I was going to write about Kim Kardashian today (seriously), but that may have to wait until next week. Reading yesterday’s post by my friend Garry Rosenfield, I feel a need to respond, at least a little bit, to some points he brought up.
I’ll talk about the Celtics and their chances, discuss Garry’s desire to disband the team as soon as possible, and then, so non-Celtic fans don’t skip the entire piece, talk about the conundrum of what to do with aging superstars.
Let me say that I do think the Celtics’ chances at winning the NBA championship are slim to none. Before the season, I would have said there was no chance, but now, having seen a few games, I’ll say there’s a small chance, maybe 5% or less. Yes, I know they started 0-3 this year. But look at those games. At the Knicks, without Paul Pierce. They played horribly in the first half, and if it weren’t for Carmelo Anthony catching fire in the second half, they would have won. No excuses, because a player like ‘Melo is going to score in bunches at a high frequency, but it took everything the Syracuse Orange one and done (can’t really call him an alum) had in his arsenal to pull out the win. Next, again without Pierce, a tight loss to the juggernaut Heat, in Miami’s home opener. Granted, New York basketball fans are among the world’s best and Miami’s are unquestionably the world’s worst, but still, a road game is a road game. I was too tired and pissed off to watch the second half, but by all accounts, it took an out-of-nowhere performance by rookie Norris Cole and some dubious officiating to stave off a furious Celtics comeback. I thought the Heat were going to be deeper this year because of Shane Battier, but it seems that Cole might be that 3rd guy behind Wade and LeBron (as you say to yourself “wait, I know there’s someone else there”). The Hornets game was a clunker, no two ways about it. But the Celtics have won four straight since starting 0-3, and do look like they’re still the team to beat in the Atlantic Division.
Why mention the first two games of the year? Because to me, it shows that when faced with a big game, the Celtics can rise to the occasion. Obviously the first two games of the year aren’t the same as the playoffs, but the fact that the reigning conference champion Heat might not be that much better than the Celtics gives me some hope. The compressed schedule with eventually catch up with the Celtics, but come playoff time, I’m still going to hold out hope that their window is still somewhat open.
The fact that they still have a slight chance to make a deep run this spring is just one of the reasons I’m disagreeing wholeheartedly with Garry’s “blow it up this season” mentality. If your organization believes, even slightly, that a title is attainable, they should go for it, because chances at glory are fleeting. Another is that, given the pieces they have, the Celtics could be prime contenders next season with an extra piece or two. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett both have expiring contracts. Most people see that as an opportunity to sign Dwight Howard, the alleged prize of the 2012 free agent class. I say “alleged” prize because Howard is a fraud who can’t shoot, swats balls into the stands rather than to his teammates, and is content to rely on his athleticism rather than evolving as a basketball player.
But enough with guys who don’t care about being the best when they were given every natural opportunity to do so. Howard is seen as the big fish this summer. Say the Celtics get him, and don’t re-sign KG and Ray. They will be no better than they will be this year, even with Rondo and Dwight doing their best CP3/Blake impression. If $31 million from KG and Ray is coming off the books, why not try to sign each of them to $8-10 million deals, and then use the remaining money million, plus any other money coming off the books (Jermaine O’Neal?), to sign/trade for someone in the $15 million range? I don’t know exactly who, that’s Danny’s job, but there’s got to be a way to acquire a top-30 guy who could take some of the scoring load off Ray and Paul, and serve as the 2nd banana to Rondo while the “Big Three” still contribute. If KG and Ray realize that they’re not going to be paid like the 28-year old guys in the league, then they could take the appropriate amount of money, allow the team to build for the future while improving its current chances, and everything could work. But again, that’s for Danny to figure out.
Before we talk about Pierce, let’s point out a few more parts of Garry’s post that I took issue with. One, Avery Bradley is not a great defender. He came out of college as someone who could potentially be a great defender, but has done absolutely nothing to live up to the hype, and looks overmatched at all times when on the court. He really looks like he couldn’t even start for a college team. He looks miserable in all facets, including defense. Also, Brandon Bass is a nice player, but he’s not a cornerstone. To say that a successful season would mean Rondo, Bass, nobodies, and draft picks is outrageous. For one thing, Bass is, at best, the 4th best player on a contender, not the 2nd best. He’s a solid scorer, but refuses to pass, and is somewhat of a black hole.. Over the course of a game, and not just a few possessions, KG and Ray are still more important and more effective than Bass. Another point: Building through the draft is a crapshoot, and it takes years. Unless you’re landing a Kareem, Duncan, or Durant, it’s not guaranteed. Franchise players don’t emerge in the draft every year. Look at a team like Minnesota. They’ve been picking in the lottery since 2005, and still, after 2 years of fruitlessly restocking their team around KG, and now 4-5 years of completely rebuilding, they still haven’t made the playoffs. I think Danny Ainge would have done a better job than Wolves GMs Kevin McHale and David Khan did, but it just shows that year after year of top-10 picks means nothing. And while guys like LeBron and Durant recently revitalized franchises, there don’t appear to be any superstars of that caliber in this year’s draft, including Austin Rivers.
But say, for a moment, that sort of plan worked. Say Danny hit it big in the draft, maybe two out of the next three years, and found guys who were starters. Not stars, but maybe guys who are the 3rd and 5th best guys on your team. One thing not taken into account is the new CBA, where player contracts are shorter. By the time your grand, visionary 5-year plan takes place, more than half of your team has already moved on. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for the Celtics to dump most of their roster and rebuild around wishy washy draft picks and nobodies, hoping they pan out by the time “cornerstones” Rondo and Bass are able to bolt. I think, with a midseason move (if it has to be KG or Ray and makes sense for the present and future, I’ll listen), they can go for it this year, and then reassess things in the summer, with an eye towards an established star, or at the very least, someone who’s about to make the jump.
If there’s one thing I wouldn’t do, it’s trade Pierce, for both basketball and personal reasons. He’s still a gifted scorer who can average 20 a game when healthy. He’s 34 years old, and has a couple more years of being able to score 15-20 points per game. He’s the team captain. He’s by far the most tenured guy on the team. And then, there’s the fans’ point of view. I love Paul Pierce. I’m a lifelong Celtics fan, and for some time now, Pierce has been my favorite player. I love that he was an elite scorer but never an elite athlete, if that makes sense. He’s not fast, doesn’t jump too high, and won’t win on style points. But he’s effective. When he needs to score, he does. He can drive, he can pull up, he can up fake, he can post up, he can spot up. There’s nothing he can’t do when it comes to finding ways to score. And when he was carrying the Celtics from 1999-2007, nobody during those years took a bigger beating going to the basket than Paul Pierce, with the lone exception of Allen Iverson. Kobe had Shaq to protect him and shoulder the load. Wade took similar beatings, but from 2004-2010. For those eight years or so, Pierce was an absolute machine, fearing nothing and learning how to be a leader, which came in handy when he finally got the pieces he needed in 2007-2008, as he led his team to a title.
But Pierce can’t play forever, sad to say. Luckily this isn’t football, where Montana and Favre had to make way for Young and Rodgers. Or hockey, where Tim Thomas will soon have to make way for Tuukka Rask. There are five guys that play every spot on the floor in basketball, which is why you can ease veteran transitions more gracefully. Diminish Pierce’s role, but don’t jettison him. Even if he wants to play when his contract runs out (he’ll be 36), he could sign for less money, having made enough money for several lifetimes already, and keep gunning for titles as the 4th best guy on his team, rather than the 1st/2nd best guy, which is what he is right now. Easier said than done, and it hinges on finding the future franchise guy to take over for Pierce as he slowly rides off into the sunset. Part of me thinks it’s irresponsible to blow it up without a clear plan, or at least some semblance of where the next generation of cornerstone guys will come from. Moreover, I’m not going to deny that part of me is just emotionally attached to Pierce and does not want to see him retire in another jersey. I want Pierce to remain a Celtic, just like I want KG and Ray to remain Celtics. I won’t say I’d trade having the old guard here for a few years too many for the potential years of poor teams that might result from it, but without any hard evidence that the team will automatically be a playoff team and semi-contender right away, will it be that bad to make a move or two and try to keep the old guys for cheap? I think if Danny is creative enough, he can try to win now, while there’s still some time left, while strengthening the team in the future.
Elite players now only want to play in warm climates, big markets, or for serious contenders. Boston is many years of global warming away from being a warm climate and it’s a medium-size market. It’s smaller than New York and Chicago, and colder than Miami and Los Angeles. And if Boston blows everything up, it will be one of the worst teams in the league, many years away from contending. Who’s going to want to play for them? Ultimately, because of the changing landscape of the NBA, mixed with the aforementioned competitive and emotional reasons, I just can’t agree with Garry’s idea of a successful Celtics season resulting in a roster of Rondo, Bass, nobodies, and picks. And it’s why I want to see Danny Ainge figure it out, find a way to stay competitive, and please, keep Paul Pierce in a Celtic jersey as long as he’s playing basketball.