A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Building (and the Luck) of the Celtics

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The Sloan conference, as one would expect, is producing tons of great food for thought. The latest article on TrueHoop reports on Boston Celtic co-owner Wyc Grousbeck‘s statements about building the current stellar Celtic teams. The gist:

Grousbeck and his partners bought the team in 2003 and apparently decided that while the team was good it wasn’t good enough to win a title, so they tore it apart and re-built it with the specific idea of acquiring a Big 3 with one true superstar among the trio. These guys sound like visionaries don’t they? The TrueHoop piece mentions the risk involved in such a move, but that just makes the ownership group look all the more bold and unwilling to accept any form of mediocrity

I don’t mean to knock the Celtic management, but I think it is wise to look at the details here to get a more nuanced perspective on thing.

Rebuilding not with a bang, but a whimper

Let’s start out looking at where the Celtics were in 2003. The TrueHoop piece notes that the Celtics were “team two wins away from the NBA Finals”. Of course, that’s not how anyone saw them, and it sounds like the Celtics ownership saw them with similar objectivity: The Celtics were a team that couldn’t win 50 games in a conference that temporarily had become so weak that even the conference champion was a joke.

Of course this doesn’t make it a given that the Celtics should blow it up. I think a lot of teams should be more grateful for what they have when they have a playoff team. Is there a particular reason it made sense to blow up the Celtics, or was it just ownership’s high standards?

Well, neither really. The Celtics didn’t actually blow it up at that time. Yes they traded 2nd star Antoine Walker in 2003, but Walker was already becoming a bit of a joke in the league based on how incredibly inefficient of a scorer he was, so getting rid of him was not a clear sign of re-building. Beyond that of course, the Celtics re-acquired Walker in 2005. It’s awfully hard to claim the franchise had seriously decided to forsake an immediate good team for the good of the future until after it had become clear that the team had peaked several years before.

Pierce was “miserable” with good reason

Of course, the last couple of years before the acquisition of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the team was clearly in a rebuilding mode, however, I’d argue that that at that point the organization showed even less clear direction toward the solution they happened upon at journey’s end. From the TrueHoop piece:

Once the decision was made to remake the roster, Walker was jettisoned, and Pierce and new Coach Doc Rivers were left to crawl around in the wreckage. Pierce seemed increasingly miserable with the losing and on the verge of being an ex-Celtic more than once during the 2003-07 period, but according to Grousbeck, Rivers was always there for the long term.

This makes it sound like the team was dead set on building around Pierce, and that he was simply unhappy that the team was in re-building mode. Hardly. There’s a basic fact about team building: Winning a championship is hard enough, that if you’re serious about it, you’re building for one window of opportunity. In ’06-07, among the Celtics’ 8 primary players, only the 29-year old Pierce was older than 24, and the average age of the other 7 players was young than 22 years of age. The notion that a team would try to build around a star with a supporting cast that was to a man so much younger than him is absurd. Pierce knew that he was no longer the focus of the franchise and that he was one good trade offer away from being moved, and that’s why he was “miserable”.

Moral of the story: Don’t mistake luck and adaptability for vision

I’d say the key thing to understand about acquiring the Big 3, was that it was not an outcome of decent likelihood that anyone was banking on. It didn’t come from anyone’s incredible vision, it came from the reasonable action of eventual re-bulding, luck, and adaptability. The Celtics acquired young talent, because that’s all there is to do when your team isn’t going anywhere as is. That was their plan for the future, but they (possibly just Danny Ainge) kept their ears to the ground at all times, and were willing and able to make a tremendous change in plans rapidly when opportunities presented themselves. Those two opportunities: 1) Garnett being available in trade, and 2) Allen becoming particularly easy to acquire, which meant they could do it in the process of courting Garnett.

When I read Grousbeck’s words I think about a specific twist on human’s tendency to assume inevitability of the particulars of one event: People tend to self-aggrandize whenever things go right for them, and the people they tell the self-aggrandizement tend to eat it up. Grousbeck wants to believe he and his group knew what they were doing, and the rest of us want to believe we know now some great truth about how to run a team. And any of us who buys into the narrative without looking at the specifics of the situation, ends up fooled into believing too much in the ability of any one group of people to control their own destiny.

Let’s also note a few fun facts:

-Why Allen became easy to acquire: Because his team got the #2 pick in the draft, in a year considered to have 2 superstars in it. And in a year where the Boston Celtics tanked hard with desperate hope of acquiring one of the those two picks. All of this particular success came only because the Celtics did *not* have the luck in their primary plan bounce the right way. If the Celtics get Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce gets traded to a new team right quick.

-The jewel of the Celtics re-building process was Al Jefferson, and it now seems likely he’ll never be an all-star, and he’ll mostly be known for being traded for Garnett. Lucky, lucky Celtics.

-On the skill side of things though, let’s give Danny Ainge his props for seeing more clearly into Rajon Rondo‘s future than anyone else. That was one of the great draft picks in recent history, and an indication that Ainge is by no means a one trick pony.

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4 Responses

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  1. Provocative stuff Matt. Good point about self-aggrandizing.

    As for the Celtics “luck v plan,” I don’t think you’re giving them enough credit, in particular with Garnett. KG was considered past his prime and Minnesota couldn’t trade him on the dollar. I can’t remember the potential Phoenix deal or other trades that didn’t go through, but Boston was seen as rolling the dice by exporting it’s entire roster (save 3 players) for Garnett. The expectations were moderate around the league, with people questioning how Boston would play defense and if they’d win 60 games (they almost won 70).

    Remove KG from the equation and there’s probably no sexy discussion about this at Sloan because frankly, the Celtics probably wouldn’t be too different from the 2002/2003 teams.

    ElGee

    March 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • Actually I don’t see how the facts you put together really means we should give a lot more credit to long term planning. Maybe that’s not what you meant?

      You’re completely right though about Boston’s Big 3 being even better than most of us expected. Much more impressive than Miami’s Big 3.

      Matt Johnson

      March 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  2. I agree, the way I see it the Celtics road to the big 3 had these lucky factors in play:

    – Drafting a 20/10 big man in Al Jefferson with a non lotto pick. Now it is to their credit they scooped Jefferson. But it’s also luck that so many teams passed on him

    – Pierce’s major injury leading to the #5 pick. A poor man’s version of Robinson’s injury getting San Antonio Tim Duncan

    – Kevin Garnett hitting the market. Garnett is arguably a top 15 player ever. Those guys hardly ever hit the trade market in their prime.

    The biggest credit I give to the Celtics is having the balls to make the Ray Allen trade before the KG one was consumated. Ainge pushed his chips in and won. And of course, managing to make that KG deal while keeping Rondo was stellar negotiating.

    Julien Rodger

    March 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    • Yeah, major balls on that one for Ainge. I don’t think he did it blindly – I do think he had a pretty good sense that the Garnett trade was there for the taking if you could get Garnett’s buy in – but still, if the KG trade doesn’t work out, giving up a top draft pick would have really fanned the flames of critics.

      Matt Johnson

      March 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm


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