Saturday, June 29, 2013

The End of An Era & An Alarming Trend

When you think back to the Celtics run with the Big 3 & them winning a championship in their first year together, you had to figure there would be at least one more championship before it was said & done. Their best shot for a 2nd title was derailed by an injury to Kendrick Perkins in 2009 when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games. They ended up going to a total of 2 NBA Finals in their 6 years together. Now on the surface that may sound less than stellar given their early success but when you go back over the years, since 1959 only 15 different teams have won titles. What that statistic tells me is that it is extremely difficult to win an NBA title. So in retrospect, they had an impressive run, making deep playoff runs every year except their last.

When I think back to the start of their run, it was obvious their window wasn't going to be extremely long since they all had been in the league for at least 9 years with Kevin Garnett & Ray Allen having played for 12 years each already. If you told Danny Ainge & Doc Rivers they'd all be together for a good 5 year stretch, I'm sure that would be exactly what they'd hope for. This past year was the start of the end with the departure of Ray Allen to the Miami Heat but it was officially brought to an end with their 1st round playoff ouster at the hands of the New York Knicks. What has transpired since then has been interesting to say the least.

Since that playoff exit, they have traded Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 1st round draft pick & on draft night announced, in principle, the trade of both Garnett & Pierce along with Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets. The obvious reaction is the Celtics are rebuilding & looking towards their future. Every era comes to an end so it should come as no surprise, but the biggest shock is them trading Pierce. You heard constantly at the beginning of last year that Garnett was seriously considering retirement only to be talked into coming back. Now, he's off to play for his 3rd team in his career. Pierce though it seemed would retire a Celtic in the vain of the old Celtic greats like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale & Bill Russell. To imagine Pierce in another uniform is difficult to do.

When the trade was announced, the blogosphere went crazy with people catapulting the Nets to near the top of the Eastern Conference as a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat. On paper, it would appear they have vastly improved, but I have to say though, I disagree. Teams like the Pacers, Bulls & Knicks will be getting back injured stars Danny Granger, Derrick Rose & Amare Stoudemire so barring any major trades, they'll all be bringing back relatively the same rosters. Continuity is a dramatically underrated element in the NBA. Constant roster upheaval is difficult to overcome. The league is about spacing & it takes time to get used to each other as far as when, where & just as importantly, how you like the ball. You can't learn those things about each other through the course of training camp. It normally takes a year or so. 

Last season for the Nets the lack of continuity can be used as one of the reasons for their season long issues. They went through losing streaks, coaching changes & an embarrassing exit from the playoffs. On the surface, the trade seems to address one of their biggest issues, leadership or a lack thereof. Kevin Garnett instantly gives them a voice & an identity both on the court & in the locker room. That seemed to be their biggest issue as Deron Williams appeared to have trouble assuming that role. Joe Johnson is more a quiet lead-by-example type of player, not a rah-rah guy. Garnett on the other hand is the antithesis of that. He will get in peoples' faces & hold guys accountable which Williams seemed unwilling or unable to do. That, for me, is the only aspect of the trade that I like for the Nets. 

For the Celtics, they got back Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph & three 1st round picks (2014, 2016 & 2018). Those picks can be used for additional deals or by 2016, could be significant as the Nets may be starting to rebuild by then. The contracts of both Wallace & Humphries are interesting from the Celtics standpoint though. Wallace has 3 years & $30 million left on his deal but to be honest, I've never understood people's infatuation with him. He's a tough hard nosed player, but as was evident last year with the Nets, his offensive game is severely limited. I'm not quite sure why the Celtics felt the need to take on that many years at that dollar amount unless it was the only way to make the deal work. I'd have to think Humphries may be used as trade bait as he has 1 year left at $12 million & could help a team in need of a good rebounder. Brooks though may be the most coveted player they took back in the deal. He actually was originally drafted by the Celtics & traded to the Nets as part of a deal where they swapped picks & also got the Nets' 2014 2nd round pick. So essentially, they own the rights to both of the Nets' draft picks next year.  

 I understand what Ainge is attempting to do but I can't help but feel like he could've gotten a better package had he waited, especially since no part of this deal involved any picks from this year's draft. Which brings me to my real issue with this trade. I can't help but feel like this was somehow a Mikhail Prokhorov deal. Since coming to NY he has made it a priority to make a lot of noise & grab headlines in the city. In NY where there are 2 teams in each sport, there is a real big brother/little brother dynamic that exists. The Mets, Jets & Nets are all stuck in the shadows of the more popular & successful, Yankees, Giants & Knicks. Every time throughout the years when the little brothers have tried to win the popularity contest in the city, it has pretty much back-fired. Whenever one of them has attempted it through big trades or free agency, they've had some success, but when it doesn't work, it goes bad fast. For instance, the Mets. After signing big ticket free agents in 2007, they made it to the League Championship Series yet 2 years later were firing their manager & starting a decline that they've yet to recover from. The Jets did the same thing when the hired Rex Ryan, signing or trading for a bunch a veterans & mortgaging their future by trading away a number of draft picks. They did everything possible to make a name for themselves in order to win over the populace even appearing on HBO's Hard Knocks program. They were able to get to two straight Conference Championships, but since then have been on an embarrassing decline.

Since Prokhorov took over, the Nets it seems, have been following the same blue print. They traded for Joe Johnson 2 years after he signed a max contract while playing for the Atlanta Hawks. A deal that was widely criticized as arguably one of the worst contracts ever & the thought was that it would make him un-tradeable. Only, you can never account for a desperate owner with deep pockets. When Prokhorov took over, one of the first things he said he wanted to do was take over the town from the Knicks. He also said their goal was to win a title within 5 years. Big mistakes. The fact that he would even mention the Knicks was a mistake. Especially since the Knicks themselves were desperate to get back to relevance. In a city like NY, there is no better selling point than winning. The majority of fans in NY are too savvy to be fooled by the smoke & mirrors of winning the off-season. As I said there were no picks from this year's draft included in the deal, yet for some reason, it was announced in the middle of the NBA Draft while everyone was watching. That reeks of an attention grabbing move. They could've done this a week later & nothing would've changed. The fact that it came out when it did is a clear sign of a public relations move.

From purely a basketball perspective though, as I said, Garnett makes perfect sense for the Nets but Pierce going to Brooklyn makes little sense. While both are at the tail end of their careers, they still will be counted on for crucial minutes albeit fewer minutes than they're used to playing. The question for Pierce is, how prepared is he to become essentially a spot up shooter? Him & Johnson both like the ball in the same spots on the floor & need it in their hands while they're both used to taking the last shot. Johnson established that role last year for the Nets by taking & hitting multiple game winners, a role that Pierce has played his whole career. Also, when you add Williams & Brook Lopez, that's four guys who need the ball to be effective. In Lopez you have a seven footer who doesn't rebound nor play defense well so if he's not getting the ball in the post, how effective can he be? It's difficult enough when you have two guys that need the ball to be effective so it's hard to fathom having four guys that need it. 

The difficult task of making it all come together will fall into the lap of a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd. I went over the many dynamics of Kidd's transition from player to head coach in a matter of a couple of weeks in a previous post (see: 2 Weeks In The Life of Jason Kidd ). Now though, that dynamic has grown exponentially. Kidd will have to navigate all of these egos while implementing his system. A system which he stated in his introductory press conference was to be more uptempo. Garnett & Pierce at this point in their careers are not suited for an uptempo style of play. If Kidd is forced to change to a more half court system, that should benefit Brook Lopez more than anyone else. Although, as the youngest player in this revamped lineup, it will be interesting to see how often Lopez actually demands the ball in the post which is normal even for the most dominant post players. 

Kidd has hired Lawrence Frank as his top assistant to help ease his transition. He was Kidd's head coach in New Jersey when he took over for Byron Scott & was an assistant in Boston under Rivers for the 2010-11 season. Frank though has never coached a team with this many aging veteran stars. What the Nets have to hope for is that Pierce is more than willing to accept a lesser role & Garnett is able to become the type of leader to Williams that he was to Rajon Rondo. Even Johnson will have to be willing to give up a number of shots for them to have success. Williams is really the key to it all though. As I've said before, he has shown to be somewhat of an enigma & his inability to be a leader with his skills while playing point guard is troubling. I wouldn't at all be surprised if at some point there is talk of bringing Pierce off of the bench in order to create more space for Johnson & Williams on the floor. Again, how will that be received by a guy like Pierce coming from a rookie head coach, even if that coach is a guy like Jason Kidd?

So while it seems the Celtics are on course to end up in the Andrew Wiggins lottery, they may not be as bad as people think which usually is the last thing you want to be as a franchise. In the NBA, the last thing you want to be is mediocre. It's much better to very bad than average. Which is why I can't help but think that Ainge isn't through making deals. The logical next piece for him to move is Rondo. Problem with that though is, Rondo is coming off of knee surgery so they probably wouldn't be getting back top dollar for him. Would Ainge be willing to trade Rondo to a team like Sacramento who desperately needs a floor leader or perhaps to the Detroit Pistons who have some nice young pieces they could offer up? Time will tell but before we assess the Celtics fortunes let's wait & see what other moves they make between now & the start of training camp because any Rondo deal may have to wait awhile so teams have a better idea how healthy his knee is. The Nets roster however, is pretty much set for the most part aside from some smaller moves. Kidd will get his feet wet coaching their summer league team but coaching a bunch of rookie free agents & second year players looking to make an NBA roster is very different from the roster he'll be coaching next season.