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Friday, 20 September 2013 01:07

The 2013 Boston Celtics: the Road back to Relevance

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Part One of a Three Part Series

Each new season brings change.

Some seasons, it’s the addition of role players to complement a championship core. Others, it’s young players maturing into more prominent roles or older players receding into a supporting role.

For some franchises, it’s just another round of aimless shuffling of the deck. The changes for the 2013 Boston Celtics are virtually top to bottom and have left everyone wondering what to expect.

The transactions have been well documented - in many cases, before they were even officially consummated. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Collins, Chris Wilcox, Shavlik Randolph, DJ White, Terrence Williams and Fab “we hardly knew ye” Melo have moved on. Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Marshon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey and first-round draft pick Kelly Olynyk will don the Green and White in their places but, especially in the case of Pierce and Garnett, it’s not quite accurate to say they are replacing them.

The coaching staff has also turned over with Doc Rivers and his veteran staff (with the exception of holdover Jay Larranaga) replaced by first time NBA head coach Brad Stevens and a fresh cast of assistants including respected veteran Ron Adams.

The net result of all this change is uncertainty. Anyone that says they have a good idea of what to expect from the Celtics this season is either lying or not very bright.

Prevailing sentiment among the media, and a segment of the fan base, is that the team has committed to rebuilding through the draft even especially enduring one or more seasons in the NBA low rent district. They insist that a 30 win season or two is the necessary pound of flesh a franchise has to pay and the potential of the 2014 draft, particularly consensus future superstar Andrew Wiggins, as a reasonable reward for sacrificing competitiveness and culture. In this view, a spot in the 2014 playoffs is the worst possible outcome for this season.

Following that line of thinking to its logical end implies trading at least a few of the existing players for fear they might be enough to prevent a trip to the lottery. It has been suggested that if Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger, established All-Star Rajon Rondo, and veteran complementary players like Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, and Courtney Lee can potentially contend for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference then a trade or two is necessary to prevent such a calamity.

Fortunately, there is a competing hypothesis for the path that Danny Ainge has set the franchise on; a path that does not include intentionally sacrificing short-term competitiveness to rebuild a contender.

After the decision to “bring back the band” was taken out of his hands by Doc Rivers and Donald Sterling, Ainge managed to accumulate a stockpile of future picks, acquired a 10+M trade exception while maintaining the Celtics’ cap flexibility after this season. While it can be argued whether dealing Pierce and Garnett was the right move, it can’t be argued that Ainge didn’t maximize the return the Celtics received in the deal with Brooklyn (and for letting Doc out of his contract). The moves put the franchise in great position going forward with multiple options for reconstructing the roster and putting a potential championship in play sooner rather than later.

Wait, if the plan was based on acquiring all of those draft picks, isn’t that building through the draft?

Well, yes and no. The picks, even if they aren’t lottery picks, are just as valuable as trade chips to acquire an established player. Also, players selected by the Celtics with these picks can be developed and later used as pieces in a deal to bring in an established player. While the tendency is to think that only lottery picks have the type of value needed to bring in a centerpiece player, keep in mind that the trade that brought Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007 featured Al Jefferson; a 15th pick in the draft.

The quantity of picks that they have at their disposal, three from Brooklyn and two from the Clippers over the next 5 years (as well as their own) leaves the Celtics well armed to bring in multiple impact players, either through the draft or in a trade.

If one or more of these picks happen to end up in the lottery, that certainly increases their value, but contrary to popular wisdom, it is not a prerequisite for success. The reality is that the lottery is ALWAYS a possibility for all but 2-3 teams a year. An injury to the wrong player or unexpected off-court issues can derail a team that appeared to be a lock for the playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs built their incredible run of success on just such a situation when All-Star center David Robinson missed most of the 1996-97 season with an injury. The Spurs won a meager 20 games that season, won the lottery, drafted Tim Duncan and that ‘misfortune’ allowed them to maintain an otherwise unblemished 20+ year run of contention.

If the Celtics miss the playoffs, most fans will understand. They are prepared for that outcome. If they win the lottery and walk away with Andrew Wiggins, they’ll be ecstatic. However, that doesn’t mean that intentionally foregoing competitiveness is a foregone conclusion or the only path to success.  Further, it’s not inconceivable that one or more of the picks the Celtics acquired from Brooklyn and the Clippers may end up as lottery picks.

Thankfully, there is ample evidence that the team is genuinely attempting to compete this season.

Certainly the players, to a man, have expressed no lack of urgency for making the playoffs. That’s to be expected. More telling is that Ainge has shown no indication that he’s holding a fire sale for the remaining proven players on the roster. If “tanking” were the goal (as it certainly appears to be for the Philadelphia 76ers) then Rondo, Green and others would be traded to ensure a trip to the lottery.

Ainge’s insistence on maintaining cap flexibility also needs to be considered. If Ainge were committed to tanking, there would be significantly less urgency for maintaining future cap freedom. If the goal is to build your future core through the draft, cap space is less important, at least until three or four years down the road when rookie contracts are expiring.

The huge trade exception acquired in the Brooklyn deal is also an indication that Ainge expects the reconstruction project to move quickly. The picks, the cap space, and the trade exception all point to the conclusion that the Celtics are banking on being ready to acquire an established talent whenever and however the opportunity presents itself. Anything that the team gets out of the draft is a bonus.

If you’re convinced that the answer, and the plan, is a couple of trips to the lottery and several years of growing pains, your expectations are pretty simple….a lot of losses punctuated by the occasional highlight-reel play or flash of future brilliance to keep you entertained along the way.

From that perspective, the 2013 season is nothing more than a prelude to the 2014 draft.

If you think, or even just hope, that the plan is not that simple then uncertainty becomes the primary expectation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to look for or even things that you can count on.

In Part Two of the series, we’ll take a look at some things we can count on, some things we can hope for, and some things we can hope we don’t see this upcoming season.

Rich Conte

Rich Conte has been passionately following the Boston Celtics and the NBA for almost 40 years.  That interest began with the classic Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Final, blossomed during the original Big Three era, and persisted through the lean years of the 90s and the "Thanksdad" Gaston era.  Rich has been blogging and podcasting through CLNS Radio for the past two years  and also hosts a technology podcast; The Tech Life on the Beats and Eats network.  You can follow him on Twitter @richconte and find him as a frequent contributor to the Celtics Beat Podcast discussion group on Facebook.