Monday, August 06, 2007

Celtics: The Vision - An Assessment

My take on the Garnett trade and its potentially transformative effect on the Celtics team and organization. Initially posted 8/5/07.

Make no mistake, the Celtics’ 2007 off-season will go down as one of the most successful in all of sports. The addition of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett should not just have an additive effect, it should be transformative. These two, combined with Paul Pierce will make the rest of their teammates much better. Let’s look at the reasons why:

Offense: The benefits of Danny Ainge’s off-season additions are easiest to appreciate when it comes to the offensive end. In the NBA two dominant scoring threats are better than one, not simply because ‘two is better than one’ but also because the defensive team’s energy and attention are zero-sum entities. In short, the more attention devoted to one potential scoring threat results in a less attention to another. So having two dominant scorers typically makes it easier for both players. You can see where I am going with this… three is obviously better than two, making scoring that much easier and efficient for all three than it had been the season before when each was the primary focus of their opponents defensive schemes.

And in a league where the perceptions of the refs are just as important (or actually more important) than the reality, having three acknowledged, accomplished scorers is far better that any that are up-and-coming, particularly given how refs have been encouraged by the league office over the past few years to award free-throws, even at the end of games in decisive circumstances. Grade A

Defense: This is an area where we should expect a true transformation. Already after the Ray Allen trade I expected our defense to be better for the following reasons: (1) Ray Allen would push Pierce to play SF almost exclusively, (2) Ray Allen, whatever his defensive deficiencies, can stay in front of his man when motivated, unlike Wally Sczcerbiak, and (3) the loss of Delonte West (who had trouble staying in front of speedy PGs) means more time for Rajon Rondo on the court. From my count that results in improved defense at all three perimeter positions, but particularly at the most important, the PG position, where the pressure at the point can result in delays in establishing the offense leading to hurried sets and rushed shots as the shot clock ticks down.

Now Ainge has added Garnett to the equation, a perpetual Defensive POY candidate. This transforms the PF position, which had been our most vulnerable position from a defensive standpoint, into a defensive strength. Al Jefferson simply did not have the lateral footspeed required (which is why most of his minutes were at the center spot), which often resulted in blown assignments whenever he and Kendrick Perkins were on the court together (often resulting in fouls on Perkins as he tried to compensate). Now with Garnett and Perkins the Cs will have two shot-blocking linebackers as the second line of defense, but with the improved perimeter D and Garnett at his side, I would expect Perkins to cut down on the fouls and stay on the court longer while being more effective when out there. In short the Cs should expect to improve their D at every position and the two positions where they were weakest (PF, PG) are now their areas of greatest strength. Grade B+

Rebounding: One would expect improvement given that the Celtics are adding the league’s top rebounder for the last several years in Kevin Garnett. Some might counter that the key player Boston surrendered, Al Jefferson, was coming into his own on the boards so that the improvement might be marginal at best. There are some reasons for believing that Boston should be a much better rebounding team, however. As mentioned, the improvement on the defensive end should allow a player like Kendrick Perkins to stay on the court longer. And Perk (as well as Leon Powe and Glenn ‘Big Baby’ Davis) should be more effective on the glass when out there if only because of the attention Garnett will attract. Given Garnett’s ability to play away from the basket, it should allow whoever he is teamed with to crash the offensive boards against single coverage without too much concern about gumming up our offensive sets.

Add to this, however, the definitive move of Pierce from SG to SF and Rondo into the starting lineup and you have the makings of a dominant rebounding team. The closer Paul Pierce plays to the basket, the better off the Cs will be on the boards. And Rondo’s uncanny nose for the ball should earn him recognition as one of the best in the league at his position once he get the minutes to show his stuff. If Rondo can simply do in starter’s minutes what he has already done playing primarily off the bench, then it will give the Cs three elite rebounders for their positions at PF, SF and PG. And since we already know Perk can rebound if he can stay on the floor long enough, then the Cs have the makings for a potentially dominant team on the glass. Grade A-

The Bench: The bench is the obvious loser when evaluating this summer’s deals. Now, while I would much, much rather be in the current situation of having a loaded starting line-up and looking to shore up the bench than the converse situation of having a bunch of complimentary players with few set starters (as was the case prior to this off-season), we still do need a bench in order to maximize the value of our starters and hope to truly contend for a title. I think the Celts are correct in their apparent estimate that a nine man rotation for the season can be shortened to eight in the playoffs. Now the question is how good do these 3-4 complimentary players need to be? One thing, however, is sure: the Cs should not switch out all their stars simultaneously. So whatever contributions the bench will make will be in the context of blending in with rather than wholly replacing the starting five. This simply has not been possible for the Cs to do in recent memory, and for that reason the expectations for the bench may be a bit higher than they may actually need to be.

Boston apparently feels that Leon Powe is ready to step up and back up the PF spot. At this point it is difficult to assess this judgment – only time will tell. Likewise, they seem comfortable without a pure PG to back up Rondo, apparently estimating that instant offense, three point threat Eddie House will suffice. While this line of thinking is not surprising given how PGs have been used in Boston for the past decade, it is also a judgment that crucially depends on the effectiveness of blending the bench with the starters rather than replacing them outright. Scalabrine seems to be penciled in for spot minutes at the three. Obviously, a healthy Tony Allen would be an invaluable asset. Here again there is little data to either confirm or contradict the apparent judgment by the Celtic brass to rely to some degree on a full recovery. The last piece of the puzzle would seem to be a signed Dikembe Mutombo. He has performed well in short minutes last year for Houston. Certainly he would not be expected to do any more than guard the paint and contribute on the boards for short minutes here. So among the potential backups, only House and Tony A could be considered an offensive threat. The others are at best defensive stop-gaps unless Powe really surprises.

As for the rookies - Big Baby, Gabe Pruitt, Brandon Wallace and (essentially) Jackie Manuel – I would be surprised if any got substantial minutes. Perhaps Big Baby later in the season or Brandon Wallace in specific situation, but for the most part I think these folks are considered investments for upcoming years. I would expect the Cs to leave the final roster spot open, since teams will need to pare rosters in the coming months and you never know who might negotiate a buy-out or be released in the aftermath of a trading deadline trade.

Barring a major injury, the Cs will be fine – but then that is true for most teams as well. Their bench will not be a source of strength, but considering what should be required of them, I don’t think at this point it is the insurmountable liability some have purported it to be. Grade C-

Coaching: As has already been pointed out in various other venues, this is a make or break year for Doc Rivers. Luckily for him, the sort of veteran team that Ainge has assembled minimizes many of Docs greatest weaknesses: rotations are fairly obvious and straight-forward, in game decisions can be handled by veterans themselves on the fly or through contributions during time outs, the point guard position has been resolved. Doc is also purportedly going to focus on defense with the departure of his previous defensive coordinator, leaving the reins of the offense by in large in the hands of Dave Wohl, and while this is no guarantee of improvement, I think most fans would agree that both sets of schemes could do with a change whatever the source. But it will be up to Doc to maximize the value of his newly minted starting five in all areas of the game and if he cannot do so it will mean a lot of wasted motion, effort and money. I share the doubts of many whether he is up to the job or not. I think Doc is on a short leash this season. Let’s hope he makes the most of it. Grade C

Intensity/Effort/Intangibles: You’ve likely heard the comparisons between Garnett coming to a much improved Celtics and Barkley going to the Suns. Both were superstars trapped in unworkable circumstances, who had seen their rivals succeed in the playoffs while year after year their hard work and best efforts, while recognized at one level, were diminished and belittled by the impediments placed in their path by incompetent GMs. Both have a passion for the game and a hunger to win. And like Barkley, it is expected that Garnett will move heaven and earth to take advantage of what is likely his last best chance at winning it all and silencing detractors. However, in the Celtics case I think you can multiply the ‘Barkley factor’ by three – since Pierce, Allen and Garnett have all in one version or another been living the same nightmare. Their commitment will be absolute, and don’t think that they will not expect the same from each and every one of their teammates. Add to that the fact that all three are good character guys and that their skills are eerily complimentary and I think you have the makings for a perfect storm of a season. How it ends we obviously do not know, but I think we can all agree it is going to be special for both the players and the fans. Grade A+

The Vision: Danny Ainge stated when he first came on board that given the realities of the league (and Boston winters) that virtually the only way to acquire the veteran talent needed to win it all was through trades. Now the only way to acquire veteran talent is to exchange prospects – ‘chips’ as he called them. But the process would take time because you had to either (a) develop prospects to the point where their value had increased sufficiently or (b) ‘flip’ assets with other teams with an eye to consolidating multiple lesser assets into larger, more valuable (but still flawed) chips. Obviously, Ainge pursued both avenues, collecting picks, young players and larger, veteran contracts. Both were necessary to finally pull of the two major trades of this summer: cheap young players with upside combined with larger contracts that actually enabled the transactions to be completed on the financial side.

Now it would be foolish to say Ainge never made a misstep or misstatement. Likewise, however, I think any balanced assessment would also have to admit the basic validity of his original ‘vision’ as well as extend him credit for having the intelligence, grit and perseverance to see it through to this stage. To simply try and pass off the events of the summer as ‘desperation’ (as if one needs to be ‘desperate’ in order to want to add Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett) or ‘luck’ is not simply mistaken it is willfully ignorant.

I think Ainge, Red, any GM worth their salt, would agree that luck plays a role, sometimes a key role in making great transactions. But in almost every situation the opportunity afforded by luck is wasted unless one has had the foresight to plan to take advantage of such opportunities when they do present themselves. It is this foresight and preparation that separates the visionary GMs from the plodders.

Did Ainge know he was going to get Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett? No, of course not… but did he plan to take advantage of rebuilding teams that wanted to shed salary in the form of expensive veteran talent – yes. And did he target which veterans he would prefer and work his tail off to do all he could to make sure that his offer made the most sense, yes again. It was not a mistake that Ainge had not loaded up the team with overpriced mediocre talent by spending the full mid-level exception year after year for a marginal return (once was bad enough LOL). Did each individual move push us forward? No, and I don’t think it is realistic to expect that every move always will, given the inherent degree of uncertainty when dealing with extraordinary talents (and egos) who are nonetheless very vulnerable to injury. But when taken as a whole the pattern that emerges is one of pragmatic trial and error that essentially adhered to the basics of vision.

I expect that right now Ainge wants to maximize the flexibility he has with the few roster spot he has to play with. I think a key criteria in filling out the bench this year will be finding players willing to accept one year deals so that the roster is not locked up for the remainder of this team’s window of contention, all the while nurturing the next generation of young talent.
The Celtics have not won anything yet and Ainge’s job is not done, but on the other hand, one can stand back in assessment and state ‘we’ve come a long way, baby!’ Grade A