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.
Former Boston Celtics legend Bill Sharman passed away Friday at the age of 87. Sharman, a native of Texas who attended the University of Southern California, was a key figure in the Celtics first dynasty playing 10 seasons and winning 4 titles with the team before retiring after the 1961 season. As a player he teamed with another Celitcs legend, Bob Cousy and his deadeye shooting was the perfect complement to Cousy's playmaking wizardry.
Perhaps most interestingly, Sharman also owns a significant place in the history of the NBA's other marquee franchise and Celtics rivals; the Los Angeles Lakers. After his playing days, Sharman moved into coaching with the San Francisco Warriors, the LA/Utah Stars of the ABA, and finally the Lakers. He coached the Lakers for six seasons before moving on to the front office.
Sharman is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. As a coach, he is credited with establishing the "morning shootaround" as a part of the NBA routine.
Join hosts Rich Conte and Brian Langford on CLNS Radio's Celtics Beat Saturday 10/26 as they discuss the Celtics preseason and looking forward to opening night. Rich and Brian will be joined by Celtics historian Mark Bodanza, author of "Make it Count"; the biography of former Celtics great Jo Jo White.
Call in to listen at 347.215.7771 or check it out via streaming audio at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/clnsradio/2013/10/26/clns-celtics-beat-with-rich-conte--1026
Part III of a three-part series
In the first two parts of this three-part season preview, I discussed the impact of the Celtics’ offseason moves and identified some things for fans to look for in the season ahead. In this final installment, I’ll point out some specific games worth keeping your eye on.
Over the past six years, the Celtics have played what seems like a full seasons’ worth of big games. This year it’s not likely that team will be involved many season-defining or playoff-altering matchups. However, here are ten games that could represent meaningful benchmarks or hold some symbolic significance.
Wednesday, October 30 @ Toronto
Opening Night! The Celtics square off against the Raptors in a game north of the border that officially marks the beginning of the Brad Stevens era. Less than two weeks away, it is still unclear what the starting lineup will be but it is certain that injured point guard Rajon Rondo won’t be part of it. While it’s unlikely that the team we see at the end of this season will bear much resemblance to what we see opening night, these first impressions will set the tone for the early part of the schedule.
Monday, November 25 @ Charlotte
The Celtics will be facing Michael Jordan’s Bobcats in the last game of a 6 game in 10 night stretch with 5 of the 6 on the road. This is the type of game that tests even a veteran squad’s resolve and it will be interesting to see how the young Celtics respond. It will say a lot about what to expect from a Brad Stevens team if the they can maintain focus and effort in situations like this.
Tuesday, December 3vs. Milwaukee in Boston
This game could feature the return of Rajon Rondo from last season’s devastating ACL injury. It will be difficult to get a true read on the ultimate destiny of the 2013-2014 Celtics, until Rondo is back manning the point at full speed. It is too much to expect a return to all-star form right out the game but the sight of the Celtics’ best player back in the Green will be a welcome one.
Wednesday, December 11 vs. the LA Clippers in Boston
Former head coach Doc Rivers returns to Boston for the first time since his defection to the west coast. He brings a stacked Clippers squad into the Garden to face the team he quit on last June. It’s anyone’s guess what kind of reception he gets from Celtics fans when the starting lineups are introduced.
Friday, December 13 vs. the NY Knicks in Boston
This game marks Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks’ first visit to Boston since last spring’s first round playoff matchup. That series ended in six games after the Knicks withstood a furious fourth quarter comeback to close out the Celtics. Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, the architects of that 20-0 run, will be looking to prove that display was a glimpse of the future rather than the last gasp of the Celtics’ Big Three past.
Saturday, January 11 @ Portland
The Celtics visit the Rose Garden in the last game of a six games in eight nights western swing. Extended west coast trips have a way of either galvanizing, or compromising, the unity of a team. This game will be a good checkpoint on the progress that Coach Brad Stevens has made in establishing the right type of culture for the rebuilding franchise.
Friday, January 17 vs the LA Lakers in Boston
The NBA’s two marquee franchises are both undergoing reconstruction. The Lakers could have Kobe Bryant back in time for this matchup but are still expected, like the Celtics, to be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. This game should provide a fascinating comparison of where each team is in the process of returning to prominence.
Sunday, January 26 vs Brooklyn in Boston
Most fans already have this game circled on their calendars. The second of four matchups between the teams this season, it marks the return of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Garden. Fans will no doubt show their love and appreciation for the veterans that led the Celtics to banner number 17. It will be an emotional night for everyone, even if the game itself is an afterthought.
Wednesday, March 19 vs Miami in Boston
Lebron James comes to Boston to face the franchise that was once the benchmark that he fought to reach and the obstacle he needed to overcome. Back to back championships have flipped the script and now the Celtics must look at the Heat as their aspirational goal. Certainly the Celtics will have a long way to go to reach that goal by the time this game rolls around, but it will serve as a good reference point for just how long that journey might be.
Wednesday, April 16 vs Washington in Boston
The curtain comes down on the 2013-2014 season with a home game against a Washington Wizards team expected to contend for an Eastern Conference playoff spot this season. Will the Celtics similarly be fighting for a spot in the playoffs or will they be counting ping-pong balls? What will the roster look like at this point? How many of the young players will have established themselves by seasons end? Whatever the questions are coming into this season; we’ll get our answers.
Part II of a three part series
Part I of this series focused on the Celtics’ tumultuous offseason and the resulting uncertainty facing the franchise this upcoming season. In Part II of this three part series, I’ll speculate on;
· What we should count on seeing
· What we should hope to see
· What we should hope we don’t see
from the 2013-14 Celtics.
What we should count on seeing
This summer saw the departure of three constants that Celtics fans had come to rely on over the past half-dozen years; Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce. Gone with them are the competitiveness, consistency, and certainty that defined the franchise during the Big 3 era. So what can fans count on with these bellwethers now gone?
Rondo missing opening night
Until recently, there was some speculation that Rajon Rondo might complete his recovery from ACL surgery in time for the Celtics season opener on October 30th in Toronto. GM Danny Ainge put an end to that speculation and it remains an open question just how much Rondo will even be able to participate in training camp. The most recent estimate for his return is the beginning of December so the first time we might see the All-Star point guard is December 3rd against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Garden.
Brad Stevens becoming the face of the franchise
Once Rondo returns, there is little doubt he’ll be the on court leader of the Celtics; trying to fill the void left by Pierce and Garnett’s departure. However, it’s likely that it will be new head coach, Brad Stevens, not Rondo, that becomes the new face of the franchise. Ainge surprised the basketball world with the hire and the 6 year commitment the organization made to the young coach indicates Ainge and ownership expect quite a bit more from Stevens than a typical first-time head coach.
Jeff Green leading the team in field goal attempts
The 6-9 forward, oft-criticized for his lack of aggressiveness, appeared to finally come out of his shell late last season and into the playoffs. He showed the ability to create offense off the dribble, particularly going to his right, and to reliably hit the corner 3. Pierce, KG, and Jason Terry take nearly 35 shots per game with them to Brooklyn and Green is the clear candidate to replace many of those attempts.
A struggle to generate offense, particularly early in the season
The Celtics will be relying on Green to maintain his efficiency despite the increase in attempts he’ll see a result of the trade with Brooklyn. Even if he manages to do just that, the Celtics will struggle to find offense at times. Outside of Green, there is really no one that can consistently and reliably create efficient offense (note to Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks, I said ‘efficient’). Coach Brad Stevens’ proficiency with X’s and O’s will be tested as he seeks to devise ways to generate points.
A change in the defensive approach
The other end of the court was the engine of the Celtics’ success over the past six seasons. Stevens’ track record at Butler foreshadows a continued emphasis on defense. However, it’s very likely that the defensive scheme will change with the turnover in the coaching staff and the departure of Garnett; the defensive quarterback and rim-protector. With young athletic defenders like Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green as well as veteran defensive stalwart Gerald Wallace, it’s possible that the defense will become more aggressive on the perimeter. If a healthy Rondo returns to the disruptive defensive presence he showed early in his career, it could make the Celtics a truly fearsome perimeter defense.
Danny Ainge aggressively trying to upgrade
In Part 1 of this series, I presented the argument that GM Danny Ainge’s approach to rebuilding is less about hitting it big in the lottery and more about accumulating assets and maintaining the flexibility necessary to capitalize on opportunities in the trade market and free agency. The 10M+ trade exception acquired in the Nets deal and the stockpile of draft picks leave plenty to work with but the team also has several veterans; Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, and Brandon Bass, that probably don’t fit into the long-term vision for the roster but could be attractive to a contending team at the trade deadline. Expect the Celtics to figure prominently in the rumor mill. It’s likely that Rajon Rondo’s name will be part of that mix, but don’t expect him to be moved unless it brings back a player of equal or greater impact AND a more attractive contract.
Things we hope to see
The Celtics are a relatively young team and a team that went through substantial retooling in the offseason. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are some significant unknowns as they break camp. With the team unlikely to compete for a championship, success this season can probably best be measured by how many of these unknowns get resolved by season’s end.
Continuation of the culture established during the big 3 era
Call it Ubuntu. Call it Celtics Pride. However you want to label it, one of the highlights of being a Celtics fan the past six years was bearing witness to the teamwork, accountability and competitiveness that provided the foundation of the team’s success. Rebuilding the franchise becomes immeasurably harder if this culture has been lost. Acquiring talent in the NBA is the easiest part. Turning a collection of talented players into a winner is the hard part. Both Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have pointed to the need to preserve and propagate the culture established during the Big Three era. Hopefully players like Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Bass absorbed the valuable lessons they learned playing and practicing under the direction of Doc Rivers and alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Jeff Green improving on the boards and defensively
The Celtics are obviously counting heavily on Green to provide reliable and efficient offense, but if he is going to truly establish himself as a focal point for the franchise going forward, he is going to have to provide more than just points. He showed flashes of ability to guard high-scoring forwards one-on-one during the second half of last season and needs to provide that type of defense on a nightly basis. It would also help if he can provide a consistent presence on the boards. Again, he’s shown flashes of ability to be a dangerous offensive rebounder but needs to contribute on both the offensive AND defensive boards.
A rebound year from Courtney Lee
Speaking of rebounding; guard Courtney Lee suffered through a disappointing first season as a Celtic and is looking to bounce back this season. Lee never found a comfortable spot in the Celtics rotation or offense last season and is looking for a fresh start. If coach Brad Stevens’ desire to play up-tempo comes to pass, that should benefit Lee greatly. If he can reestablish himself as a quality 2 guard he can carve a spot for himself in the Celtics’ rebuilding plans or make himself an attractive February trade target for a contender.
Kelly Olynyk proving he can play down low
First round draft pick Kelly Olynyk had an outstanding summer league in Orlando this July. He showed a solid three-point stroke, deft moves in the post, and a willingness to mix it up under the basket. Questions remain about his ability to hold up against NBA-quality big men once the regular season is underway. His best position long-term will likely be at the power forward filling the “stretch 4” role that is so coveted these days. However, if he can demonstrate that he’s capable of giving the team solid minutes both offensively and defensively at the center spot, his long-term potential becomes even more enticing.
Vitor Faverani and Phil Pressey proving they are NBA players
The Celtics bring two undrafted rookies to training camp this year; Brazilian center Vitor Faverani (El Hombre Indestructible) and former University of Missouri point guard Phil Pressey. Both of these unknown quantities have a great opportunity to earn playing time, mainly by virtue of the positions they play. If either or both can establish themselves as competent NBA reserves they become future pieces of the puzzle as well as create additional depth that make it easier to move a veteran in a deal to bring back more future assets.
Things not working out as planned for the Clippers and Nets
Celtics fans deeply appreciate what Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers did for the franchise during their times in Boston. Everyone agrees on that, right? So, it should follow that everyon will be wishing them well in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The future of the Celtics franchise would benefit from the former fan favorites not faring so well in the new homes. The Celtics are owed three first round picks from the Nets (2014, 2016, and 2018) along with the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017 and two first-rounders from the Clippers (2014 and 2016). As much talk as there is about the Celtics missing the playoffs and maximizing the value of their own pick in, there has been little attention paid to the potential that at least a few of those Nets and Clippers picks end up in the lottery. Picks at the top of the lottery are nice. They are even nicer when someone else does the “bottoming-out” for you. Certainly, it’s a longshot for either team to miss the playoffs this coming season, but anything can happen in the NBA. An unsuccessful season by Brooklyn would also raise the possibility of Pierce declining to resign with them when at the end of the season which would, in turn, set up a possible return to Boston.
Things we hope we don’t see
Building a championship contender in the NBA isn’t easy. The risks only get magnified in a losing environment; players don’t develop as planned, individual agendas get in the way of what the team is trying to accomplish, and distractions become more difficult to avoid. Here are a few things that would represent setbacks along the way to restoring the Celtic franchise.
Rondo fundamentally changing his game
Rajon Rondo is a unique talent. As his stature as a player grew, his flaws received a great deal of attention, but his strengths undeniably drove much of the Celtics success over the past six seasons. His fundamentally unselfish style of play perfectly complemented the team’s commitment to equal opportunity offense. With the departures of Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry, the conventional wisdom is that Rondo will compensate by being more aggressive looking for his own offense. However, it would be a mistake for Rondo to intentionally alter the basic nature of his game. His greatest opportunity to establish himself as a leader on the court is to continue to focus on his strengths and ensure that the team remains committed to sharing the ball through this transition period. It is probably a foregone conclusion that his points per game will go up but hopefully that’s just the organic result of more opportunities and a more up-tempo offense.
Avery Bradley’s development stagnating
Last season was a mixed bag for 4th year guard Avery Bradley. He was coming off a season where he established himself as an NBA player and had everyone, including the coaching staff, excited about the impact he can have on defense and hopeful that he could bring enough to the table offensively to be more than just a specialist. Upon returning from offseason shoulder surgery, his defensive prowess and persistence paid early dividends but over the course of the season, the increased responsibility placed on him once Rondo went down eventually took its toll. This toll peaked in the playoffs as he struggled to get anything going offensively when asked to assume the lead guard role and the struggles carried over defensively. These issues created doubt as to whether he can be a viable starter on a championship level team. His role in the failed comeback during the second half of the decisive Game 6 against the Knicks offers some hope going into this season that last season was temporary setback in his development rather than a permanent plateau. During that frantic run, a light bulb seemed to go off for Bradley as he recognized that he couldn’t wait for the veterans to make a play and instead had to force the action himself. The Celtics’ rebuilding effort will take a serious hit if that experience doesn’t kick-start his development this season.
More off-court troubles for Jared Sullinger
Former first-round pick, Jared Sullinger exceeded most everyone’s expectations last year, despite the inevitable back surgery that cost him nearly half the season. His ability to rebound and score with his back to the basket weren’t complete surprises, but his play on the defensive end was a revelation. He also demonstrated a maturity and commitment to the team culture and positioned himself as a future leader. However, a messy domestic violence situation over the summer compromised the positive impressions and raised questions about his character and ability to function as a leader. Since the incident he has said all the right things and appears committed to being a positive force, but any future issues could be problematic for his future as a Celtic.
“Me-first” players like Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks destroying team chemistry
Keeping a team aligned and focused on a common goal is easy when you’re winning and players have well-established roles. Teams that are trying to carve out an identity and learning how to win are susceptible to the destructive impact of individual agendas. This issue is particularly acute when it comes to players that perceive themselves to be scorers. Their identities are tightly coupled to their ability to put the ball in the basket and unless they are given some other focus (i.e. successfully contributing to the team success) they are prone to lapsing into selfish play. This is true of even more experienced and established players (see Anthony, Carmelo NYK Forward) and it is especially problematic for younger players. The Celtics have two such players currently on the roster; Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks and the fact that they are competing with each other for the same pool of available minutes only increases the risk. This type of behavior, on a team that vacuum of leadership, can become infectious. Keeping these two players working within the confines of the team structure and hopefully developing at least one of them into a reliable NBA contributor will be one of Brad Stevens biggest challenges in his first year on the job.
A completely lost season
Expectations for the Celtics this season have been lowered significantly. Everyone, including most of the players as well as coaching and management, agrees that it is unlikely that they will still be playing as summer 2014 approaches. That said, there are plenty of potential positive developments that can serve as the basis of a successful season. Perhaps the most significant is the team’s ability to maintain a competitive spirit and disciplined, accountable approach throughout what will be a difficult season in many respects. Giving in and accepting the inevitable losses, even if it means a lottery pick, would have to be considered a failure.
In Part III of the series, I’ll take a look at specific games on the 2013-14 slate that might represent benchmarks or take on some special significance.
Celtics Beat kicks off the 2013-14 Season
Join hosts Rich Conte and Adam Lowenstein on Celtics Beat as they take a look at the upcoming season and welcome guest Evan Abrams who will share Vegas' take on the Celtics and the NBA in 2013-14.
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.
Join host Rich Conte for CLNS Radio's Celtics Beat Sunday July 17th at 6pm. Rich will be joined by special guest Dr. Andre Snellings, direct from the Las Vegas Summer League. Rich and Andre will be talking about Summer League action, the continuing evolution of the Celtics roster and what Celtics fans might expect to see next season on the parquet.
Listen to the show via live streaming audio or call in to talk to me and offer your insights and opinions at (347) 215-7771.
Join hosts Rich Conte and Jon Lemons today at 6pm for a special Father's Day episode of Celtics Beat. We'll be discussing the ongoing Doc Rivers saga and the latest developments in a potential deal with the LA Clippers that would send both Doc and Kevin Garnett to LA. We'll also talk NBA Draft and the NBA Finals and take calls from listeners that want to chime in.
You can listen to the show at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/clnsradio/2013/06/16/clns-celtics-beat-with-rich-conte--616 or call in at (347) 215-7771.
Where there’s Donald Sterling there’s smoke but no fire
CLNSRadio’s Nick Gelso just wrote a great piece about the ongoing Doc Rivers saga. If you haven’t yet checked it out, it’s a great read. My attitude towards the rumors, innuendo, and general teeth-gnashing and wailing has been to not let myself get too worked up about the situation. The reality is that no one other than Doc himself and maybe Danny Ainge, has much of an idea of what is really going on and how it will play out. Everyone else, especially the media and their unnamed sources, is either just guessing, creating drama to earn their paycheck, or worse, trying to influence the situation to their ends.
Nick’s piece resonated with me and got me thinking a little bit more concretely about the three potential outcomes that have emerged:
· Doc and likely Pierce and Garnett return for another season
· Doc decides he’s either worn out his welcome in Boston and/or needs a break and goes back to the broadcast booth
· The Celtics and Clippers work out an incredibly complex series of transactions that land Doc, Pierce, and KG in LA
I list these in that order intentionally. While that last outcome is understandably getting most of the attention, it’s hard to make an argument that it’s not the least likely – by a long shot.
First, the two teams have to agree on an equitable exchange of assets. This is harder than it might seem on the surface. Both sides probably value Doc pretty similarly. He’s one of the 3-5 most highly regarded head coaches in the league, has a proven track record, and players love playing for him. Problem is, there isn’t a lot of precedence for how to translate the value of a head coach into player assets and picks. As Ken Berger of CBS Sports points out, Doc has strong non-compete language in his contract and that would suggest that, from the Celtics point of view, significant compensation would be in order if they were to allow him to coach elsewhere. Do the Clippers see it that way?
Beyond Doc, the teams need to agree on the value of KG and Pierce or more accurately, they need to construct a deal that provides appropriate value to both teams. From the Celtics perspective, Pierce and Garnett bring value well beyond their contributions on the court and given that Pierce’s deal (assuming his option is picked up) runs out after next season, and KG (if he indeed does decide to come back) will likely retire at the same time, they don’t represent long-term financial commitments. The names that have been thrown around are some combination of Caron Butler, Deandre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and a couple of first round picks.
Second, the teams need to structure a deal, or more likely, a series of deals that work under the CBA. ESPN.com’s Larry Coon does a great job of explaining why, even if the teams manage to agree on an exchange, structuring it will be a complicated endeavor. There has also been talk of the Celtics jettisoning Courtney Lee or Jason Terry’s contracts in the deal. If Ainge is adamant on shedding additional salary it makes the scenario even more complex.
Third, the deal will involve the owners of the two franchises. On the Celtics side, while Danny Ainge is the one who would be aiming the gun, Wyc Grousbeck would be the one pulling the trigger on a deal like this. Wyc has proven to be a respectful and thoughtful caretaker of the Celtic legacy and guardian of the team’s future. He has openly expressed appreciation for Pierce and Garnett’s place in the franchise’s history and is on record as saying he hopes Pierce retires as a Celtic.
It would also be interesting to understand Wyc’s perspective on what a deal such as this would mean to the Celtics future. Even in a dream scenario where the Clippers are willing to send Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, Caron Butler and Bledsoe (along with a couple of picks) in exchange for Doc, Pierce, KG and say Jason Terry, does that make the C’s ‘contenders’? They would basically become last year’s Clippers with a downgrade at point guard from Chris Paul to Rajon Rondo. That Clippers team made it exactly as far as last year’s Celtics without Rondo – a first-round exit. Sure, the Celtics would have a couple of extra first round picks but they would likely be mid first-rounders at best. The Celtics would be capped out for the next 3-4 years with very little opportunity to add complementary pieces to the new core. Is that worth the hit to the franchise’s legacy and the disruption of the culture of accountability, teamwork and hard-nosed defense that has been built over the past half-decade?
Donald Sterling would be involved on the Clippers’ side. That might be the single biggest impediment to a deal happening. It is hard to see Sterling appreciating the full value of Doc, KG and Pierce and signing off on a deal that probably won’t be very marketable or financially beneficial. It is even harder to see him agreeing to pay Doc Rivers’ current price tag of $7M/season, especially when he can simply hire Lionel Hollins for $2M/year and get some favorable press, for a change, for making that decision.
If a deal does happen, Celtics fans will move on and embrace a new era for the franchise while still appreciating the experience of watching Doc, Pierce and KG in Green.
If it doesn’t happen, there will surely be some moaning about a ‘missed opportunity’ or how ‘being mediocre is worse than being in the lottery’. Don’t buy that nonsense. If the Celtics bring back the band (with a minor deal or two and the #16 pick), the emerging core of Rondo, Green, Sullinger and Bradley will get the benefit of another year of experience alongside Pierce and KG. The following offseason, they will be flush with cap room and the flexibility to make a significant deal if the opportunity is there.
One last thing to think about until the dust settles – Chris Paul is a free agent. It is probably useful to think back to how he ended up in LA and consider that the Clippers are desperate to ensure he stays there. Is it possible that the sources of these rumors have a vested interest in creating the impression that the Clippers are trying to do whatever it takes to put the right pieces around him? Only World Wide Wes knows THAT for sure.
BREAKING NEWS – Lebron fouls out of a playoff game
In what might very well be the most shocking development in recent NBA history, Lebron James fouled out with just less than a minutes left in last night’s Heat-Pacers Game 4. The foul that earned Lebron a seat on the bench was called on an illegal screen. It was a call that might have been ignored earlier in the game (especially since it was perpetrated by the reigning MVP) but it was the correct call and had to be made in that situation. The defender, Lance Stephenson, lost his balance fighting through the screen, which created a big advantage for the Heat at a critical juncture. Lebron probably had an argument on a couple of earlier fouls he picked up and, as expected, complained after the game.
Welcome to the NBA Lebron! You just experienced how every other player in the NBA (except for perhaps your equally pampered teammate Dwayne Wade and maybe Kobe Bryant) gets treated on a game-by-game basis.
It is worth considering that James brought the situation upon himself with his comments between Games 3 and 4 on the subject of flopping. NBA referees, among professional sports officials, are singled out for their seeming awareness of the league’s marketing concerns and willingness to apply their whistles accordingly. On the other hand they are, along with MLB umpires, the most visible and recognizable officials in professional sports. That recognition understandably brings with it a heightened sensitivity to being publicly called out or shown up by players and that’s just what Lebron did by claiming that his (and his teammates’) attempts to deceive the referees and make them look foolish is just part of the game.
Speaking of Lebron….
The other significant storyline to emerge from last night’s game is the woeful 17-51 shooting by James’ supporting cast (minus Udonis Haslem and Norris Cole who combined to go 5-8). Lebron had a decent, if unspectacular game, and as usual escaped any post-game criticism. Since the Finals debacle against the Mavericks in 2011, whenever the Heat lose, the focus is whether the players around James did their jobs well enough. The operating assumption is that Lebron’s overall dominance, passing skills and “unselfishness” makes life easier for the players around him and thus if those players don’t perform then he must not be getting the help he needs to succeed.
Unselfishness in the NBA is an interesting concept. Typically, high assist numbers and the ability and willingness to pass effectively are considered markers of unselfishness in a player. Certainly, that willingness to sacrifice your own point totals is, all else being equal, a desirable trait in a player of Lebron’s stature. However, there is a subtlety to the concept of unselfishness that is often overlooked. What is ultimately driving that unselfishness for a particular player and what impact does this motivation have on teammates?
The unselfishness of players like Russell, Magic, and Bird was an extension of their all-consuming competitiveness and their innate basketball IQ. These guys all inherently understood that the likelihood of winning was enhanced when every member of the team understood their role and was put in the position to perform that role as effectively as possible. Further, they understood that their own individual abilities gave them the capacity, and the responsibility, to ensure that these teammates were put into that position. They were unselfish because it gave them the best chance to win and winning was the only thing that mattered.
There is considerable evidence that Lebron is motivated by vanity more than competitiveness. Sure, he wants to win, but winning itself isn’t the goal, it’s the vehicle to getting the acclaim he feels entitled to. It’s a chore for him; one of the tasks he has to endure on his way to becoming a “global icon”. Similarly, his unselfishness is motivated by vanity. He recognizes that “making the players around you better” is a necessary component to the legacy he wants for himself and, like winning, it’s another chore.
Does this distinction matter? Maybe, maybe not. There is mounting evidence that, like Wilt Chamberlain before him, Lebron’s passing skills and assist numbers don’t actually translate into making other players around him better. James is in a position where he is surrounded by two other top-tier talents as well as a cast of effective role-players. If he fails to win another championship, particularly after the season that the Heat had and the numerous breaks they have gotten this postseason (no Derrick Rose, no Rajon Rondo, no Russell Westbrook, no Kobe), is it time for the national media to start questioning why, despite his individual greatness, Lebron never seems to have enough help?
Speaking of what happens if the Heat don’t win it all….
There is still a long ways to go before the 2013 NBA Championship is determined. The Heat are still in the drivers seat in the Eastern Conference Finals and if they advance, will likely be considered the favorite in a Finals matchup with Spurs. However, at this stage, the road has proven to be more difficult than many expected at the outset of the playoffs. If the Heat do fall to the Pacers or reach the Finals only to lose to the Spurs, how does that change the perception of the Heat and James’ place in recent NBA history?
Heading into the playoffs, the conventional narrative was that the Heat, and James, got over the proverbial hump when they defeated Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to secure the 2012 NBA Championship. Their terrific regular season, particularly the tremendous second-half performance further underscored the idea that the dynasty had been launched and Lebron was on the way to getting his “not one…not two…not three…” etc.
That narrative gets turned on its head if we’re looking back a month from now at a second playoff meltdown in three years. 2012 will no longer be looked at as the year King James put it together and started his dynastic reign. It will be rightfully be seen as the year that the Heat backed into a title by virtue of not having to face Derrick Rose and the Bulls and instead, drawing a beaten up Celtics team in the Conference Finals and a happy-to-be-there Thunder squad in the Finals. It will cast Lebron’s legacy back into question. Unless, that is, World Wide Wes and the national media find a way to spin the failure to James’ advantage.
Speaking of the Conference Finals teams…
It is interesting to look at the crossroads the Boston Celtics are facing this offseason in light of the composition of the teams participating in the Conference Finals. Looking at the 37 rotation players for those four teams and how they were acquired:
· 15 were free agent signings of some form or another
· 10 were acquired by trade
· 5 were drafted in the lottery by their current team
· 5 were drafted in the mid-late first round by their current team
· 2 were drafted in the second round by their current team
This pokes a pretty serious hole in the “its better to be terrible than mediocre” argument used by the “blow it up” crowd. These teams weren’t built on lottery appearances. Four of the five lottery picks; Duncan, Wade, Conley, and George (Hansbrough is the fifth) are certainly significant factors in their teams’ success, but Duncan is hardly an argument for the value of dropping into the lottery. As Celtics fans are painfully aware, the Spurs appearance in the 1997 lottery was a fluke resulting from an injury that kept David Robinson out the previous season.
There are some names on the ‘acquired by trade’ list that are significant; Hibbert, Randolph, Gasol, Leonard, Hill, and it is natural to think that lottery picks or players of that talent level were involved in those trades, but that’s not the case. Even in the George Hill for Kawhi Leonard swap, Hill was a late first round draft pick and Leonard was the 15th pick.
The keys to building a championship caliber team are maintaining payroll and salary cap flexibility, taking advantage of opportunities that the draft and trade market present, and evaluating talent. Sacrificing competitiveness to land in the lottery does not translate into success.
Speaking of the Celtics offseason….
The twists and turns of the Boston Celtics offseason are beginning to resemble the plot of a romantic comedy. The future of the franchise and the NBA fates of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and Rajon Rondo, as well as head coach Doc Rivers and even President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge, are ensnared in a tangle of relationships. Outsiders with suspicious motives further complicate the mess with rumors and innuendo.
Danny Ainge is weighing the franchise’s loyalty to Paul Pierce against his value on the trade market and the potential cap room his $5M buyout might provide.
Kevin Garnett’s return is contingent on Pierce’s status, unless the bone spurs in his ankles don’t respond to rest.
Doc Rivers may be flinching at the reality of life after the Big Three and with the mercurial Rajon Rondo as his leader, while NBA media personalities like Stephen A. Smith fuel the doubts.
Rondo is recovering from season-ending surgery while Ainge fends off calls from other GMs hoping to get a bargain.
The uncertainty surrounding the composition of the team next season complicates the Celtics draft plans.
All of this will sort itself out over the next 4-6 weeks but it is safe to expect some measure of drama along the way.
Speaking of the Celtics draft plans…
Last week, the Celtics began holding pre-draft workouts to evaluate potential draftees. The collection of players they worked out were an interesting mix of point guards and centers and of projected first rounders and potential undrafted free agents.
Reports indicate the team brought in point guards Shane Larkin, Erick Green, Pierre Jackson, Peyton Siva, and Phil Pressey and centers Steven Adams, Jeff Withey, Gregory Echinique, and Colton Iverson (they also worked out shooting guards Ricky Ledo and Vander Blue). There is also a rumor suggesting that Danny Ainge has already made a promise to German point guard Dennis Schroeder to select him if he’s available when the Celtics pick at #16.
There is speculation that these workouts indicate that the team plans to move up or down in the draft and/or try to acquire a second-round pick (they traded away two second-rounders in this draft in the deal to acquire Courtney Lee). That speculation may very well come to pass, but there is a simpler potential explanation.
Point guard and center are clearly the team’s two biggest needs and with only one pick in the draft, it makes sense to compare the quality of players likely to be available when you pick against the quality of players at the same position that are likely to be available as undrafted free agents. If, for example, the drop-off in value between Adams and Iverson is greater than the drop-off between Larkin and Pressey, it makes sense to use the #16 pick on the center and try to add depth at point guard by signing an undrafted free agent.
The status of Pierce and Garnett also play into the equation. If they return, there would be more urgency to fill a hole in the rotation by drafting a big man or a backup point guard. If, on the other hand, one or both retire, Ainge would have greater freedom to select the player with the highest upside available regardless of position or their level of NBA readiness. Personally, I’d be happy if they were to come out of the draft with Schroeder or Adams, but both players may be out of their reach.