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Trapped: Ainge unable to reload or rebuild

In the end, Danny Ainge had too much working against him to accomplish either of his two objectives: build up this year’s team for a playoff run or get a jumpstart on a rebuild. Boston’s sole deadline move — acquiring Jordan Crawford for Jason Collins and Leandro Barbosa — has to be considered a failure in the way its timidity strands this year’s team in that mid-level purgatory that’s doomed franchises like Atlanta and Milwaukee to irrelevance and early round playoff exits in recent years.

Still, the problems are only partly of Ainge’s making. Bad luck has played as much of a role as bad decision-making.

Most applauded last offseason’s signings as expensive but reasonable risks for a Celtics core that deserved reinforcements after another deep playoff run. Early-season underperformers Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee have played better in recent weeks but on the precipice of a restrictive new fiscal environment in the league, they still had minimal value given the cost for their production.

The real problem this season, as has been the case over the last few, is the injuries. Had Rajon Rondo not been injured the Celtics very well might have moved him before the deadline for a star-level reinforcement at one of the big spots. That’s the kind of move that would have made the C’s dangerous against a Miami team that struggles against interior size. As it is, the C’s will head down the stretch as dark a horse as they’ve been since Kevin Garnett arrived in town. They are no threat to Miami and may only go a round deep come playoff time.

As many of you have pointed out in strongly-worded comments, that’s not all bad. The Celtics have played well enough lately to cast doubt on the need to change the core of the team right now. Save for the last few games, they’ve been winning. Save for a couple of slugfests, it’s been with tough defense and pretty ball movement. Who doesn’t want to watch that?

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s sustainable success. The league and the minutes will catch up with the Celtics. As a result, I’ve been in favor of transitioning to the next era. I wanted that Clippers trade but have to admit that I’m not feeling the crisis of Ainge’s inaction yesterday because what happened was in no way definitive.

Ainge’s vigor in pursuit of trades this week suggests he was ready to do something big and game-changing and his inability to pull it off really amounts to nothing more than a sequester-style delay of the major questions facing this franchise. We’ll be revisiting those questions — Is it time to move on from Pierce and Garnett? What should the Celtics do with Rondo? Can any of the expensive roleplayers be offloaded? How do the C’s procure the next franchise-changing talent? — as we approach the draft. That’s only a few months away.

In our deadline chat yesterday, Brian suggested the C’s may fire up one final run in 2013-14 behind the same cast of characters we’ll see tonight against Phoenix and, presumably, a healthier Rondo and Jared Sullinger. I would still bet on the alternative (the C’s finally cut the cord on Pierce, Garnett and, once healthy, Rondo) but that’s a viable option if the Celtics again outperform expectations between now and whenever they play their final game of the 2012-13 season. Over the last few years, they’ve made their doubters look bad time and again, no matter how banged up they’ve been.

As we enter the final third of the regular season, Pierce and Garnett are where they’ve been each of the last few seasons: fighting to keep a title window open that most assume closed when Perk tore his ACL, when Shaq was lost for the season, when LeBron finally put it all together, when Rondo went down with his injury and, now, when Ainge couldn’t acquire reinforcements.

So — and I say this to myself as much as anyone —  whether or not we’re happy with the roster stasis this week, it’s again worth taking the time to appreciate Pierce and Garnett’s efforts with the notion that we’re closer and closer to the end of their tenure here. And as Rick Pitino so famously reminded us, legends don’t come walking through that door very often.

  • Phil725

    It's hard to come up with an argument for what Ainge could've done differently, just because it doesn't seem like any deal was there. You can argue for trading Pierce for something (which likely would've allowed you to move KG,) but no one offered something. I don't think giving Pierce away for Marshon Brooks would've helped in the long run, and I don't think Ainge's failure to find a better deal was for lack of trying.

    The outlook for this year is still okay; the Cs have a solid chance of winning one round of the playoffs, and they could realistically get to the ECF finals if the right matchups play out. I'm not binary enough in my thinking to say it's championship or I'm not satisfied. I would enjoy a final showdown with the Heat, whether it ends with a bang or going down in a blaze of ignominy. I know what lies ahead, so I'm gonna enjoy the next few months.

    Speaking of what lies ahead… things aren't so good. You can absolve Ainge of blame for the long term contracts handed out last offseason (and I thought they were good at the time too,) but since when has fairness been a part of sports criticism? Those contracts are gonna hamstring the team until 2016, and will curb any attempts at rebuilding early since you now have to balance dealing for assets with shedding bad contracts. I think the team will be back again next year, if only because what other option is there? KG and Pierce will have an even bigger dichotomy between their value to the Cs and to the rest of the league, and those other contracts aren't going anywhere. Considering what lurks in 2014-15, I'll be fine watching an extended farewell tour next year.

    Rondo still seems to be the ultimate domino to fall, since I've seen no evidence that Ainge wants to pay him the max (which he'll get in 2016,) or build the team around him (which he'll have to do once PP/KG are gone.) Could that be as soon as next year? Maybe. He's the one real asset left on the team, but are you getting back someone else to build around while the Bass/Terry/Green contracts linger, or are you going to settle for clearing some money and try to start from scratch? Neither one gives me a ton of hope. It seems overly simplistic to think we were someone valuing Pierce highly away from being stocked with young talent with a Rondo deal to go over the top in the wings, but we were also one bad offseason away from having infinite flexibility as soon as this offseason.

    • dslack

      Potentially a sign-and-trade with Rondo (and Green? or something) for Dwight. This would allow Dwight to get more than he'd get by signing outright with Dallas or Houston.

      • Phil725

        Well it's pretty clear that LAL wants to keep Dwight long term, so Dwight would have to want to go somewhere else enough to force his way out of LA, and once he does that, he'll get the same deal regardless of where he would end up (LA would sign him to the 5 year max, then trade.) Hard to see why he'd want to come to a Boston team with no Rondo over a Houston team stacked with young guys and a legitimate superstar. No state tax in Houston either, so it's actually more money there. LA could refuse to trade him to Houston, but I don't see why they would; they could offer just as good of a deal as Boston, and if Dwight doesn't want to come here, he can just bolt in free agency and LA gets nothing.

        I just assume he's staying in LA, but I'd look farther down the road for potential fixes. Kevin Love seems to be the next biggest guy who bolts his team because he's disgruntled.

    • Eric

      In a year or two some of those contracts (except Green's) aren't going to look so bad. Terry or Lee or even Bass for ~$5 million isn't so bad when it's only for a year or two.

      • Phil725

        They'll be moveable in a trade, but they'll also clog the cap for any kind of free agent signing for the foreseeable future. All of the salary Memphis dumped earlier this year in addition to a 1st round pick was attached to expiring contracts. You can't just give them away.

        The Cs currently have 51m tied up in 2014-15 cap, assuming Pierce and KG both retire/aren't on the team. That's before even adding draft picks, let alone anyone else added to the team. That basically means you can't sign anyone until the year after the Bass/Terry contracts expire. If you trade them for someone else, chances are you're taking back more years.

        It will be a lot easier to do a medium type of deal in a few years with something like asset 1/asset 2/Bass' expiring deal than it would be now when Bass is basically an albatross (and he makes 6.9m in the last year of his deal, not 5m,) but you still need those assets in the first place.

  • Montrossdad

    This constant talk that trading kg or pp would have been disrespectful or constitute some denial of the effort they expend is extremely frustrating. I loved, was obsessed with-the original big 3. But remember all too well what holding on out of sentimentality got us for the 10 years after that.

    Last years playoff run, in the big picture, hurt this team- allowing Danny and others to delude themselves into thinking this team plus pieces was a contender for a title. Injuries or not, that was not going to be the case.

    Danny needs to assemble a team viable for the future, he is not a custodian of legacies fading away on and off the parquet.

    • dslack

      Sentimentality didn't produce the long drought. Droughts don't have to last 10 years in the NBA. What happened was a combination of terrible drafting, terrible free-agent signings, and Reggie Lewis's death. Those factors wouldn't be repeated now (and if they are repeated, it won't be because Ainge chose not to trade Pierce for Marshon Brooks).

      Look at the recent NBA. Supersonics, Knicks, Heat, and Rockets have all retooled very impressively on the fly, in MUCH less than 10 years. Good management and a touch of good luck (of which the Knicks and Rockets have had very little) go a long way.

      • KillerGymRat

        And don't forget the death of Len Bias.

  • swissflix

    i think Danny did what he could given the situation after Rondo's injury. So i say let's ride it out this season, see how far we can go, give everyone a chance to contribute (this means you, Jeff!!) enjoy KG and the Truth together and then blow it up in summer in order to reload as quickly as possible – i do not want to be back in the 90ies. And by reloading i think Danny should do just like he did in 2007 – go for a real superstar like KG and not a couple of decent players like Josh Smith for instance. I trust Danny.

  • Brad

    I’m still not convinced that shipping Paul and KG in the trades that were being offered was really a viable “building for the future” strategy. They read more like “making trades for the sake of making trades.”

    I would also say the Boston sports types need to alleviate themselves of the delusion that trades like these would have been great for acquiring assets to make another big trade down the road. Heres the reality: The Kevin Garnett trade never happens if the two guys pulling the strings aren’t McHale and Ainge working nearly in collusion to bring it off. If it was anyone else running those two teams, KG is probably retired by now after carrying the Lakers to another threepeat. Its foolish to assume that lighting will strike twice and some GM will ship a franchise player to Boston for Al Jeff and a whole heap of crap.

    And spare me explanations about cap room and expiring contracts that help us pursue the free agents this team never acquires. Ask Mark Cuban how that strategy worked two seasons after winning a title, won’t you?

    The bottom line is, like someone said earlier, Ainge was hamstrung by this team being one game away from an improbable Finals trip in 2012. Some of the deals he signed in the offsrason were goofy to be sure, but he had no realistic shot at this trade deadline to really fix anything. It will suck to watch this team struggle as the minutes add up, but they’re warriors of the highest order and I’m with them the rest of the way, win or lose.

    Change will have to come this offseason and if it doesn’t…then I’ll have some problems.

    • Phil725

      The problem is that there's no easy change that can come, and that's the problem that's officially upon us since nothing substantial either was, or could be done at the deadline. Everything you say about rebuilding is true; you need luck, an ex player who's a GM somewhere else, something like that. That's true regardless of when the rebuild starts though. If Ainge couldn't get anything for Pierce at the deadline, why would he get something better for him a half year later? And even if he did, those offers for KG are gone after he retires in the offseason, which he likely would post PP deal. There's a potential Rondo trade, but no one wants anyone else on the team outside of Bradley, and an AB trade isn't saving the franchise.

      The best case from a rebuilding standpoint was starting next year with Rondo, Bledsoe, Bradley, Sullinger, anyone better than Marshon Brooks, maybe DeAndre Jordan, and whoever is left from the bad contract club. That's probably a lottery team, but you have a lot of assets. Assets don't necessarily lead to greatness, but Houston managed to score a superstar in Harden for assets. You're a lot better off with cap space (which you still need to clear, even in a best case scenario,) and players other teams want than you are with nothing.

      For comparison, the team in 2014-15 is looking like Rondo, Bradley, Sullinger, Bass, 37 year old Terry, Lee, Green and whoever they draft in the 20s the next two years. That team is still capped out, has few attractive pieces to trade for another superstar, and has very little in the way of promising prospects, even if you like AB and Sully.

      Now we probably enter a 3 or 4 year holding period where the team's not bad enough to rebuild by bottoming out and getting a franchise player at the top of the lottery. They also won't have any cap space to add assets that way, but they'll still be nowhere near good enough to contend once KG and PP retire. It will take a magic trick at this point to avoid the NBA's mediocrity hell, and that's what the people who wanted to blow it up at the deadline have been trying to say for the last month.

    • KillerGymRat

      Hey Brad, great and articulate points. I agree with everything you said, save for the cap room and free agent signings. I agree Cuban was an idiot the way he went about it, as he gambled hard on signing the only 2 big free agents available, then when he came up empty, he crippled the franchise. It was a stupid move considering what he gave up and who knows what happens if he tried to add more parts and give that team another go.

      That said, Houston is really an example of doing that the smart way. They flipped a bunch of draft picks for expiring contracst and discount players and then stole away a potential superstar in James Harden and two potential impact players with Lin and Asik (I am peronally not a fan of either of them – but I digress). And they still have the cap room to be one of only a few teams that have a real shot of landing Howard, CP3 or JSmith.

      And best of all, they're likely to make the playoffs after only the second year of this approach. Once they dump Garcia's contract you'll really see what I believe is the new model (see post below) of a core of 2-3 max contract guys supported by rookie deals and under $3 M role players.

      Will the cap clearing approach work? We'll really know in 2 -3 years. Cuban is arrogant and it cost him, but Dallas is in a great position this summer and has the ability to make deals and signings very few teams do.

      You couldn't be more right that under the old model no big free agents ever came to Boston. But under the new model…they won't really have the choice anymore. It will be deciding amongst the teams with the most cap room, instead of the team with the biggest purse strings (aka the Lakers). It was why the new CBA was created, and soon we can expect to see teams like the Bobcats with leverage to steal away the next big free agents.

  • KillerGymRat

    What seems to be drastically overlooked is the reality of the bar that is being set. Being better then the Heat aka the best team in the league. Correct?

    Well that's the goal of every team in the league, and right now, it's not practicle or even possible for any of them to stockpile more talent then the Heat. LeBron (love him or hate him) is a 3-time league MVP and arguably the best player on the planet. And he just happens to be paired up with two current and one former all-star and a cast of rugged defenders. There isn't the talent available in the league to put together a better team under the new CBA. Ask OKC who is doing the best job of coming close, but still had to trade away a superstar in James Harden to avoid the luxury tax.

    The Heat are the last of an era of joining superstars through sign and trades and the C's started that era. That era is over. You just can't do it. Ask Memphis who just had to unload Rudy Gay. Or LAL who are likely to miss the playoffs because they couldn't afford to have a real bench.

    Even Miami will have to tear that team apart within 2 seasons because of the tax and an inability to make any moves. They've also been blessed with incredible health. If any of their core 3 got a season ending injury like Rondo…they're no longer a favorite and if it happened to LeBron…IMO they are out of the running entirely.

    So what are we really talking about here? We're talking about accepting that the league has changed dramatically and we got caught behind the learning curve. In the first trade deadline under the new CBA we're seeing how hard it is to get any deal done, let alone a major deal…(none happened – save for maybe Rudy Gay. Even a team like ATL that is dying to unload Smith couldn't make a move.

    We're seeing the new model for building a team emerge which is dumping salaries and clearing cap space to sign big free agents who will be happening more and more often since teams won't be able to re-sign multiple players to max deals. We're seeing a new model where there will be superstar salaries, and rookie contracts, or minimum deals. The mid 7-figure deals (of which we have waaaayyy too many) just became dinosaurs. They will no longer exist.

    So what we're really talking about is building a team that can play the team game better then the Heat. That is possible and is the only forseeable way the Heat can be stopped from winning the title the next 2 seasons. You have to look at San Antonio for that model. They are winning more games then anyone with a squad that has aging stars just like the C's, paired up with young talent…but it's their system and team play, not stockpiling superstars, that has them win. It's still up for debate if that will ever equal a title, but the idea that trading PP, KG or even RR was going to lead to a quick rebuild is ignoring the simple fact that it's really the overpaid mid-level players that are the problem.

    Adding Deandre and Bledsoe to pariah contracts like Bass and Green's was not going to help a rebuild. It was only going to make the real problem more obvious.

    Note to Ainge: the days of signing mediocre players to big, long-term contracts to keep them from exploring free agency are over. Sorry you didn't get the memo on time. You could've let both Green and Bass walk and signed Lee and Terry to short term deals, and then, maybe, a trade with KG, PP, or RR or even all three makes sense.

    You can't blow up a team you just locked up with idotic long-term mid-level deals. All you can do is lose the only real assets this team has and find out all you did was blow off your fingers and toes.

    You want to see the future. Look at Houston…and possibly next season, Dallas. Young superstars (or potential superstars) paired up with an entire team of guys all making $3 milllion or less. They'll likely sign Smith or even Howard next year and be right in the converstation of best teams in the league.

    • The Cardinal

      There's much truth in what you say, but at the time Danny signed these contracts, obviously he believed he had the players to compete for a title, and with the exception of spending 9 million/4 years on Jeff Green, most of Celtic Nation (y'alls truly included) thought the signings were cool. No one anticipated the drop-off in Bass' and Wilcox's production, or that Lee and Terry would struggle as much as they have, or that Avery's offense would regress to the inconsistency of the first half of last year.

      If the players that we signed were playing as well as we expected AND we didn't lose 1/4th of the team to injury (and as incredible as it sounds, the last injury to lightly-regarded Barbosa has had the most negative impact on the team for a number of reasons which I won't even began to mention), we'd probably be number 2, 3 or 4 in the Eastern Conference standings right now.

      Going forward, I hope that we do three things: 1) never waste a 1st round draft pick on a "project" again – just trade the damn thing away if a player such as Fab is the best you can do; 2) hold on to the young guys we have signed and will sign and really try to develop them over the summer (unless they turn out to be total 'holes or incompetents); and continue to build your offense around the talent you have as opposed to forcing an offense that doesn't best utilize your most explosive weapons. Do these three basic things and I'm certain good things will happen for the team.

      • KillerGymRat

        Really appreciate your response, The Cardinal. I agree with you, and everything I said should be filtered through the simple truth that you can't plan for season ending injuries. And if we had everyone healthy, I really like our team.

        Personally I think the signing of Lee and Terry were great moves. Even the Green signing (while bizarre we couldn't get a better deal and I have no idea why you would guarantee a contract to somebody with such a substantial health risk) but it was under the bird rights and allowed us to circumvent the cap so it made sense. Bass was the headscratcher, as I think you can get a lot more bang for your buck even if you take his peak play as the gauge.

        But I agree, what Danny did made sense for where this team was and the upside of what was possible. My point is really that all the talk of trading PP, KG or RR, doesn't make sense when you consider the moves Danny did make. The best course of action IMO is to play the hand we have, and then look to move around those mid-level contracts over the summer or next season.

        There were no better moves to make this year.

        And I couldn't agree more with you on the three things. Why you would take on a project like Melo when this is a win or bust year makes no sense. You have to commit one way or another, and with that move Ainge hedged his bet. Why not flip that pick for an asset you can use right away (like say, I don't know, a rebounding/defensive big). I'm sure you could have gotten Reggie Evans for that pick or somebody in that mold.

  • janos

    hi ryan is janos
    so rondos is safe us, corrects?

  • CelticsBIG3

    Well at least we only have to deal with the Miami Superteam for another year or so. Then the playing field is going to be leveled out. As mentioned by GymRat it is not going to be possible to create super teams anymore under the new CBA. This will provide opportunity in the best case scenario to make all of the teams more relevant as the spending caps won't allow for teams to stock pile great players like Boston did in 2007 and Miami did in 2010. However, due to the humanity of the players, this won't turn out as it looks like it will on paper. Guys still will prefer to play in New York, LA, Miami, etc. I understand the model the NBA was trying to create, but I just don't anticipate it working out the way they envisioned.

  • Josh_5

    Danny looks lonely in this picture.

  • old knees54

    The C's need a better big than Bass who will rebound and score inside and they need to run with force to the basket and they need to stop making errors. Play aggressive and smart. As tommy is always saying you can win missing good shots if you play fast. Is that too much to ask?

  • james patrick

    I live and die green, just like KG