Looking For #17: How To Rebuild The Boston Celtics
The Celtics are floundering. There is no other way to put it. As Rick Pitino once infamously said, "Larry Bird isn't walking through the door". Though he couldn't have picked a worse platform, or way to phrase the message, the underlying point has some merit: the glory days are over. They have been for a long time, and trying to recreate them isn't going to get the team any closer to its 17th banner. Pitino was a douchebag, so I hate agreeing with him in any way, shape, or form, but the way I see it, we need to talk about how the Celtics can be a championship team in the next few years. It would be nice to harken back to the team's own championship days, but unfortunately, the modern-day Bob Cousy (Steve Nash) is playing in Phoenix, the poor -poor man's Bill Russell (Ben Wallace) just signed a four-year deal in Chicago, and while he may be an undersized forward, Ryan Gomes is never going to be the second coming on John Havlicek.
Back to the present now. Since Danny Ainge took over the front office in the spring of 2003, they have gone from being a sub-.500 playoff team, to a division winner (in basketball’s weakest bracket), and then to a sub-.500 lottery team. In some respects, Ainge has performed well; he has a very good draft record, and had done a respectable job acquiring “chips”. On the other hand, most of his “chips” were high school players who are still early on in the development process, and judging by Ainge’s past performance, they are years away from being molded into a contending team. Danny has also done a remarkable job of ridding the team of bad contracts, though to be fair, many of them were his own doing (notably Dan Dickau, Mark Blount, and Raef LaFrentz).
That being said, let me go on the record as saying that, I believe that, three years after his tenure began, Danny Ainge, despite improving the overall health of the franchise, still has yet to bring them closer to a position where they are nowhere close to being a contender. The problems outweigh the strengths in beantown. To summarize, here are the strengths I see:
A surplus of young talent, a handful of whom show the promise of being all-star quality players.
A superstar player in his prime who is happy to be in Boston, and wants to stay.
A general manager who has shown that he has an eye for identifying talented prospects in the draft.
A general manager who has done a good job of acquiring “assets”.
Now the problems:
There are more young players than there are minutes to go around. That stunts the development of the players due to insufficient playing time.
Some of the youngsters have stagnated in their development, notably Al Jefferson.
There is a lack of prime NBA talent to surround Paul Pierce with. The closest thing to a complimentary star is Wally Szczerbiak, a great shooter and team player who is playing on two wobbly knees and can’t contribute on defense.
A coach who has no concept of a rotation, team defense, and has a tendency to jerk his young players around.
A general manager who has a shaky record of acquiring, through free agency or trade, established NBA talent.
A general manager who has yet to demonstrate that he has any concept of how to assemble a team, not just a collection of “chips” or “assets” to put on the court.
I will explain what I see as the concept of team in the following section.
Building The Perfect Beast
Unless you are competing in a Yahoo! Fantasy League, there are more factors that go into assembling a team than just statistics and skill. You have to have a system that dictates what style of basketball your team will play, and then it is your responsibility to find players who fit your scheme, and will excel in it. You have to have players who compliment their teammates’ skills, and fulfill different roles. The successful teams of the past decade have all done this, and in the following chart, I will identify some trends in the types of players and roles they all created for their team.
The only successful team I can think of that doesn’t fit this formula well is the Detroit Pistons, mostly because their all-stars weren't true franchise players.
First, a description of each role:
Franchise Player - This one goes without saying. You need a top-flight player to build around, give the ball to in the final minutes, and provide leadership on the court. This phenomenal article explains in greater detail the need to have a superstar player or two on your club.
2nd All-Star, or Duo of Complimentary Stars - Successful teams either have a second all-star player, or two borderline all-stars whose skills complement the franchise player.
Big Man – You need a presence in the post.
Perimeter Defender – He doesn’t have to be Michael Cooper, but someone on your team better be able to frustrate the opposing team’s best scorer (most often a shooting guard or small forward), either limiting or shutting down his scoring.
Veteran Leader – Someone needs to show your team the ropes.
Floor General – Commonly the point guard, but it should be someone who can bring the ball up, and/or direct the offense. Many superstars (Bird, Jordan, Wade) who aren’t points fill this role.
Spark – Someone should be able to come off the bench and provide energy, and a scoring punch.
Some of these roles may overlap (notably stars/big man), but generally, this fills out most of your 8-man rotation. Here are some examples of teams from the past decade, and how these roles filled out.
Does this Celtics lineup look like a contender to you? More importantly, how many of them effectively fill their roles? Not many, in my opinion. I would say that they are okay with Pierce as their franchise player, so long as they fill the rest of the roles effectively. Tony Allen could be a great perimeter defender, but he plays Pierce’s best position (shooting guard), and as long as one of West, Telfair, or Rondo emerges as a good leader, they’ll be okay at the point (personally, though, I think Delonte is best suited for the Bobby Jackson role of combo guard off the bench).
In order to make the Celtics a championship contender, it will take a series of at least 3 or 4 moves. These may be optimistic, but here’s how I would go about rebuilding the Celtics. First, let’s examine the team as it stands and how I’d view their roles on the team, or as assets.
Head Coach Doc Rivers – He can be described, at best, as shaky. Not what you want out of a head coach. He’s good with the media, and upbeat, but I can’t see them ever winning a championship with him at the helm.
Paul Pierce, Swingman – He’s the franchise, and having just signed a three-year extension, isn’t going anywhere.
Wally Szczerbiak, Swingman – The Celtics picked up this sweet-shooting swingman in January, then promptly lost him for the rest of the year due to knee surgery. Aside from his shooting, he’s good at making the extra pass, and is a positive influence in the locker room. Beyond that, his defense is lacking, and he doesn’t bring much else to the table. He’s also due over $10 million a year for the next three years, which almost seems like a bargain considering what Peja Stojakovic got this summer. I would like to see the Celtics dump him for a big man or a 3 who can play good defense.
Theo Ratliff, Center – He came over in a draft-day deal, and is a definite improvement over the man he effectively replaces, Raef LaFrentz. Ratliff is injury prone, but when he’s on the court provides a strong defensive presence. His $11 mil a year contract also expires in the summer of 2008, making him a valuable trading chip sooner rather than later.
Kendrick Perkins, Center – He was drafted out of high school in 2003, and is finally starting to deliver on his promise. At 6’11, 280 pounds, he’s one of the few legitimate young centers in the league. While he needs to polish his game on both ends of the floor, and learn to stay out of foul trouble, he nonetheless should be in the starting lineup this year, and the Cs should hold on to him unless they can get a legitimate big man in return.
Al Jefferson, Power Forward – His (relatively) outstanding rookie season led to expectations that he would continue to develop at a fast pace, and could soon become the franchise forward they need to pair with Paul Pierce. Then his sophomore season was derailed due to poor conditioning, injury problems, and a corresponding plateau to his development. Now, we don’t know what to expect. He could rebound and reassert himself as a future all-star, or he could continue to be bothered by nagging injuries and a lack of motivation for the next few years. I’d deal him if we got a big man in return, but otherwise, you have to give him a chance to develop.
Ryan Gomes, Forward – He’s an undersized 4, and is working on becoming more of a 3. A classic tweener, he’s a good supporting player, and is the type of versatile guy that you want on your team. At worst, he’s good for 15-20 minutes a night off the bench; at best, he could start at the 4 on a running team, or as the 3 in a half-court oriented offense. He’s a keeper, unless a great offer comes along.
Brian Scalabrine, Forward – Aside from resembling your average bar patron in Southie, what does he bring to the table? Nothing. He should be traded at the first opportunity.
Gerald Green, Swingman – He’s explosive, has a great shot, and lacks any sense of how to play the game on the court. He could be the next T-Mac, or he could flame out. I think his downside is as a less crazy version of Ricky Davis, so I’d hold on to him unless we could get a superstar in return. Given that I hope to put a defender next to Pierce at the 3, I’m not sure that Green would rise above 6th man status so long as #34 is still producing.
Sebastien Telfair, Point Guard – If you read my draft coverage, you know how I feel about 5’11 point guards with no jumpshot. His allegedly superb court vision seems to be mitigated by the fact that he still turns the ball over like crazy (this problem continued to plague him in the summer league). He’s a competitor, which I like, but I think his streetball background will hold him back from being a true player in this league. My guess: he falls behind Rondo and West on the depth chart sooner rather than later. As you probably guessed, I wouldn’t hesitate to move him if I had the chance.
Delonte West, Combo Guard – Love this guy. He plays both guard positions, shoots the ball well, and does the little things to help the team succeed. I’d do everything I could to keep him, since you need guys like this on a championship team. However, I wouldn’t label him as untouchable, since I don’t think he’ll ever be anything more than the 4th option on a good team.
Rajon Rondo, Point Guard – I hated this pick on draft day. Hated it. Now, I’ve read enough rave reviews of his summer league performance to do a 360. I haven’t seen him play in the pros, but I already love this kid. Sure, he can’t shoot the ball, which will certainly come back to bite the Cs at some point, but how many point guards are good shooters these days? Plus, he’s a monster on the defensive end. I’m ready to upgrade his upside from “decent change of pace backup” to “Gary Payton, minus the shooting stroke”. Am I overhyping him? Maybe. But my guess is that he Wally Pipps Bassy sooner rather than later. He’ll probably be starting down the stretch for this team.
Tony Allen, Shooting Guard – He’s a tenacious defender, and a freak of an athlete. Unfortunately, he’s only 6’4, which limits him to one position, and he has an unfortunate tendency to run afoul of the law. While this team needs perimeter defense, I don’t think he’s reliable enough, and like I previously said, I prefer to see Pierce at the 2. I’d move him, but not to an Eastern Conference team, since I would not want to face him in a playoff series.
Brian Grant, Cap Fodder – That about sums it up.
Dwayne Jones, Center – He’s put up decent rebounding numbers when he’s had the chance to play. I’d keep him, since he still comes cheap, and centers are hard to find.
Leon Powe, Power Forward – He has a lot of upside, which hopefully a year or two in the D-League will flesh out.
Allan Ray, Guard – He played well in the summer league, but at 6’2, I wonder how effective he can be as a 2. You can’t play him with Telfair, but pairing him in a small-ball lineup with Rondo or West could be fun.
Kevin Pittsnogle – Forward/Center – Anyone who’s 6’10 and has three-point range deserves a look. Hopefully DJ and some time in the D-League can round out his game enough to make him a rotation player.
The First Step
Fire Doc Rivers, and hire a coach who knows how to employ a regular rotation, and give his young players an adequate chance at developing their skills and their confidence on the court. I’m not sure how many veteran coaches out there fit the bill, so I’d give serious thought to someone like Warriors assistant Mario Elie.
The Abboud plan calls for the Celtics to build a team that can run, play strong defense, and shoots the ball well. Here’s how they should go about doing it.
Step 1: Spend the mid-level exemption. August 16, 2006
Not necessarily because you need a body, but because you’re going to need salary to move to acquire the players you want. Though he says he’s deciding between the Nuggets, Wolves, and Cavs, it’s not too late to get in on the Reggie Evans sweepstakes. I’d offer him a 3-year, $13.5 million contract (which is more than other teams are offering), and slot him in as the starting power forward. It’s worth noting that counting this, and the undisclosed rookie salaries, we’d be pushing the luxury tax threshold of $66 million with our current lineup.
Step 2: Target a second franchise player. August 29, 2006
It has to be a big man. The guy I really want is Pau Gasol, but I don’t see Memphis moving him. They might consider it next summer or during the 2007-08 season if they fall out of contention, but I’m not willing to bank on that, and with Paul Pierce in his prime, time is of the essence. Jermaine O’Neal would be a prime target as well, but Indiana isn’t keen to move him. More importantly, the only way we’re going to get a franchise player is by offering multiple players and/or picks, and Indiana’s roster is already full – they have no need to add multiple players. That brings us to Kevin Garnett. Old Celtic Kevin McHale says KG’s not on the market, but it’s worth making overtures. He may think he has built a playoff team, but aside from free agent signee Mike James, it will be hard to find people who agree. Trading KG away would be bad PR for the franchise, but it’s the right thing to do. Sooner rather than later, KG might force the T-Wolves’ hand, therefore it’s in the team’s best interest to make a trade now, before they’re stuck accepting 40 cents on the dollar.
To make it work, I call up everyone’s favorite trading partner, Isiah Thomas. I know Isiah has coveted Wally Szczerbiak for some time, so if I can dangle him, in hopes of sending Jalen Rose’s expiring contract to Minnesota in return, we might have a deal. New York, like Minnesota, has a surplus of guards, but they’ll happily take on another if it means getting Wally World to MSG. All we ask in return is that they send us a young player, and then Minnesota will compensate them with a 2nd round pick for their efforts. So in order to add the pick, guard Troy Hudson, and Wally, they give up Jalen Rose’s expiring contract (to Minnesota) and first round draft pick Renaldo Balkman (to Boston). Despite investing a first round pick in him 6 weeks ago Balkman is now expendable with the signing of Jared Jeffries, who plays the same position, and has many of the same skills.
Now for the Timberwolves. Short of sending them another superstar, the most palatable combination we can offer is that of expiring contracts, young talent, and draft picks. Fortunately, we have an abundance of the latter two.
In order to make the salaries work, center Theo Ratliff and forward Brian Grant, acquired on draft night, will be send to Minnesota. Ratliff has two years left at around $11 mil per year, and will be an attractive trading chip next summer. Grant will retire, giving the Wolves minor cap relief. We will then send them two players, and a picks. They will receive our two prospects with the most superstar (but also bust) potential – power forward Al Jefferson, and swingman Gerald Green. Jefferson can take over some of KG’s minutes at the 4, while Green can apprentice at the 2/3, and take over full-time in 2008 if they let Ricky Davis walk. We’ll also waive our right to claim their first round pick in one of the drafts between 2009-11.
After this trade, the Wolves will have cap relief to the tune of about $17 million each year for the next two years (Rose this year, Ratliff and Davis next), which can be used to sign a top-level free agent, or make a play for Gasol or O’Neal if they come on the market. They get two youngsters with high-upside, and a first round pick that they had previously given up. Not a bad haul at all. And we haven’t even mentioned how weakening the club in the short-term helps them in the Greg Oden sweepstakes this year.
To complete the trade, Minnesota sends us Garnett, and for depth, forward-center Mark Madsen, a low-offense, high-energy player who will be a good influence in the locker room. Here are the particulars on how this trade shakes out.
F Kevin Garnett (from Minn)
F/C Mark Madsen (from Minn)
F Renaldo Balkman (from NY)
G/F Jalen Rose (from NY)
C Theo Ratliff (from Bos)
F Brian Grant (from Bos)
F Al Jefferson (from Bos)
G/F Gerald Green (from Bos)
Waiving of potential Minnesota 1st Round Pick in 2009-11 owed to Boston via a previous trade
To New York
F Wally Szczerbiak (from Bos)
G Troy Hudson (from Minn)
Minnesota’s 2007 2nd Round Pick
An important note: we save about $3 million with this move, bringing our payroll closer to the $60 million range, and comfortably away from the luxury tax (Wyc will be happy).
Here’s how we’ll begin the season:
C Kendrick Perkins, PF Kevin Garnett, SF Ryan Gomes, PG Sebastien Telfair, SG Paul Pierce
G Delonte West, PF Reggie Evans, G Rajon Rondo, PF/C Mark Madsen, SF Renaldo Balkman, SG Tony Allen, C Dwayne Jones
F Brian Scalabrine, PF Leon Powe, G Allan Ray, F/C Kevin Pittsnogle
It would be nice to get Jones some experience, so we should seek out a 2-for-1 trade. First, however, let’s note that with KG, we now have 2 superstars, so that’s two columns filled. If Balkman plays to potential, he could contribute to the perimeter defense, but we should get someone who can start.
Step 3: Address Perimeter Defense. December 16, 2006
Let me just say that I really want Josh Smith here, and I don’t think that it’s impossible to get him from Atlanta (this is Billy Knight we’d be dealing with, after all). However, I’m going to ignore that possibility in favor of the more probable scenario obtaining a veteran, soon-to-be free agent swingman.
The Toronto Raptors, in the midst of a roster overhaul, make an ideal trading partner, despite playing within the same division. They’re looking for a physical interior player to do the dirty work for Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani. I hate to part with our guy who fills the role, especially to a division rival, but we’re going to get a great return. Though he’ll be a free agent in the summer, Morris Peterson can step in at the 3, play strong defense and provide some outside shooting (another key – you need to be able to stretch the defense). In return for giving up Evans, and in light of MoPete’s impending free agent status, we pick up a conditional 2009 pick – dependant on whether or not Peterson resigns, and also agree to swap first round picks in this year’s draft.
G/F Morris Peterson
Conditional 2008 Draft Pick
Swap of 2007 1st Round Picks
F Reggie Evans
F/C Kevin Pittsnogle
This leaves us thin at the 4/5 positions, but I have another deal in the works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t finalize itself until after Christmas.
Step 4: Add a defender at the 4/5
He may not be a true center, but Stromile Swift can play the 5, and though undersized, he matches up physically with most centers, and has the athleticism to block shots. Memphis reacquired him this summer, but he’s not happy there, and a combination of Hakim Warrick and rookie Alexander Johnson can replace his production. What the Grizzlies need is to get younger, and more athletic in the backcourt. We can offer them a pair of young guards, and also dump Brian Scalabrine to make the salaries work. We also pick up their first round pick this year, giving us two picks in a deep draft.
Memphis gets Tony Allen, an active defender who has a lot of upside on offense as well, and Sebastien Telfair, who will run their offense. Combined with rookie guard Kyle Lowry, swingmen Rudy Gay and Mike Miller, and Pau Gasol and Hakim Warrick up front, the Grizzlies will have a tremendous nucleus of young players.
Here’s the deal:
F/C Stromile Swift
Memphis’ 2007 1st Round Draft Pick
G Sebastien Telfair
G Tony Allen
F Brian Scalabrine
Here’s how our lineup looks down the stretch:
C Kendrick Perkins, PF Kevin Garnett, SF Morris Peterson, PG Rajon Rondo, SG Paul Pierce
G Delonte West, PF/C Stromile Swift, F Ryan Gomes, SF Renaldo Balkman, C Dwayne Jones, F/C Mark Madsen, G Allan Ray
F Leon Powe
Here’s how the team shapes up now, according to what I call the ‘success chart’:
Franchise Player – Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett, take your pick. They will have to resolve the alpha dog question, and my guess is that Pierce grabs the conch. KG just wants to win, and will be happy to defer to The Truth when push comes to shove.
2nd All-Star, or Duo of Complimentary Stars - Garnett. See above for explanation.
Big Man – KG
Perimeter Defender – MoPete, Paul Pierce, and Renaldo Balkman are all above average defenders at the 2/3. Rajon Rondo also looks to be a tremendous defender at the point.
Veteran Leader – Pierce and Garnett will have to fill this role for now, though MoPete and Madsen should help.
Floor General – This will depend on how quickly Rondo develops. Pierce and West will have to shoulder some of the burden for now, but it will be Rondo’s team within 18 months. And yes, I hated the pick at the time, but have come around within the span of six weeks.
Spark – Delonte West slides into the Bobby Jackson role.
It will take this team some time to gel, but given the relative strength (or lacketherof) of the Atlantic Division, I don’t think that a strong finish and 45-50 wins are out of the question. That should be enough to win the division, and secure home court in the first round. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that the Central division runner-up has a better record (as do the Southeast winning Miami Heat), so the Celts open up as the 4-seed, facing either Chicago or Cleveland. I’m not guaranteeing a win, but it would be a close series. I think the Cs match up well with Chicago, and a combination of MoPete/Pierce/Balkman could keep LeBron from dominating (he’d still probably average 30 a night). I worry that Ilgauskas and Gooden would expose this team’s weakness, interior defense, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. I think this team would go 6 or 7 (and possibly win) in the first round, and give the Heat all they could handle in round 2. With another year’s experience, and a couple of roster moves (a vet or two for the bench) in the off-season, I see us as being among a handful of contenders in the East in 2007-08 (along with Miami and Detroit (on the way down), and Chicago, Cleveland, and Orlando (on the way up).
Go Celtics. It’s time to win #17.