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Saturday, 25 January 2014 15:56

What Do Danny Ainge & Michelangelo Have In Common? Nothing...Yet

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge has done an outstanding job tearing down the Celtics.  The trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for three first round draft selections already qualifies as a work of art.  But the hard part lies ahead.


Back in mid-January when the Boston Celtics traded Jordan Crawford for a potential first round draft choice, the highly astute and well-respected Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated appeared on Comcast Sports Net New England the night of the deal to give his thoughts on not just the latest Celtics’ trade, but the job Danny Ainge has done since last summer when he broke up the core of the team and traded away Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett.

By the tone of his voice, you would have been under the impression that he was giving an artistic review of the Sistine Chapel.  I mean, let’s remember, this was essentially reaction to a Jordan Crawford trade for a conditional draft pick.  It was another solid move by Ainge, but in the long run, how good could it get? Contain yourself a bit, Chris!

In reality, Mannix’s excitement – if that’s what you want to call it – originates from Ainge’s fleecing of the Brooklyn Nets.  No need to get too far into the details – Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, the right to pay Keith Bogans five million dollars in 2014, MarShon Brooks, and most importantly, three unprotected first round draft choices (worst of Atlanta/Brooklyn in 2014, Nets in 2016 and ’18, and the right to swap with Brooklyn in ‘17.)

With Garnett and Pierce set to return to Boston for their homecomings tomorrow evening, the timing to quickly revisit this is perfect.  That way we can get a feel for this new general perception of Danny Ainge (which is a far cry from how the media was treating him back in 2003-2006, huh?)

Here’s what we know: At worst for Ainge, it was a good trade.  Prying any sort of draft picks away, let alone first rounders, from teams these days in the NBA is about as hard as a waiter getting anything more than a 15% tip from an Englishman.  Even some mid first rounders will give Ainge more necessary flexibility to build up his next contending team.

At best, the Nets bottom out in the near future (which is looking very likely with a capstrung, aging team), and Brooklyn starts sending over high, game-changing lottery picks Boston’s way.  At best, Danny has pulled off the basketball version, of, dare I say it – the Herschel Walker trade (HWT), and the deal will be the catalyst for setting off the next great sports dynasty.

The HWT if you recall, essentially built the Dallas Cowboys’ dynasty in the early 1990s.  With an abundance of valuable draft picks over the course of a few years, Dallas had the flexibility to wheel-and-deal, and combined with keen talent evaluation from the likes of Jimmy Johnson – came away with key championship pieces such as Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, and others.

So all in all, Ainge either wins his trade with Brooklyn, or he – geez, I don’t know – conquers? Whatever, he can’t lose that one.  He did something that many wanted him to do for the last few years (“blow up” the Celtics), and he did it about as well as anyone thought he could do.  And that’s why Celtics fans, and even some media members like Mannix, can’t seem to control their emotions when evaluating the job Ainge has done the past few months.


But the best point that Mannix brought up in his segment was something that he mentioned in passing: It’s easy to tear a team down; it’s hard to build a team up.  I mean, just go ask Joe Dumars.  Once considered the beacon of NBA GMs for methodically putting together the mid-2000s Pistons (one championship and six straight Conference Finals appearances) – he has since never come close to building a halfway respectable team.

Credit Ainge.  He made the right decision to break up the Celtics, and made an even better decision in remaining patient to do so.  He did not do it at first whim as some suggested he do.  As much credit as Ainge is getting right now for the last few deals he has made, not enough credit has been given to him for how patient he was over the last few years.

If you recall, many of the Firesale Fanatics and realGMers were writing 4,000 word columns back as early as February of 2010 in trading Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett for expiring contracts, non-prospects, and fringe first round picks.  All in the name of the ridiculous fallacy of “you need to deliberately get bad in the NBA to get good.”

Instead, the Celtics were able to nearly squeeze another championship or two out of the core, as they still had many deep playoff runs left in them (had they made some better veteran free agent signings, they might have been able to get that second or third title.)

But more importantly, the winning culture was even further ingrained in the franchise.

That’s not to say Ainge himself wasn’t looking to move some of those guys as early back as 2010 – he was.  But the real credit to Ainge should go for his patience.  Rather than just throwing his hands up in the air and saying “Well, it’s doubtful we’ll win another championship with this group.  Firesale time!” – he never wavered.  He never gave in.  He never traded his core until he got what they were appropriately worth.

It was not until the summer of 2013 when that right deal came along.  And oh, what a deal it was, and will turn out to be.

But now it’s time to build the Celtics back up, and Ainge knows that.

The deal with Brooklyn, where the Celtics took such advantage of the Nets, puts the Celtics ahead of the curve.  With it being likely that the Nets will send the Celtics at least one lottery pick in the coming years, Boston is going to be getting far more than they originally expected.

Therefore the Celtics’ timeframe in which they are expected to compete again is sooner than they realized.  So now what do they do?

Well, one can’t look any further than Gerald Wallace.  When they took on Wallace’s utterly absurd thirty million dollars remaining on his contract, it wasn’t expected to be all too burdensome (besides to the owners’ wallets) because there were only three years left on the deal.  Boston was expected to be in the abyss for at least all three of those years as they would be in the early stages of a rebuild, and therefore an unattractive place for major free agents.

However, as stated, it looks as if Boston can get out of the pits by as early as the summer of 2015 (with Wallace having still a year to go on his deal.)  And with Gerald’s consistent outbursts, which are nothing more than indirect vents about his lack of playing time (it has nothing to do with the team’s wins and losses as he makes it out to be) – he has proven to be utterly poisonous to a young and fragile roster.  Quite simply, Wallace has no place on a rebuilding team.

Quick caveat: The original deal with Brooklyn was supposed to be Paul Pierce for Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and a first round draft choice.  It was only expanded to include Wallace because he was necessary to match salary once Garnett was included in the deal (one first rounder for Pierce, one first rounder for Garnett, the right to swap in 2017 to make up for getting the worst of Atlanta and Brooklyn’s pick this year, and the Nets sending another first rounder to take on Wallace’s contract.)  But even THAT would have been a good deal as Humphries has proven to actually be the best player in the whole trade.  And as stated, squeezing first round picks out of teams has become utterly impossible.  Good Lord, as Magic Insider Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel said on Celtics Beat – Orlando can’t even get a first rounder for Arron Afflalo!

The most important aspect however, is establishing and maintaining a serious culture despite the team likely to continue to pile up the losses over the next year-and-a-half.  (So, the Celtics simply cannot have the aforementioned Wallace and Bogans, as well as Courtney Lee, and whomever complaining about playing time to the media.)

This includes bringing in the right kinds of players who strive to achieve such a culture, and are positive influences amongst their peers in the locker room.

Such an example would be the Pacers signing David West right after the lockout ended in the winter of 2011.  While the development of players such as Paul George has been the primary reason for the Pacers’ ascension – his development was that much smoother as it was done so in a winning environment, on a team surrounded by veterans striving to win every basketball game they played and to make the post-season.  All despite having “no chance” to win an NBA championship in years such as 2011 and 2012.   Pacers President Larry Bird has stated that West is one of the primary reasons and influences for their culture.

So where does Ainge get these types of players?

Much to the chagrin of fans and media members alike – you have to overpay for them if you are to sign them as free agents.  To state the obvious: what free agent is going to choose to play for Boston while they are out of the championship picture? And to state the obvious once again: You also have to make sure they’re the right guys and they come with the goods, (hey, West is a free agent this summer!)

Also, Ainge can look at his own roster.  Are Brandon Bass or Kris Humphries any one of these types of players? I’m not entirely sure as I’m just here writing columns and not actually around the team daily.  But Bass and Humphries’ younger teammates have said numerous times the kind of positive influences they are.  So maybe keeping these guys around won’t be such a bad idea after all.  That is, if they truly are the kinds of teammates they’re said to be (again, I’m going along with what I’ve heard.)

At the very least, Ainge can’t just give either one of them away as the Celts approach the trade deadline.  That’s not to say that if Ainge can’t get something of true value for Bass or Humphries, he should pass.  He won’t.  We know that.

But to do something along the lines of what noted Firesale Fanatic Elrod Enchilada of realGM suggests – which is trading Kris Humphries along with others for conditional second round draft picks all in the name of “he won’t be here when the team is competing again” and “it would open up more playing time for the kids” – doing so would be detrimental to the rebuilding of the organization.  Such would be the same mistake Rick Pitino made when he let key veteran players David Wesley and Rick Fox walk for nothing.  Yes, all in the name of “they won’t be here when the team is competing again” and “we need to open up playing time for the kids.” (And oh yeah, so the Celtics could use their cap room to sign ‘young talent’ like Chris Mills and Travis Knight!)

However, as Ainge proved with how he handled Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – he WON’T move valuable pieces for anything less than what they are worth.  I mean, the same reason as to why rebuilding-Orlando isn’t giving away Arron Afflalo even though he’s “blocking the playing time of the kids.”  So Elrod Enchilada and the rest of the Firesale Fanatics can back away from the Trade Machine.


And of course, lastly, Ainge has to use the plethora of draft selections wisely (no explanation needed) and manage the salary cap correctly (DUH!)

While Ainge has to find a way to cut the cords with both Wallace and fellow overpaid swingman Jeff Green – that becomes easier with each passing day (and even having the luxury of tossing in one of the Celts’ many assets to find a taker.)

But what Ainge can’t do is commit to the wrong guys.  Once again, to state the obvious (something this writer hates doing – I’d like to think my readers have a few shreds of intelligence): He can’t pull a Joe Dumars (who allotted huge salary slots to the likes of Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, and Josh Smith over the years.)

That’s why the talk of the Celtics and Rajon Rondo wanting to extend their marriage should make anyone a little wary.

Personally, I don’t think Rondo can be a main piece on a contender.  I’ve written enough about it.

Back in those columns, both written in 2012, in short, I felt that Rondo couldn’t help the Celtics in any three of the most important areas necessary that is needed to win a championship: Defense, rebounding, and end-of-game execution.  For star players, I’d like them to at least do two of these three things very well.

Rondo can’t even do one.  Worse, as mentioned in said previous columns – Rondo has been horrible throughout his career at the end of close games.  What kind of go-to-guy is that?

Most importantly, I was concerned with how effective Rondo would be as he approached 30 and beyond.  Here’s what I wrote back in April of 2012:

Here’s where the trouble lies ahead. A player’s athletic prime is usually his early to mid 20s. Once he gets to his late 20s, even past the age of 26-27, their athletic capabilities begin to decline. You hear a lot how “Rondo is a 26 year old point guard who is just coming into his prime.” But I am a firm believer that Rondo is in his prime now and has been for quite some time. Why? Because much of what Rondo does is highly attributed to his athleticism – getting to the basket, running fast breaks, finishing around the rim, playing defense (when he wants to.) When some of that athleticism starts to go, and it will likely go soon, Rondo’s ability to blow by his defender off the dribble or outrun everyone down the court dwindles. And there are serious questions of how effective Rondo would be with diminished athleticism. There'd be fewer questions had he been able to add to his game over the years more. Had he done so – had he added that jump shot, he’d be able to keep defenses honest as he approaches his thirties. But he hasn’t, and this is great cause for concern as more and more time goes by.  

The eye test alone this season has made me question whether Rondo may already be playing at his absolute peak as a player. Just on his finishing ability alone, I started to begin wondering – you know, what happened to it? Rondo can still finish around the rim. He hasn’t gone Antoine Walker on us, yet. But this used to be a great strength for Rondo, as most Celtics fans remember those spin shots Rondo used to put high off the backboard whenever he got into the lane during the 2010 playoffs that used to go in with regularity (I saw one of these on Sunday as a matter of fact.) Sure enough, the statistics show it as well. His FG% around from shots around the basket has dropped from 64.4% to 57.4%. That’s seven full points. Rondo also has not had one ‘dunk’ all season. In 2010, 2% of his shot attempts were dunks, and he never missed one. Now he hasn’t even attempted a dunk all season. It really does make you think.

And this was, uh, BEFORE he tore his ACL.  An injury which is being so peculiarly dismissed because for whatever reason, it’s presumed that he’ll work his way back and regain the physical abilities he once had (which makes even less sense because natural athleticism usually starts to go as one approaches 30.)

Quick caveat: While plenty of NFL players have brushed off the ACL injury and returned to form, (I mean good God, Jerry Rice tore his ACL and MCL in Week 1 of the ’97 season – then returned at the tail end of that season and caught a touchdown in his first game back) – NBA players have had far, far less success doing so.  Just recently alone, as Derrick Rose and Danilo Gallinari have returned from ACL injuries – they’ve only gone on to sustain other injuries that are currently sidelining both indefinitely.

For NBA players, especially guards like Rondo, it is all in their first step and beating their guys off the dribble.  Basketball is a game of inches, and once they lose a lick of their quickness and that ability to get by their initial defender, it makes all the difference in the world.

But even Ainge himself has insinuated that going through an ACL injury is like a young child having to deal with the chicken pox stage:

"What I’ve seen throughout my professional basketball career is that the ACL injury is something that every player has to overcome and coming back mentally, not just physically. I anticipate some adjustments and just getting used to playing and feeling confident and returning to the player that he was. And I think he will get there, and I don’t know how long it will take, if that means a week or a month or what. He has to get back out on the court and he has to try it, and now is as good a time as any."

Hey, all I’m saying is Ainge better be careful.  Or else all the good he’s done in these last eight months could all be for naught.  All it takes is one crippling max contract to bastardize the franchise and prevent the team from ever returning to glory in the near future.  Just ask Joe Dumars, and our good friends from New York who sold their souls to Amare Stoudemire and five more seasons of perpetual mediocrity ensued.


So as the trade deadline comes and goes, and the Celtics likely make another move or two that will seem aimed at the future – the rave reviews from the Chris Mannixes of the world will keep coming in.  And if the deals are as good as the Brooklyn deal over the summer, replacing Doc Rivers with Brad Stevens (and getting a first rounder from the Los Angeles Clippers out of it), and even the ever-so-minor Jordan Crawford trade – then the good press would be deserved.

But all this writer is saying is that some perspective must be realized here.  As stated, a GM is almost in a no-lose situation for at least two years when they are tearing a team down.  The so-called ‘intelligent’ NBA fan wants it done, and they’ll almost always applaud every transaction that is dedicated to this cause because it will be perceived as “the best they could have done anyways.”

When Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett return to Boston tomorrow evening, it will once again serve as another reminder and give ample opportunity to shower the Boston Celtics’ ‘decider’ with praise.

But remember, as good of a job as Ainge has done, it’s still the easy part.

The hard part is fast approaching.

Larry H. Russell

Author of Fall of the Boston Celtics: How Bad Luck, Bad Decisions Brought the Mighty Celtics Empire to Its Knees and Ushered in the Dark Ages.  Senior editor and featured columnist for CLNS Radio. Executive Producer + Host of: Celtics Beat Podcast & Boston Celtics Pregame w/ LHR.  E-mail: larryrussell86@gmail.com