A number of short-sighted historians scoffed at the national outcry over the forming of the Miami Heat's Big 3. The Celtics were first, they said. Put the obvious aside; Ray Allen is not Dwayne Wade, Paul Pierce is not Lebron James, and Glen Davis is not Chris Bosh (quiet, you). The Miami Heat's continuity is comprised of Dwayne Wade, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, the other two-thirds of the three-ring circus, and table scraps from the Free Agent-pocalypse. Boston was the result of years of careful crafting and hard work from all parties involved.
We've given Ernie Grunfeld kudos for the job he's done since the primary ownership transitioned to Ted Leonsis and Monumental Sports. Danny Ainge did not have the dubious "benefit" of Gun-gate (that's right...'dubious' and quotation marks). When he traded Antoine Walker, it was a disaster. It brought Ainge's friction with then-head coach Jim O'Brien to a head, and the Celtics finished below .500 in a season many fans expected playoff relevance. But through the turmoil, Ainge was drafting and scheming. He drafted Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones, trading them that night for Marcus Banks and developmental project Kendrick Perkins.
And it wasn't just Perkins Ainge would strike gold with. The Celtics did not fail to draft a significant role player or starter every year of the draft leading up to their status as contenders. In 2009 they had only the 58th pick, selecting Lester Hudson. Not what you'd call a fail, as most consider the pick largely worthless. Yet he followed up next year, obtaining Luke Harangody and Semih Erden at No. 56 and No. 60. But that's just the tip of the iceberg and (/insert french accent) we will continue our journey underwater, to the world the casual fan rarely sees. Tabling this past year's trade deadline (did you know the most common outburst before someone gets fired is 'oooooops'?), we have to be most concerned with what Ainge did right to get the Celtics to the big show.
There were plenty of dud deals along the way where luck and/or player development was on Boston's side. The Perkins trade is a slam dunk despite Marcus Banks being the objective. The Sebastian Telfair acquisition was a bust but both he and Theo Ratliff were key pieces in the Kevin Garnett trade. It's said it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart, and Ainge had a knack for both, as well as turning his failures into successes. Or you could take the position that he simply sought to cover his miscues with grandiose experiments. 'I'll make 'em forget. This'll really blow the doors off.' What you can't argue with are the results. Let's take a look at the pieces:
- Celtics trade Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and pick #5 (Jeff Green) for Ray Allen and pick #35 (Glen Davis)
- Celtics trade Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, the Celtic's 2009 top 3-protected first, Minnesota's first rounder obtained in a previous deal, and cash for Kevin Garnett
Assets utilized to make the trade:
- PG - Sebastian Telfair (trade from Portland)
- Wally Szczerbiak (trade from Minnesota)
- SG - Delonte West (trade from Minnesota)
- SF - Gerald Green (draft)
- PF - Ryan Gomes (draft)
- PF/C - Al Jefferson (draft)
- C - Theo Ratliff (trade from Portland)
Resulting in the 2007/08 roster:
- PG - Rajon Rono (trade on draft night)
- PG - Gabe Pruitt (draft)
- SG - Ray Allen (trade)
- SG - Eddie House (FA)
- SF - Paul Pierce (draft)
- SF - Tony Allen (draft)
- SF - James Posey (FA)
- PF - Kevin Garnett (trade)
- PF - Glen Davis (trade on draft night)
- PF - Leon Powe (trade on draft night)
- PF - Brian Scalabrine (descended from heaven)
- C - Kendrick Perkins (trade on draft night)
- C - Scott Pollard (FA)
- Midseason pickups: P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell
There are quite a few parallels to the Wizards. Ainge was trying to build through the draft, trying to move past an aging star (Antoine Walker, whose story is a tragic one), and trying to swing some kind of trade to bring the franchise back to relevance as assets accumulate. The Kirk Hinrich trade doesn't necessarily fit the bill of a premature swing for relevance, but I would grade that as a lesson Ernie already has under his belt. Ainge effectively used free agency to shore up his team's weaknesses, not condense it from the ether.
Where many of us feel our confidence approaching less than 100 percent is the Celtics track record in drafting and developing their youth. I don't want to get bogged down here, but with Flip Saunders at the helm, Nick Young has come around, JaVale McGee started showing flashes of consistency (if there was ever a phrase at war with itself...), Andray Blatche displayed enough virtuosity to land himself an out-sized contract (which he may yet grow into a la Luol Deng) and John Wall's progress has satisfied pretty much everyone who watched this year. So I'll go out on a limb and say player development is in hand.
Drafting has been a point of contention. Oleksiy Pecherov didn't work out for us (/tear), but we've seen real value with Ernie's draft picks, so as an evaluator of young talent, it's hard to knock him. He's definitely above average when it comes to executing trades, regardless of ownership (reference Kwame Brown for Caron Butler, any of the Kirk Hinrich deals), but the scarlet number branded on Ernie's forehead has been the number 5. Most won't argue too much about trading the 2004 No. 5 (Devin Harris) for Antawn Jamison, good value there. And Harris has had far more value as a trade piece than on the floor. Trading the 2009 No. 5 for the expirings of Randy Foye and Mike Miller attracts far more vitriol. Again, I don't want to get bogged down. I believe EG's success with the 2004 trade and the chance to add possibly the kind of impact Antawn Jamison had for a title run with an owner bellowing 'CONTEND!' drove the maneuver and while no one's happy with the result, few could have predicted the circumstances that followed.
It would seem the Wizards have the right philosophy, talent evaluation, drafting, trade practices, and franchise player in place. Here's the current roster, broken down as above:
- PG - John Wall (draft)
- PG - Shelvin Mack (draft)
- SG - Nick Young (draft) (Current FA - QO'd)
- SG - Jordan Crawford (trade)
- SG - Othyus Jeffers (FA) (Current FA - QO'd)
- SF - Jan Vesely (draft)
- SF - Chris Singleton (draft)
- SF - Larry Owens (FA) (Current FA - QO'd)
- SF/PF - Rashard Lewis (trade)
- SF/PF - Trevor Booker (draft)
- PF/C - Andray Blatche (draft)
- C/PG - Javale McGee (draft)
- C - Kevin Seraphin (draft)
- C - Hamady N'Diaye (draft) (Current FA - QO'd)
This list is one every hardcore Wizard's fan can reel off faster than Lebron James can pass to Mario Chalmers in crunch time. Indeed, the youth of this team is the prime concern of many, wondering where on-court leadership is going to come from. Like the Celtics, this is a team built through the draft (at the speed of light). They depended heavily upon their franchise player, Paul Pierce, and their coach, Doc Rivers (whose road was not so rosy, either), we'll have to do the same to pursue this model. The formula is in place; ownership trusts Flip and Ernie to do their jobs, they have plenty of leash from Ted and have earned more.
As Mike said a while back a perfect model for building a contender doesn't exist:
The Celtics used a stable of young, but inconsistent talent to acquire two superstars. The plan worked because Danny Ainge was smart enough to keep the right two youngsters in Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins.
Yep, young but inconsistent talent sounds about right to me. Keeping John Wall is a no-brainer. But is Hamady N'Diaye our Kendrick Perkins project big man? Remember, Al Jefferson was considered by many to be the premier big man prospect in the league at the time. Is JaVale our Al? Is Chris Singleton our Tony Allen? There are no straight lines to be drawn here, but if the Wizards pursue the Celtics model, two things must happen this year as our situation currently stands.
1. John Wall must become the Man. Four things I'm looking for. The jump shot, man defense, improved FT shooting, and command of the locker room.
- The jump shot will force defenses to play honest and start throwing doubleteams at him, that will come in handy come playoffs.
- Jordan Crawford and Shelvin Mack handling some of the playmaking duties hopefully means John won't be as gassed on the back end, and can start developing some of his potential on the other end of the floor. Just because he has the tools doesn't mean he'll use them. Did Gilbert Arenas? But I don't believe for a second Wall will get complacent. He openly commented about watching the playoffs with a sharp eye, and not even a casual fan missed Jason Kidd's series-changing effort on defense.
- Improved FT shooting, not that it's bad, should give John some added juice in crunch time. Defenses in a close game can gamble an average FT shooter barreling at the rim will miss from the line and body up. If John can become an 80-85% FT shooter, defenses will have to play that much more honest, and the Wizards will become that much more dangerous in what Scott Brooks called 4th-quarter games. No matter how you feel about his ability to win those games, his point that young teams need plenty of experience in said games is a salient one.
- Command of the locker room can mean a lot of things. In this case, it's John becoming the Voice of the team culture. Call it grit, wizardry, or ubuntu but he has to be one who represents what this team is about until his Tyson Chandler emerges from our boys and can share the load.
I'm of the opinion that if these four things happen, John Wall can take us to the playoffs all by himself.
2. But the next major criteria for following the Celtics' plan is Flip Saunders getting our young players to the next level. He's going to have to balance meaningful playing time for the bench while teaching the starters how to win, while figuring out who's a starter and who's not. As to how he might do it? I'll take a look at that next week.
If Flip is able to run that gamut, we're going to have a surfeit of role players, maybe even an extra starter or two, in the run up to free agency in 2012. If sign-and-trades are still on the table, look out. Even in a strike-shortened season, they may show enough to pull off that pipe dream for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, especially with Rashard Lewis' contract turning from cap poison into artificial sweetener. But mostly, what I'm saying is that while the same level of care and maybe superior foresight is bringing the Wizards to where Boston was, perhaps we're more like the Thunder ... but we can talk about that on Friday.