We're back for part two where we are looking at the places where the Celtics got some help from luck and the places where they made their own. I’ve been ranking events by ‘shamrocks’ with “less luck more planning” team-building events receiving one shamrock and “ultra-lucky” situations getting five shamrocks.
Last time around we covered a lot of the bigger situations including the detonation of '08 championship core, the Brooklyn trade, the hiring of Brad, and the TPE creation in the Brooklyn trades. In this part, I want to talk about how three key members of the core were acquired. Some are just the latest chapter in a story that Celtics fans have been watching play out over and over again.
The Draft Pick
The doomed 2013-2014 Celtics squad was supposed to be one of the trainwrecks in the league. With Rondo shelved and the matching bloated contracts of Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries part of the piper that needed to be paid for the Brooklyn trade, there wasn’t much variance for rookie head coach Brad Steven to take advantage of. Danny would cycle whatever misfits his trades acquired through the team, and it resulted in poor Brad trying to win games with greats like Joel Anthony seeing significant minutes. This was all part of the plan, as part of the initial destruction of the team was to tank for a pick in what was projected to be an exceptionally loaded draft.
The bad news was that it was a year that a lot of teams ended up tanking. Some by accident (Milwaukee and Lakers) and some very much on purpose (Sixers and Utah). That season, there were eight teams with less than 30 wins. This season there will be five, including the Wolves who have a shot at 29. On top of this, Cleveland would fall ass backwards into their 3rd #1 pick in four years, saved from their own ineptitude. Brad Stevens would coach a team whose league consensus best player was Jeff Green (though people who actually watched the team would make arguments for Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, or Sullinger) to 25-57, tied for 5th worst in the league. The Celtics would lose the coin flip (it’s actually done by drawing lots) with the Jazz.
The point I want to make here, is that the Celtics had one of the worst rosters in the league by talent. Especially if you want to go head to head with some of the talent that the other rosters had. These are sorted by a mix of VORP, WS, and BPM
|Players ||Bucks ||Sixers ||Lakers ||Magic ||Jazz ||Celtics ||Kings ||Pistons |
|1st option ||Brandon Knight ||Thaddeus Young ||Pau Gasol ||Nikola Vucevic ||Gordon Hayward ||Kelly Olynyk ||DeMarcus Cousins ||Andre Drummond |
|2nd ||John Henson ||Michael Carter Williams ||Jodie Meeks ||Arron Afflalo ||Derrick Favors ||Jared Sullinger ||Isaiah Thomas ||Greg Monroe |
|3rd ||Khris Middleton ||Spencer Hawes ||Wesley Johnson ||Maurice Harkless ||Marvin Williams ||Kris Humphries ||Rudy Gay ||Kyle Singler |
|4th ||Zaza Pachulia ||Evan Turner ||Jordan Hill ||Tobias Harris ||Jeremy Evans ||Rajon Rondo ||Luc Mbah a Moute ||Brandon Jennings |
|5th ||Ramon Sessions ||Henry Sims ||Ryan Kelly ||Kyle O’Quinn ||Alec Burks ||Jordan Crawford ||Quincy Acy ||Rodney Stuckey |
|6th ||Ersan Ilyasova ||Jarvis Varnardo ||Nick Young ||Victor Oladipo ||Richard Jefferson ||Jeff Green ||Reggie Evans ||Josh Smith |
|7th || |Gian- Greek Freak |Lavoy Allen ||Robert Sacre ||Jameer Nelson ||Enes Kanter ||Brandon Bass ||Jason Thompson ||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope |
I love Kelly and Jared, but besides maybe a tanking Philly’s Young and Carter-Williams, they are the easily the least impressive headliners of any of those teams.
Here we see the drawback of having Brad Stevens as a coach. The dude just wins games. Hand this mismatched Celtics roster to Mike Brown or Byron Scott and this is a 9 win team. Instead, Brad makes China’s Jordan Crawford a Player of the Week winner.
Anyway, the Celtics are trying to tank in a year when there are more bad teams than usual and with a coach who knows what he’s doing. They get bad luck by losing the coin flip with Utah and end up in their most likely draft position (6th).
The Celtics big prize for a year of pain is Marcus Smart, who likely would have been selected 1st overall had he came out during a weak draft after his freshman year. I was down on Smart, though much of that was due to my belief that the Celtics couldn’t trade Rondo for value that made sense and that the two were a bad fit together (I was half right). The buzz coming into the draft was that Danny liked Smart and Gordon, but Orlando took the guesswork out of that by electing to take AG instead of Dante Exum, as many had predicted. Although, Gordon was hurt during his initial year in central Florida, it looks like Danny may have been onto something, as he’s improved pretty steadily throughout the year.
With all of these different scenarios in mind, the question on the table is “Were the Celtics lucky or unlucky to get Marcus Smart?”
A look through previous #6 picks will turn up guys like “Damian Lillard and Brandon Roy“. It will also turn up names like “Ekpe Udoh, Yi Jianlan, Johnny Flynn and Jan Vesely”. More often, guys of quality like Danilo Gallanari (and his injuries), Nerlens Noel, Chris Kaman, Shane Battier and Wally Sczerbiak are much more par for the course. Right now, that seems like the path that Smart seems to be heading down. In fact, Smart and Noel seem to be the ‘big’ and ‘small’ versions of one another right now.
It’s still much too early in Smart’s development to make any final decisions about what he is and isn’t. Ask the self-proclaimed eye-test aficionados and they’ll say that Smart’s shooting dooms him to be the smaller Tony Allen, but swear that it’s a compliment. Ask the stats nerds what Marcus will be and they will excitedly point to a similarity score that indicates ‘James Harden’ and not understand the irony. Personally, I think he’s more in the mold of the tiny, homeless man’s Lebron James. (I’m not going full-Tommy. Stick with me.) He’s player who can help in a ton of ways and is versatile enough to help you survive at pretty much anything that’s not shooting. However, he probably needs the ball and a very specific set of teammates in order to be at his most effective.
Building a unit around what LeBron James does best is a good way to win a lot of basketball games, as he’s arguably one of the 5 greatest players of all time. Will Marcus Smart ever be good and consistent enough to have a unit that can be impactful in big games built around him? That’s what’s going to determine his ceiling. I don’t think his shooting is ever going to be good enough that he can be an effective floor spacer, so you would need to make something for him where he can attack and kick. When that player is a guard, things can get a lot trickier, and you need more specialized personnel that you might need with a forward or big. There’s a reason Rondo’s had his struggles since the Big Three departed.
I’m not going to bet that Marcus Smart will make an All-Star game someday, but given a lot of the statistical signals, I’m also not going to be surprised if Barry Allen warps back into my office to tell me he will be the 3rd best player on a Celtics championship team someday.
All in all, the Celtics might not have been able to tank because Brad Stevens is that damn good, it was a historically tanktastic year, and the C’s still didn’t have lottery luck. However, the events that landed us Marcus Smart are probably not as unlucky as the casual Celtics fan may have perceived them.
It was disappointing to slide that far, and that disappointment can refract around the upsetting Hall of Mirrors that is a 25 win season; particularly if you don’t walk away with a top prize. However, labeling it ‘unlucky’ is probably a bit of an exaggeration. Hood and Capela have been very good, but I’m not sure if I’d rather have them above Smart, and I definitely wouldn’t have wanted them above Smart in the context of that draft night. From what I can tell, that pick came down to Smart, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh, and I think Danny made the right pick. shnts sez ‘3 shamrocks’
Dealing the Dealer
I still can’t believe how convincingly Danny Ainge won the Rondo trade. Let’s start there.
I covered how the timing of Rondo’s injury was devastating to the Celtics in Part I of this piece. It happened at the perfect time to wipe out much of the value that his under-market contract had, and left Danny in a very high stakes game of free agent hot-potato. Ironically, the Kings were rumored to be the team most willing to part with some young pieces (a draft pick, filler and either McElmore or Stauskas was the rumor). But frustratingly, the deal never happened because Rondo refused to agree to resign with them. When he was dealt for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, a DAL 1st and 2nd, and ‘filler’, I was mortified.
We had to accept that we missed the window to get peak value for Rondo and that Dallas’s pu-pu platter would have to do. It’s important to note the role of TPE’s in this deal, as Danny was able to absorb all of the Dallas players coming in with his own TPE’s to create a big $11.9M once Rondo was sent to the land of the Kennedy Assassination. The TPE would go unused and renounced, but it was an option that was there. Remember, that this is why Danny Ainge can do these complicated cap maneuvers, because of planning like that. The trade was a gamble for Dallas that raised their variance and staked bench depth on the bet that Carlisle could figure out a way to mesh Rondo into the Mavs. Had it panned out, the Celtics would likely be receiving a mid-20s pick for their superstar. Instead, Carlisle basically fired Rondo from the playoffs and he bolted for sleep train in the offseason, wiping out their asset chest. This is to say nothing of the Deandre Jordan saga.
I remember asking on twitter
whether it would be Phil, Crowder, or Faverani that would be waived, as the Rondo deal put 16 people on the roster. That’s how much of a throw-in Crowder was in the deal. It’s worth noting that I actually really liked Jae during the 2012 draft
, it’s just that he had been kind of a fringe player in Dallas and was actually used in a Mavs Moneyball post
to prove the flaws of RPM. Instead, he quickly became the Celtics starting small forward. This only compounded when the Celtics re-signed him to what I thought was a pretty fair deal and then that
was immediately made into a bargain by Jae’s MIP-buzzworthy year. He’s probably the team MVP at this point, although I’ll also hear arguments for IT.
The two things to ask about the Rondo trade when you are discussing it in the context of luck is ‘Was the pick more valuable than expected’ and ‘were the players more valuable than expected’. The Dallas pick will convey this year, likely at 16 and that’s probably higher than anything I would have guessed when the trade happened.
As far as receiving Jae Crowder goes. I think Danny deserves credit for asking for him. However, I think Danny would have ultimately still pulled the trigger if it was Greg Smith or Gal Mekel in that final spot to make the salaries work. Most of the time when someone gets lucky, it’s because being smart opened the option to be lucky. That’s what happened here.
The Rondo situation was bad, but the Celtics got some much needed luck with Dallas falling apart and Crowder being the right ‘expiring minimum’ guy to ask for. shnts sez ‘5 shamrocks’
The Little Guy
So let’s say you are Danny Ainge.
You’ve made a ton of moves the past two offseasons de-clogging your roster and stocking your asset chest. You moved your superstar to Dallas and your athlete to Memphis. You’ve flipped the pieces around those deal into a series of second round picks Jonas Jerebko and a waived CDR and Nate Robinson. You’ve signed Evan Turner to be a versatile ball-handler while your prize draft pick point guard learns the ropes. Your team is young, but improving, and you have a good coach.
You’re 20-31 at the All-Star break, on pace to win 32 games. Probably getting a mid-round lottery pick (where the Pistons got Stanley Johnson).
But wait. What’s this?
Your phone rings. It’s your wonderkid Ryan, out in Phoenix.
He’s blowing up his 3 point guard experiment. Dragic is gone. Hinkie has been offered IT for facilitating the acquisition of Brandon Knight, but he wanted the Lakers pick instead, not Isaiah. Now he wants to give you the option. The asking price is an expiring (Marcus Thornton works beautifully) and a 1st. You think that you can bully Ryan into taking your crappiest 1st (the Cleveland pick), but the question is do you want to?
You had put out feelers on IT last offseason, but he ended up signing with Phoenix. However, he’s so small, has only ever been on bad teams, and seems to have been a malcontent anywhere he went. He and Boogie reportedly feuded in Sacramento. The death of Suns chemistry in Arizona has his fingerprints all over it. His contract is pretty manageable, but it’s three years long and might cut into your cap room during the key free agent years. He needs the ball in his hands and your star prospect is a PG. Your team is young and there’s no telling how bringing in someone with his reputation will affect the locker room.
Even in the “best case” scenario, you will end up hurting your draft pick. This is a buying move, trading a future asset for a present asset. It’s something that signals the end of a rebuild
. Even though the price is cheap, you could throw your team on the ‘treadmill of mediocrity’ with a move like this. You’ll no longer get premium draft assets with your own pick.
What do you do?
It gets lost to the hullabaloo of Thomas’s All-Star season, but even though the price was cheap, trading for Isaiah wasn’t a no-brainer. It was a calculated risk particularly given where the team was, and the fact that the team’s best young player player was in the same position.
Yes, anytime that a team can get an All-Star for a low pick and filler, it’s good luck.
However, It’s not like Isaiah had some massive improvement here in Boston. He’s been better, but he was still a 20 PPG scorer for most of his NBA career. Teams knew about Isaiah, and given the level of assets it took to get him, many of them could have had him. I’m guessing most of them simply didn’t want to take the risk.
It’s funny to look at Amin Elhassen defending his old organization and calling the Thomas trade the ‘worst of the deadline’ now, but some of those arguments hold a lot of water and, if you like our tiny All-Star, you should give Danny the credit he is due. shnts sez ‘2 shamrocks’
Rondo trade lucky; acquiring Smart and Isaiah was less so.