We here at JP Lime Productions represent our home base, Boston, MA to the fullest. Our interest and passion for our professional sports teams is deeply rooted, often irrational, and provides daily fodder for conversation and, in our case, blogging material. As such, today we’ll focus on this Scholar’s favorite team, the 17 time NBA Champion Boston Celtics, who after undergoing a major overhaul last summer to kick off a franchise-wide rebuild now hold the 6th and 17th pick in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft. Before exploring what the Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge may do at this year’s draft, let’s take a step back and delve into how the Celtics ended up in this position.
When Danny Ainge assumed his current position with the Celtics back in May of 2003, he immediately began the process of unloading bad contracts and acquiring young talent and draft picks. He did so at the expense of potentially extending what was at the time the best run the Celtics had had since the early 1990s, when injuries and age caught up to the likes of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Combine this with the aggregate and crippling effects of Len Bias, who the Celtics selected with 2nd overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft, dying just days after being drafted, along with All Star Reggie Lewis (who was just coming into his own as a legitimate star in the league) passing away in 1993, and the Celtics went through the bulk of the 1990s and early 2000s ranging from a middle of the pack to just outright bad team – a far cry from the glory days of winning 16 championships between 1957 – 1986. But in the 2001-2002 season, led by coach Jim O’Brien and the high-scoring, young duo of Antoine Walker and 1998’s 10th overall pick, Paul Pierce the Celtics used a chaotic, free-flowing, 3-point shooting offense along with a stingy defense to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988, ultimately falling 4 games to 2 to then New Jersey Nets. Ainge took over at the tail-end of the next season, saw the Celtics fall in the 2nd round of the playoffs. At this point Danny’s first rebuild would begin in earnest.
In 2003 Ainge traded Antoine Walker, immediately down-grading the Cs from playoff contenders to a lottery team. Also, in a move that many forget he spearheaded the voiding of then Celtic Vin Baker’s bad contract (owed roughly 35 million over the following 2.5 years at the time) for violating a team imposed alcohol treatment program. While neither Ainge nor the Celtics brass would ever come out and admit any of this, Vin Baker’s game had deteriorated so badly at least in part due to his alcoholism woes, that Ainge & co. like saw that as their best (and possibly only) way to rid themselves of his contract. Can’t you just picture Ainge calling in cases of beer to Baker’s hotel rooms? Maybe that’s just me, but still… The point is it worked. While the NBA Player’s Union threatened to file a grievance, ultimately the two sides settled against undisclosed terms. How much the Celtics saved as a result of this move is anyone’s guess, but it certainly at least partially relieved them of an unproductive player’s bad contract.
Danny would go on to hire Doc Rivers in 2004 and by the 2007 draft, had stock-piled enough assets and created any cap room to pull off the trades that would ultimately land both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in Boston. In all the Cs gave up their draft pick that year (Jeff Green ironically enough), along with Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff’s expiring contract, two first round picks, and cash considerations. The point here is clear. Danny sacrificed the potential success of a team built around Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce for the long-term goal of acquiring enough assets to pull off a trade for impact veterans. And in 2007 he got it done, spearheading the New Big Three era with Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen leading the charge.
The next 6 years are etched in Celtics’ lore as the renaissance of the league’s most storied franchise. The Celtics would go on to win the Atlantic Division the next 5 years, 2 Eastern Conference titles, and the 2008 Championship. Lamentably in 2012 Ray Allen bolted for the Miami Heat and perennial All Star point guard Rajon Rondo endured a season ending injury in the middle of the year, resulting in an aging KG and Pierce doing their best to carry the team but ultimately falling to the New York Knicks in the first round. That off-season would amount to the beginning of Danny’s 2nd major rebuild with the Celtics, as Doc Rivers bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers and Danny would finally (after a few years of speculation) pull the trigger on trading KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans, and most importantly THREE first round picks (2014, 2016, & 2018) and the right to swap their 2017 pick with the Nets as well. Sound familiar? Yup, blow up a middle of the pack team, acquire assets, clear cap room, and hope the Basketball Gods align with the Leprechaun to either land a stud through the draft or (more likely) pull off a trade for an established upper-echelon player.
And that brings us to this year’s draft. Once again the Celtics are stock-piled with draft picks and have a few productive players under contract that could be used in a blockbuster. In 2007 the Cs had Paul Pierce as the cornerstone of their franchise to pair with whomever they brought in, but they also had a budding star in power forward Al Jefferson. ‘Big Al’ was the centerpiece of the KG trade as far as the Minnesota Timberwolves were concerned. He was in his early 20s and was already displaying enough potential for the Wolves to agree to send their 2004 MVP and perennial All Star to the Celtics. Despite some injuries, Jefferson’s gone on to have a very solid career thus far, emerging as one of the league’s most-talented offensive low post players since the trade.
This year, the Celtics have their established but still young cornerstone in Rajon Rondo, but who fills the Al Jefferson role to sweeten a potential deal? Some will say Jared Sullinger is that guy while others may throw Avery Bradley’s name into that mix. The problem with both is that they’ve already fallen victim to the injury bug, missing time over the past couple of seasons for back and shoulder issues respectively. Do either of these guys have the same allure for potential trade partners that ‘Big Al’ had back in 2007? That remains to be seen. My guess would be Sullinger holds more value as he’s younger than Bradley, can rebound and score effectively in the post, and was actually relatively healthy last year (after missing roughly half of his rookie season the previous year to back woes). Bradley by comparison is an exciting and very effective defensive machine, a good slasher on offense, and has improved his jump shot and overall offensive game every year he’s been in the league. The problem with Bradley is that he’s never played more than 64 games in any season, missing roughly a third of all games played over the past two season. And then there’s the maddening dilemma that is Jeff Green. A very good scorer with the athleticism to also be a very good defender, he’s been incredibly inconsistent since joining the Celtics back in 2011 (as part of the Kendrick Perkins deal that still irritates most Celtics fans). If he ever lived up to his potential, he’d be at worst a borderline All Star. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct needed to become that guy and with $9 million per year owed over the next 2 seasons, it’s unlikely he’ll be the bait to get another team to bite in a blockbuster deal.
With rumors swirling about another high profile Minnesota Timberwolve’s power forward’s availability, namely Kevin Love, will the Celtics have enough to swing a deal? Maybe. As noted above, it remains to be seen whether either Sullinger, Bradley, or Jeff Green will be enough of a sweetener to package in with draft picks to finalize a trade for Love or any All Star that may become available. Another variable in that equation is that 6th pick, just out of the top 5 in a draft that most experts consider loaded from 1-5, and very good after that. Personally, I feel like any pick in the top 5 would’ve effectively sealed any deal the Celtics would offer another team. With Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, and Julius Randle making up that aforementioned loaded 5 in this year’s draft, it’s legitimate to wonder whether the prospect of moving up in the draft to select the likes of Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott, Noah Vonleh, or Aaron Gordon with the 6th pick will be enough to entice a potential trade partner to give up an established All Star. Granted, the Celtics do also have that 17th pick (again, in what’s considered to be a loaded draft) along with several future first rounders, a 10.7 million dollar trade exception they acquired in the Brooklyn deal, and Sullinger, Bradley, and Green to offer as well. Those are all good assets for any trading partner to acquire, but the prospect of drafting one of those top 5 would’ve in my opinion made a trade with the Celtics as close to a no-brainer as you can get this year. Will Sullinger and a combination of players and picks be enough to lure Minnesota into giving up Kevin Love? I for one very much hope so, but that 6th picks creates just enough doubt for Celtic Nation to not feel completely confident as the draft approaches. Remember, Love is a guy who’s coming off a season in which he averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds and was also 3rd in Player Efficiency Rating behind MVP Kevin Durant and the guy who finished 2nd this year in MVP voting, Lebron James…
So does Danny pull the trigger if the Timberwolves are willing. As Stone Cold Steve Austin would put it, “gimme a HELL YEAH!” The real question is whether or not they will. If the Celtics can’t pull a deal for Love or find a willing trade partner for another All Star type, then the question becomes, what do you do with Rondo? He’s under contract through this season and has already indicated he’d like to test the free agency market this summer, despite also indicating he’d like to stay with the Celtics. Both statements are typical of an All Star approaching free agency. He’s earned the right to test free agency and as the lone piece remaining from the ’08 Championship squad, he’s now undoubtedly the face of the franchise, a pretty prominent franchise at that. That’s not a bad position to hold. But as he approaches his prime years, does it make sense for him to play out those years with a talented but young core of players who will improve season by season but likely won’t be ready to contend for a title for another 3-4 years? Probably not. And my guess is Rondo wants to contend for titles now, not in 2018.
So as the draft approaches, what Danny’s dilemma really amounts to is whether to keep the picks and trade Rondo, extending the rebuild now for the sake of contending perennially in the future, or to trade those picks et al. for Kevin Love or some other All Star to pair with Rondo for the sake of winning now. If they do get Kevin Love, the combination of him and Rondo with either Sullinger, Bradley, or Green as the third banana immediately makes the Celtics at worst a top 5 team in the East next year. They’d eventually need to lure another All Star over to create a legit Big 3, but getting Love would expedite that process as top tier talent would be enticed by the prospects of playing alongside a pass first assist machine in Rondo and a guy who cleans up the boards as well as any big in the league in Love.
As a fan, I want to win and I want to win NOW. So the Kevin Love deal makes perfect sense if Danny can get it done. Lets face it, it makes too much sense – granted in an irrational Boston sport’s fan kind of way. Minnesota was not only the trade partner that got us the ’08 Championship, but in 2003 its baseball franchise (the Twins) was where David Ortiz came from, resulting in 3 Red Sox World Series wins since 2004. Also, doesn’t the transition from Kevin McHale, to Kevin Garnett, to Kevin Love (all power forwards) HAVE TO HAPPEN??? Doesn’t that just seem like the perfect direction for this franchise to take? Either way you slice it, we’ll find out soon enough. But in the event that the Celtics can’t acquire Love or another All Star, fret not Celtics Nation, for even though it may take another 2-3 years, overall we’re in fantastic shape with all those picks. Either way you slice it, the Celtics WILL return to prominence. But admittedly, for those of us who Bleed Green, we’d Love for that prominence to happen sooner than later. Hopefully the Leprechaun can work his magic come draft night.