Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is a competitor, and he’s a bit privileged. He’s not excited at the thought of topping out at 50 or even 55 wins. He grew up as a player with banners, he delivered another banner as an executive in Boston in 2008, and he’s not about to sell out his team nor his current team-building exercise by shooting for an easy trip to the first round.
He’ll tell you as much. From ESPN Boston:
Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked Tuesday to size up the Eastern Conference for the upcoming 2014-15 season and pegged Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington as the three top squads.
"You left out the Celtics," a reporter noted.
Responded Ainge: "I did. Good observation there. But I do believe the extraordinary is possible."
Before extraordinary hits, though, an extraordinary team has to be built. And in this comment, Ainge is telling Celtics fans that they’ll have to wait another year, possibly two more seasons, before such a team will start to take shape. Boston isn’t tanking, the team’s roster and coaching staff is filled with too much potential for that, but this will be a year filled with more losses than wins.
And this can’t be fun for Celtics fans, who have dealt with quite a bit over the last quarter-century, following forty-plus years of fun.
The Celtics were considered aging, Eastern also-rans in the years following Detroit’s sweep of the team in 1988 and Larry Bird’s 1992 retirement. From there, the franchise swapped trips to the lottery with the odd first-round exit. A trip to the Eastern Conference semis in 2002 was thrilling, if briefly, but the team bottomed out (1997, 2007) twice as many times as it made it to May.
That all changed in the summer of 2007, when Ainge was allowed to take years’ worth of assets and turn them into Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, while retaining Paul Pierce and two killer mid-first round draft picks in Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo. Five glorious seasons resulted, with the team winning the title once, coming within a game of the title in 2010, and finishing a game away from the Finals in 2012. The first round exit in 2013 was an obvious signal, however, and impetus for yet another needed rebuilding process.
The issue with this newest rebuild is that the Celtics didn’t start over with one terrible season and a high-end lottery pick to work around, as the team still made the playoffs in 2013. Even though Boston scored heaps of future picks in dealing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the hit wasn’t immediate.
Rookie Kelly Olynyk was solid enough in his opening season, big men that can play and chew gum at the same time that you pluck from the middle of the first-round are always nice, but he isn’t the sort of boffo top-three pick that crummy teams usually start over with. There were enough solid vets and sound coaching maneuvers by rookie head man Brad Stevens that the Celtics clawed their way toward 25 wins – miles away from the playoffs, but also working outside of the Wiggins/Parker/Embiid-sweepstakes in the lottery.
The prize from there was the much-admired rookie guard Marcus Smart, who will need years of seasoning and adjusting even if Rajon Rondo weren’t on this roster. And from there? It’s all assets.
The team basically paid in player currency for the rights to a few more second-round picks on Thursday, in a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Earlier in the summer the team grabbed the last year of scorer Marcus Thornton’s deal (at over $8.5 million) for the ability to take on a future first-rounder from Cleveland, and a past first-rounder in solid reserve center Tyler Zeller. In 2015 it will have its own first-round pick, the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-round pick, and potentially the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-round pick if the team finishes with 44 wins instead of the expected four or five wins this season.
It will have its own pick and Brooklyn’s first-rounder in 2016. It can swap picks with the rapidly fading Nets in 2017, and it will have the Nets’ pick in 2018. All while working with a cadre of second-round selections accrued from various teams.
What it won’t have is a playoff participant in 2015, and possibly beyond.
Rajon Rondo is fabulous, but beyond him there are no stars here, and it remains to be seen whether or not Rondo can make this crew better than the sum of its parts (assuming Ainge even wants that, as he eyes next year’s draft), or if he’s a hallow stat-grabber (we suspect the former). All that remains are serviceable, respectable players in Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, and Gerald Wallace. And, as we saw last February, no team was looking at any combination of that crew and coveting Boston as trade partners, looking to go over the top by adding someone like Jeff Green.
Boston fans will tell you that options abound, and they’re right. Wallace and Green have massive expiring contracts that end in 2016, Thornton has a big enough one this season, those serviceable young players like Olynyk, Sullinger and Zeller are all working on tiny rookie deals, and Ainge has proven his ability to locate talent in any stage of the NBA draft.
Until late June hits, though, that doesn’t mean much. For yet another year. Maybe more.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Is Brad Stevens allowed to play? SMDH, Patrick.
Did the summer help at all?
It was an expected sort of Danny Ainge summer, one that saw him adding to his expected three or four or (lord help you, Boston) five year plan as he works around the salary cap fringes. Adding Thornton gives the C’s some needed offensive punch, and acquiring Evan Turner on the (supposed) low is worth taking a flyer on. Rookie Marcus Smart appears to be a game-changer in waiting, and the front office passed on making any rash moves that would take away from future salary cap space or its heaps of draft picks.
They certainly helped the Cleveland Cavaliers, allowing them to clear cap space for LeBron James and handing them the rights to even more unguaranteed trade bait for 2015-16. Danny Ainge really likes draft picks.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Eventually, Marcus Smart. The Celtics obviously see a killer hybrid guard in the tenacious Oklahoma St. product, the sort of player that may have us all wondering how he fell to No. 6 in the draft in a decade. Until then, though, the big name is Evan Turner. And he technically hasn’t even signed yet, as Ainge works up his salary cap machinations.
Even with Rondo wheeling and dealing, this is a team that lacks the sort of player that can push the envelope and get to the line with ease. Smart may eventually turn into that player, but for now the Celtics are almost entirely made up of complementary helpers. Even Rajon Rondo, a former All-Star, is perhaps the league’s best complementary-type.
Contributor with something to prove.
At this point, we know what we’re getting with Jeff Green, he’s never really going to turn that corner. We know what we’re getting with the aging Gerald Wallace, and with the inconsistent Marcus Thornton. With those in place, it’s Rajon Rondo in his prime that has to move the needle, trade rumors be damned. Can he establish himself, without the excuses of an ACL tear or unfamiliar teammates, as an All-Star again?
Potential breakout stud:
His work may not make many top ten lists, but if Kelly Olynyk can ramp up the high post passing and screen setting in Brad Stevens’ offense, he could really push the Celtics into something special on that end. If he can limit his fouling and spark up a few more three-pointers (the rookie hit a respectable 35 percent last season), the C’s could move toward the ranks of the passable. Ainge wouldn’t like it, but the fans would.
Rondo dominates, but in a good way, and Stevens’ work on both ends helps push the Celtics closer to that crummy Eastern playoff bracket.
If everything falls apart:
Gerald Wallace, Rondo, and potentially Jeff Green and Brandon Bass start to sulk, Marcus Smart looks like he’s years away Olynyk and Jared Sullinger regress, and for once in his life Danny Ainge makes a bad trade in dealing Rajon Rondo away.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
Boston will finish at 28-54, 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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