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A Heady Process vs. Steady Progress Part I: Blowing up the Celtics and 76ers

The Celtics and Sixers have taken different routes to these Eastern Conference semifinals, but what’s the common thread?

2017 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I have to begin this piece by saying with the simple admission that I cannot begin to paint myself as objective. It’s pretty obvious from my presence on this blog that I have a vested interest in the success of the Boston Celtics, and I’ve long identified Philadelphia Sixers as potential long term rivals to the Celtics. While Philly are historical rivals, younger generations of Celtics fans remember little history between the cities. There was only a 2012 seven-game series between two squads who likely owed advancement to Chicago Bulls injuries. This is a shame, because division rivalries are both incredibly fun and unbelievably nasty, as Celtics fans have learned through recent years with the Toronto Raptors. In the case of these two particular squads, however, there is even more of a reason to draw rivalry parallels.

Both squads are flush with young talent as a result of wildly different rebuilding strategies. These rivals seem destined for at least a half decade of playoff match-ups, the first of which will begin later tonight. Only adding to the intrigue is the meteoric rise of the Sixers who have arrived ahead of schedule as a result of their divisive path to contention labeled “The Process”. As a disciple of Ryan Bernadoni, I have been a critic of The Process, drawing parallels between it and a hospital conducting Medicaid fraud. However, we live in a time where taking common funds and benefits while not providing meaningful contributions causes divisions. (What is smart and what is immoral?) I suppose I could understand the points of “The Process” admirers in that context, or at least see where they are coming.

In this piece, I would like to compare the two paths to rebuilding as objectively as possible, but I can’t... Ohhh this is so tough.

There are a lot of hard jobs in the world. Teachers, social workers, nurses, part-time sports bloggers like me, and troops all work in similarly difficult circumstances and have a quiet dignity to how effortlessly they keep society running. It goes without saying that since blogging is one of the most difficult and respected jobs in the world, I take it very seriously and given every subject the proper weight and respect as is my very solemn duty as blogger. I would just like to let everyone know that it physically pains me to attempt to be objective about the Philadelphia 76ers, but I will do my best.

The Situations

Entering the 2013 Draft, the Celtics and the 76ers found themselves similar problem. Neither were good enough to make a splash in playoffs. The Celtics lost in the first round of the playoffs and were saddled with an aging and expensive roster due to a prolonged attempt to keep their window open. This window was slammed shut by Rondo’s injury and the Celtics came into the 2013 draft needing to recalibrate.

The Sixers meanwhile, had missed the playoffs after going all in on their intriguing young core; adding the expiring contract of Andrew Bynum in exchange for the expiring Andre Iguodala, 2011 first round pick Nikola Vucevic and a future first rounder with rolling protections. Meanwhile, 2010’s #2 overall Evan Turner was disappointing, and the Sixers needed to find a way to cash in on the success of their 2009 draft pick, Jrue Holiday, who was coming off of an All-Star season in which the Sixers had given him a four-year extension. During the 2011 lockout, the team was purchased by a Josh Harris-headlined group. This ownership group was entering the first off season in which they had not made the playoffs. The Sixers had used their amnesty clause to waive Elton Brand the previous year, and were getting a productive year from Thaddeus Young, the Sixers 2007 draft pick selected 12th overall. I’d like to note that the two strong players the Sixers had were selected 10th and 12th and Evan Turner was selected 2nd.

With that we will resume.

The Nets Trade

Celtics fans are well versed in the events of the 2013 draft and the trade that sent out a man whose number now hangs in the rafters, but context is important when remembering what will go down as a legendary swindle. The Nets were overburdened with salary and needed the Celtics to take back bad contracts, most notably Gerald Wallace’s toxic deal, Kris Humphries’ large expiring deal, and a bizarre re-signed Keith Bogan $5M payout the Nets signed him to in order to make the trade work. This meant the Celtics ownership would need to swallow a $73M bill for a team that would be in the high lottery. For context, the luxury tax was $71M that year, but Ainge and company would later trade Courtney Lee to get under the tax.

Additionally, When the Nets agreed to the send the picks to the Celtics, their hands were bound by the “Stepien Rule” (which limits the amount of first round draft picks that can be traded) and the “Seven year Rule” (which limits how far into the future one can trade for draft picks. That numbers is seven years, by the way). The Nets owed so many picks, that that most of the picks had to be multiple years into the future. Similarly, the Nets could have only protected one or two of the picks without rolling the obligation past the ‘seven year window’.

Given the age of the Nets roster, I’m sure they also thought that (correctly) rolling picks into 2019 and 2020 would be reckless. I suppose one could argue the Nets should have pushed for obligations to extinguish with the protections, but given the amount of money the Nets were asking Ainge to take, I doubt the Nets get the deal done with less of a price. It’s hard to remember, but this was a pretty good Nets team with pedigree. Had Deron Williams not done Deron Williams things, it’s not that hard to see the Celtics without Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They got very lucky. Let’s remember that.

The Process Begins

The Sixers would surprise everyone, trading their 23 year old All-Star Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans’ cap space in exchange for the draft rights to the injured Nerlens Noel, $6M in savings that year, and a 2014 pick that would become Elfrid Payton. Later, they would trade back from Payton in order to draft Dario Saric and recover the pick they had previously owed to the Magic from the Andrew Bynum deal. This was less of a get for the Sixers than it seemed, as the protections on the pick never got lower than top-6 and ran through 2016. The Sixers only needed to finish in the bottom three to guarantee that this pick wouldn’t’ convey, which was no problem for The Process. If the pick did not convey, the Sixers would have sent two second round draft picks, though it’s unclear which seconds those would have been, as the Sixers already owed their 2016 2nd to the Celtics via a Justin Hamilton-Arnett Moultrie-Zoran Dragic arrangement.

My point in all this, and in the interest of being fair more fair than I want to be, it did make some sense for the Sixers to tank once they had the disappointing season that they did. If the Sixers really did make a valuation that a 23-year-old All Star under contract for four more years couldn’t be built around, it makes sense that you would want to start protecting their pick for when those protections shrink, especially if they idea is to tank through it, much like the Lakers did with the pick that they owed from the Steve Nash trade.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers
My Favorite Lakers Era

This especially makes more sense if you are the Sixers and you allegedly did not disclose all of Jrue Holiday’s medical records and were able to get a better deal as result. Tactical tanking has a history in the NBA and makes a lot of sense for a team that has circumstances that are conducive to this. This is what birthed the Spurs dynasty after all. So there’s times when circumstance just kind of plops it in your lap, like what happened with the Grizzlies this year.

However, after this Saric trade the Sixers no longer had incentive to tank as strongly, and could begin improving their team if they wanted. They had gobs of cap space, and could acquire the Bird Rights to useful players via short contracts. This… did not happen, more on this later.

In 2013 the Sixers used their own pick on Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who would be traded at the 2015 deadline. I have no take on this, besides that the Sixers inflated his value by putting him in a position where he looked better than he was before trading him. I would argue this was bad for his career, but this would be an equivalent to me launching boulders from the tiny glass palace that I live in.

So I will leave that be. This is an example of the Sixers making the same kind of smart, fortunate trade the Celtics would make. In fact, let’s take a look at what the Celtics were up to, shall we?

The Missed Playoff Year and the Paul Pierce Trade Exception

The Celtics actually made relatively few moves during Brad Stevens first year. The Celtics absorbed losses while Danny made minor moves like trading Marshon Brooks and Jordan Crawford for Joel Anthony and a second. His biggest splash was dealing Courtney Lee’s mid-sized contract for Jerryd Bayless to get under the luxury tax line. Something most teams in the high lottery don’t usually need to worry too much about. Aside from that, the season came and went with little fuss. Brad Stevens won too many games to make the high lottery, the Celtics ended up with Marcus Smart and James Young in the draft, and fans waited to see a full, healthy season of Rajon Rondo. In the 2014 off season is when things really got cooking for the Celtics.

Due to arcane cap rules, the Celtics had a traded player exception (basically a bookmark for spending money) left over from the Paul Pierce trade. This particular exception was worth north of $10M and was about to expire in the summer of 2014. (Most traded player exceptions do). Rather than snag the $10M in savings by letting the TPE expire, however, C’s ownership greenlit Danny Ainge spending this money to facilitate LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and the Celtics acquired Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton, and a Cleveland first round draft pick for what would literally be nothing but owner’s money. This nearly wiped out the savings the Celtics had gotten through Humphries expiring contract and the Celtics added even more money, resigning Avery Bradley to a $32M dollar deal, and even utilized the mini-mid level exception to sign Evan Turner to small deal. It’s weird for a top-six lottery team to spend money over the cap on a team without serious changes, but that’s what the Celtics did.

The Celtics would cut cost throughout the year, however, most notably by trading Rajon Rondo to the Mavs for an assortment of low cost players including Jae Crowder and series of trades that turned Jeff Green and a first round pick into Jonas Jerebko, Gigi Datome and the Memphis pick. The Celtics would whittle their cap number down to $60M, well below the cap, by the end of the year, in a season that was highlighted by selling.

They would make one “purchase”, however. They would also send the aforementioned Marcus Thronton and CLE 1st they got for nothing to Phoenix in exchange for Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics were panned, as most experts thought the Celtics should be tanking and didn’t need a PG when they had Marcus Smart. The Celtics were not only extremely lucky to get Isaiah Thomas, but were very lucky to the Cavs need to dump money when that Traded Player Exception was about to expire.

The Celtics would finish the season on a tear after the deadline. make the playoffs and ‘ruin’ their pick. So instead of getting a shot at Emmanuel Mudiay, the Celtics had to settle for Terry Rozier.

During this draft, the Celtics got their best stroke of luck to date, as two separate franchises said no to four first round picks for Frank Kaminsky and Justise Winslow. Nets picks were not yet the golden goose we know them to be, as the Nets were still hanging onto a playoff spot. Danny Ainge made a rare miscalculation and the Celtics are extremely fortunate that no one else recognized it for what it was. There’s that familiar theme of luck again. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the point of this was something like that...

I guess we’ll have to wait for Part II to find out.

Check back later for Part II - The Process is Enacted

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