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Tales From Sloan: A Championship Four Years In The Making

Wyc Grousbeck, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, made a franchise-altering splash when he acquired Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. But unlike many trades, including the one for Ray Allen that immediately preceded it, the KG deal was the culmination of four full years of calculation.

Boston had been after Garnett for that long.

“The whole reason to buy the team was Celtic pride,” said Grousbeck at a panel on sports ownership at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday. “What if a bunch of Boston guys got together and won a championship?”

After hiring Danny Ainge to run the basketball side of the operations in 2003, the Celtics’ braintrust went about determining what they would have to do to extricate the team from the mediocrity in which it had been mired since the dissolution of the original big three of Bird, McHale and Parish in the early 90s.

That began with a standard business move: analyzing high-performing organizations to determine how the Celtics might build its own.

“We looked at the last 25 NBA champions,” said Grousbeck. “Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept – three all-stars. [That big three included] a top-50 all-time player and two supporting all-stars.”

Ostensibly, the Celtics were in good shape on that front. The team had made a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002 and had two star players in Pierce and Antoine Walker. However, the Celtics decided they didn’t have a true number one player, the kind necessary to push a team over the top to a championship. So, they made a list of potential acquisitions, with Garnett’s name at the top of the list.

Grousbeck: “Paul and Antoine were all-stars but they’re not top-50 guys.”

Of course, it’s more than a little remarkable that a new owner would commit $360 million to a team two wins away from the NBA Finals, and determine that the best course of action was to tear it apart. But that’s exactly what they did. How many teams have done the opposite, changing and rearranging pieces around a player ultimately incapable of spearheading a title run?

Boston’s move looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight but there was an enormous risk – financial and otherwise – to commit to suffering through the process necessary to find a top-50 talent. Especially because smarts alone weren’t going to get the Celtics the player they needed. Luck would play a large part.

Once the decision was made to remake the roster, Walker was jettisoned, and Pierce and new coach Doc Rivers were left to crawl around in the wreckage. Pierce seemed increasingly miserable with the losing and on the verge of being an ex-Celtic more than once during the 2003-07 period, but according to Grousbeck, Rivers was always there for the long term.

“Doc said ‘I will coach kids and play them as long as I get to coach the championship team when it happens.’”

Ainge and Rivers’ reputations have been rehabilitated by the 2008 title and post-championship play of the Celtics, but it would be revisionist history to suggest they were universally well-regarded during the run-up to 07-08. Ainge was regularly killed in the media for fielding a team of underperforming young players with insufficient upside to make the playoffs, much less win a title. And Rivers’ now sterling coaching reputation was tarnished by an 18-game losing streak in 2007.

Although an outlier – few rebuilding processes are so successful – the Celtics’ foresight to map out a path to a title and stick with it in the face of withering criticism may be used as a model for future teams.

Jeff Green noted in his first appearance in Boston this week that while he was in Oklahoma City, the Celtics were the franchise the Thunder attempted to model.

It’s particularly interesting to observe the Thunder in the context of the Celtics three all-star model. Kevin Durant could conceivably be a top-50 player all-time. Russell Westbrook is an all-star. Given the findings of the Celtics’ study, are the Thunder now only a single player away?

CelticsHub is at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this weekend. Brendan previously covered Malcolm Gladwell’s talk, which you can read about here.

  • Alla Abdelnaby

    Sorry, but every single champion of the 90s proves that theory wrong.

    • No Fool

      I don't understand. Jordan had Pippen and Rodman/Paxson. Hakeem didn't have two all stars next to him, but Kenny Smith and Robert Horry were very good at the time. Plus, they pretty much ran a Magic with Howard system that focuses around surrounding him with shooters.

      • Alla Abdelnaby

        If the players around them aren't all-stars, then Wyc's theory doesn't hold water. The Bulls and Rockets' championship model was

        1.) Have the best player in the league

        2.) Support with appropriate role players. (Obviously in the Bulls case, Pippen was the greatest "role" player of all time and an All-Star himself.)

        To pull this off your top guy needs to be better than top 50 ever, basically top 10 ever and you also have to hit properly on your role players cause if you don't, you end up like Cleveland the last two years.

        This is a different model than what the Celts have built, but obviously one that works under the right circumstances.

        • Chris O

          Pippen is also a top 50 guy. And they always had a third guy like Horace Grant or Rodman (and Rodman will be a hall of famer and was an All-Star).

          • Alla Abdelnaby

            Both the 90s Rockets and Bulls had lots of good role players. At no point did either team have three guys make the all-star team in a title season, nor was anyone really getting snubbed other than Rodman in '96.

            Another example, the 2000 to 2002 Lakers. They had two of the top 5 players in the league and good role players. Rick Fox, Horry and Fisher aint sniffing an All-Star game.

            All I'm saying is that when Wyc says:

            "“Twenty-four out of twenty-five (championships) were won with a big three concept – three all-stars. "

            He's just wrong.

          • MikeD

            It is a little different when you are talking about Michael Jordan. When you have the greatest basketball player who ever lived winning becomes a lot easier

          • MikeD

            Also Alla, I don't think Wyc implied that the 3 players have to make the all star team in a given season. He just means all star caliber players.

          • skeeds

            he's wrong about the "all-star" definition, but right on the concept. What would be a better definition is a 3 man nucleus
            . While polarized towards Jordan's greatness, the Bulls follow that too. 3 extremely good players, at least one of them a phenomenon, with complementary talents. Jordan-Pippen-Rodman was exactly that. They won despite any roster changes around them. Same goes for all the others.
            No need to analyse the Celtics, all our championships came that way. The Spurs too, Magic's Lakers also…

            The star+supporting cast works too. But lately it seems that it can only work for Kobe.

  • MikeD

    Also, because of Jordans shadow people tend to forget that Pippen is an all time great. He was listed as one of the 50 greatest players ever, Bill Simmons has him at #24 on his pyramid.

  • Lightskinindian

    My theory on winning is this, 2 GREAT PLAYERS with great role players; Rebounding, Tight Defenders, and 3 POINT SHARP SHOOTERS!!!

  • James Katt

    Boston is right. You need a BIG-THREE. The Big-Three also need to have the correct roles. There has to be the Leader and two followers.

    The reason Miami is struggling is that they have TWO LEADERS, not one. And one of the leaders, Lebron, is a POOR CLUTCH PLAYER who CHOKES. Once WADE is installed as the leader and Lebron the follower, Miami will win more games.

    • guest

      Yeah, LeBron is a choker and Miami will only succeed once Wade is installed as the leader.

      Hmm, looking back from July 2012 with a lot of hindsight, how'd that work out?

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