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NBA Sunday: It’s Easy to Forget the Celtics are Still Rebuilding

With intriguing prospects and draft picks, the Celtics look just like they did before trading for Kevin Garnett.

Moke Hamilton

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About a quarter of the way through the season, in Boston, one thing has become abundantly clear: these aren’t Paul Pierce’s Celtics.

In fact, through 23 games, one could fairly make the case that they haven’t even been Brad Steven’s Celtics. Not last year’s version, anyway.

In 2015-16, Stevens was one of only seven coaches to receive a first-place vote for Coach of the Year, and it was primarily a result of his team’s overachieving.

In that regard, this year’s team is falling short.

* * * * * *

Having won 48 games last season, on paper, the Celtics appeared ready to challenge the Toronto Raptors for supremacy atop the Atlantic Division. Sure, the team has lost Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, but the additions of Jaylen Brown and Al Horford were supposed to be a net-plus. Brown was one of the top rookie prospects available and Horford has developed a reputation for being a hard-working, team-first and underrated player.

Thus far, though, the Celtics have managed a record of just 13-10 through 23 games, the exact same mark as last year’s team.

Along with Horford, Jae Crowder has been conspicuously absent, as well. In total, the two have appeared together in 13 contests, in which the Celtics are a somewhat mediocre 8-5. While it is still early in the season, it’s probably fair to say that the team has started off a bit more slowly that many have predicted. And as we look ahead to the future in Boston—both this season and beyond—it’s important to understand that the Celtics won’t truly become a conference contender unless Danny Ainge manages to acquire an All-NBA level talent.

Say what you want about the Celtics and their scrappiness and ability to compete, the NBA always is and always will be a superstar’s league. Over the past 10 years, of the 22 conference champions that have been crowned, only two—the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers and 2009 Orlando Magic—bucked the familiar trend of requiring multiple Hall-of-Fame talents on the roster.

And now, in today’s NBA, with the proliferation of talent in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Cleveland and even Toronto, one can rest assured that this is a trend that will continue.

The thing is, Danny Ainge knows it. That’s why, between now and then, he will be involved if and when any true paradigm-shifting talent becomes available. Whether it be Russell Westbrook or DeMarcus Cousins, the only path forward for the Celtics is one that includes nabbing a true superstar.

Just like Ainge did in 2007.

* * * * * *

Doc Rivers could hardly hide his excitement. As he sat down next to Danny Ainge, he couldn’t help but to fidget, rub his hands and sigh.

For Rivers, everything had changed.

“This is gonna be a lot of fun this year,” Ainge said as he introduced Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. And as Ainge introduced the modern era’s true embodiment of a “Big Three,” he thanked the players that he had jettisoned in order to assemble the triumvirate. Among them were Al Jefferson, Jeff Green, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Delonte West and Ryan Gomes.

In acquiring Garnett and Allen, the Celtics also gave up two first round draft picks and one second round pick. In total, it was a king’s ransom, but, obviously, the returns—two conference titles and one NBA Championship—made it all worth it.

Interestingly enough, what we can easily recall from the pre-Garnett days in Boston was that the team had become quite mediocre. Shortly after his arrival in Boston in 2003, believing his team to be stuck in the middle, Ainge grew weary of the team’s falling short to Jason Kidd and their other foes in the conference and made drastic moves—the most famous of which was trading fan-favorite Antoine Walker to the Dallas Mavericks. In the deal for Walker, Ainge acquired a few veterans, as well as the pick that was used to select Delonte West.

Along the way, Ainge continued to move out older pieces such as Tony Battie, Eric Williams and Vin Baker. He was opportunistic when Rasheed Wallace was being moved from the Atlanta Hawks to the Detroit Pistons and seemed to come away from every single trade with at least one of two intriguing young players.

By the time you’d spun around twice, the Celtics had a roster full of intriguing prospects who were 26 years old or younger. Among them were Tony Allen, Leon Powe, Kendrick Perkins, Allan Ray, Rajon Rondo and the aforementioned centerpieces of the Garnett trade—Jefferson, Telfair, West, Gomes and Gerald Green.

In essence, Ainge assembled a roster full of young players who had intriguing potential and patiently waited around until the right deal availed. Along the way, Paul Pierce grew impatient, but decided to trust the process. In the long run, it proved to be worth it.

The difference between the Celtics of the 2006-07 season and the 2016-17 season is that the pieces on the current roster appear to fit together a little better, but in much the same way, you can’t help but to recognize that Ainge’s cupboard is full, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 trade that sent Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn.

In that trade, the Celtics got the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts. James Young (2014) and Jaylen Brown (2016) have been selected, and the 2018 pick looks quite promising. The Celtics will also have the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017.

The franchise also owns conditional first round picks, which may or may not vest from the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies and five additional second round picks between now and the 2020 draft.

In other words, Ainge has a treasure trove of assets at his disposal and, as usual, will be ready to pounce if and when a superstar becomes available. After having traded both Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce in the past, it would be foolish to think that he is married to any of the players on the current roster.

Truth be told, it would be equally foolish to think that the Celtics, as currently constructed, will have an opportunity to be anything more than a marginal Eastern Conference team.

It’s all a part of the cyclical nature of the NBA super team lifecycle.

* * * * * *

Through 23 games, the Celtics have 12 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. While it’s fair to expect that the rotation will be pared down with Horford and Crowder returning to the lineup, what is true is that Stevens has been put in the unenviable predicament of needing to find rotation minutes for a collection of young players who are somewhat interchangeable.

Between Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier—who is slowly becoming a rotation player for Stevens—the coach must find consistent playing time for four small guards while also finding repetitions for Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and, most importantly, Jaylen Brown. With Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson and Horford, Stevens appears to have too many bodies, too few spots and a seemingly difficult task of determining which players and rotations are worthy of his trust.

As the Celtics exercise the picks they have due to them over the coming years, it’s an issue that will only become worse.

In the end, the Celtics may surpass last season’s win total of 48 games, but Ray Allen’s 2012 departure to the sunny shores of South Beach truly signified the end of an era in Boston.

Since then, Ainge has veered off into the path of a proactive rebuild, and his team, in terms of wins and losses, is ahead of the curve. But make no mistake about it, if and when the time comes to move Russell Westbrook or DeMarcus Cousins or even players such as John Wall or Paul George, Ainge will be there, either directly involved or to pluck a few assets along the way.

In the end, the NBA is no different than other walks of life. History has a way of repeating itself, and if you’ve watched closely, you’d see that Ainge does, too.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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