's not this trade deadline, then Danny will look to the summer or free agency to make his move. There's still time. In my opinion, I don't think Danny is looking for another Big Three deal. The 2008 championship was special, but if we're being honest, that window was small. It has to be in the back of Danny's mind that if he just stays the course, he could be building a dynasty instead of cycling through contention and rebuilding every five years.
BM: The course is an awesome one. It's shattered the expectations of NBA rebuilding and will forever serve as a model. There's value in making the most of the current situation though. I pray Ainge makes a move that is able to improve the capabilities of this team at a fair cost. Serge Ibaka could have done it at the price of Terrence Ross. Cousins at the price of Hield. Certainly it seems as though teams expect more from the Celts because they have more in trade conversations, which is annoying but business. We have to expect that mindset will translate to conversations that eventually take place with Butler. Ainge loves great value, but he'll be giving up a haul if Butler ever becomes a Celtic. At that point you wonder what will be left over to contend with, but we're looking deep into the future. What's important now is making the most of what's in place because this team is a top-five squad. Isaiah Thomas may never play this well again, Al Horford only continues to advance in age, and the magic of the three guards together will boil into a tough decision that could have to be made this offseason on them. What frustrates me about Cousins is that it was seemingly the pinnacle point of asset building. Things break down in Sacramento, Cousins becomes available, Celtics have the pieces to make a deal happen in the flash of a pan. I'm just puzzled the last part didn't happen. There's such a thing as excessive patience if opportunity continues to fizzle away. However, that being said there's still a chance for this team to be hugely competitive without Thomas, and luckily Cousins is still the West's problem.
BS: I guess the bottom line is that Cousins doesn’t scream “Boston Celtic” to me. I get the urgency, and the fit feels right on the floor, but ultimately, Ainge and Stevens have certain types of players in mind. Because of how they’ve set themselves up over the years, they can afford to be picky. I don’t know if that next move is going to be Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Markelle Fultz, or Josh Jackson, but I have faith that there’s a vision in place and clearly Cousins wasn’t in it. Maybe this is a little sentimental, but it matters to me—and my gut feeling is that Ainge and Stevens feel the same way—how you win. I think you’re right: the price that New Orleans paid for Cousins was too low, and Ainge could have easily topped it, but you’re talking about a monumental shift in team narrative, style of play, and roster identity. Celtics fans are fireworks hungry, but I just want to caution everybody that fireworks are fleeting. Nobody wants to watch paint dry, but it’s not like the rebuild has stalled. The team is #2 in the Eastern Conference and has only played twenty-one games with its starting lineup healthy.