The Boston Celtics haven’t won a playoff series since 2012—the year they took the Miami HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Piece by piece, the team began splitting up. Ray Allen left for Miami and, the following summer, after the team lost to the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Danny Ainge parted ways with Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
With Rajon Rondo being the final domino to fall—he was traded in December 2014—Ainge was said to have embarked upon the most proactive rebuilding project we had seen in quite some time.
Now, with the signing of Al Horford—less than two years after trading Rondo—the Celtics will reemerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
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What July 2016 may be remembered for more than anything else is how a number of impact players in the league changed addresses.
Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan rode off into the sunset while Derrick Rose was traded to New York.
Meanwhile, Al Horford joins a list that features the likes of Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, each of whom signed with a new team in search of greener pastures and an opportunity to prove himself.
Of them all, one can make the argument that Horford is the acquisition that comes with the least amount of risk, at least from a basketball perspective.
In signing Durant, the Warriors had to rescind Bird rights on a few of their pieces and will begin the 2016-17 season without Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. As much as Stephen Curry’s injury played a major role in the demise of the Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals, the absence of Bogut in Game 6 and Game 7 was underplayed. He was vital to the Warriors offensive scheming and defensive planning and without him—one of the best passing centers in the league—they will have to make major adjustments. It should also be pointed out that both Stephen Curry and Durant will have to make major adjustments in their respective games to coexist, as will Klay Thompson, who will go from the team’s secondary offensive option to third.
Odds are, things will work out in Oakland, but to overlook the fact that a substantial roll of the dice was taken in signing Durant would be to overlook logic.
Fortunately, for the Celtics, none of those concerns exist with Horford.
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As Joakim Noah was leading Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, scouts began whispering about one of Noah’s teammates—Horford.
There were a great many that felt that Horford’s gifts meant that he would translate better at the NBA level, and after nine years, it’s difficult to argue. Horford was eventually selected by the Atlanta Hawks at number three, six picks before Noah was selected by the Chicago Bulls at number nine.
Since then, Horford has made four All-Star teams and has played a crucial role in the Hawks qualifying for the playoffs each year since. During his time in Atlanta, the Hawks have won six playoff series and have found consistent success under three different head coaches.
Noah’s team accomplishments are not on par with Horford’s, but that isn’t the major point. What should be understood about Horford is that he is a rare breed in today’s NBA. In the long run, Horford seems destined to be remembered by history in much the same way that Rasheed Wallace and Lamar Odom will be. In each their own right, Wallace and Odom were players whose career statistics and numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of the kind of impact they had on the culture of their respective teams and the role they played in contributing to the win column.
Since Horford began playing internationally with his native Dominican Republic, he quickly earned the reputation of being a hard working player who was more concerned with playing a better team game than his hunt for personal numbers or statistics.
One of Horford’s father’s former teammates on the Dominican National Basketball Team remembers interacting with Horford when he was a young teenager and remembers being sure that he had exactly what it took to excel in the NBA.
Apparently, he was correct.
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In today’s NBA, where winning requires at least three All-Star caliber performers and three above-average bench contributors, building a team capable of winning it all requires the adherence to two main principles. The first is to not allow an irreplaceable asset to leave you for nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets each saw Dwight Howard exit without netting them any assets in return. The Thunder have now experienced that with Durant, as well, and in each instance, each franchise has been set back. Ainge managed to avoid this by dealing Rondo for value. Among the items returned to him from the Dallas Mavericks were Jae Crowder (who has since emerged as a vital rotation piece for Brad Stevens) and what ended up being the number 17 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. That pick was used on Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele will play in the Chinese Basketball Association for the 2016-17 season, but at just 20 years old, he is exactly the type of asset that a young and toiling team like the Celtics could use.
The second principle is one that the New York Knicks learned through experience—don’t sacrifice your assets for a player that could be had outright with cap space in the near future. When it became common knowledge that Carmelo Anthony had eyes for the New York Knicks, he and the franchise played a real life game of chicken wherein, under pressure from James Dolan, the Knicks opted to pay a king’s ransom for Anthony. In that trade, the Knicks gave away almost every asset they had in the cupboard—Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, two second round picks, a first round pick and cash.
While the Knicks did receive some good rotation pieces in return, it’s clear that trading for Anthony set them back. It has been more than five years since Anthony became a Knick and in that duration, the Knicks have won one playoff series and missed the playoffs for three consecutive years.
Now, imagine for a moment that the Knicks would have signed Anthony outright after the 2011 lockout had subsided. Other than Wilson Chandler, each of the aforementioned trade chips would have been with the Knicks and those pieces could have been used to build around Anthony, instead of being sacrificed to acquire him. Had things played out a little differently, Chris Paul would have likely ended up a Knick and it would not have taken Anthony five whole years to have a fairly young, exciting core built around him.
It would appear that Ainge saw the mistakes of other franchises and opted to not repeat them. He maximized the value that he was able to get in return for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo and have used them to rebuild his team. He got incredibly fortunate with Horford and will now add him to a young core that is reminiscent of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. Those Pistons were renowned for being a sum that was greater than its individual pieces, and it was something that each member of the team realized.
The culture that Ainge has built in Boston and the pieces that he has accumulated there are oddly reminiscent of something we have seen before. So, to say that things are looking up for the Celtics would be a bit of an understatement.
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As it stands, the Celtics only have four players under contract for the 2017-18 season: Al Horofrd, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. They have a team option on Marcus Smart that is likely to be exercised, but next summer, when a ton of superstars will be free agents, the Celtics could have in excess of $50 million available to them under the salary cap.
On a personal level, it has been difficult to see Paul Pierce wearing other jerseys. He never looked quite right in Brooklyn’s black or in the red, white and blue of the Washington Wizards. As his career appears to be coming to a close as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, objectively speaking, based on what has transpired in Boston over the past few years, it is difficult to argue against the fact that Ainge has set the franchise up for success in both the immediate and distant future.
In all likelihood, Horford is just the first big catch of the post-Paul Pierce era in Boston. Just think: if Russell Westbrook decided he wanted to move East, there are few teams that would make as much sense for him as the Celtics.
It has been four years since the Celtics have won a playoff series, but in all likelihood, that is a streak that will end this year. And thanks to some prudent management and the signing of a low-risk piece who puts winning above all else, over the next four years, the Celtics are likely to experience some major success.
Despite being across the country in Los Angeles, even Paul Pierce can see that.
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