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NBA Sunday: Celtics Proactively Rebuilding

Behind Danny Ainge, the Celtics proactive rebuilding will eventually help the franchise rise as champions, again.

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Doc Rivers looked on with a smirk. Satisfied and relieved, he exhaled as David Stern congratulated the Los Angeles Lakers on a well-played season.

As the tears streamed back in their locker room and Kobe Bryant plotted his revenge, Stern stood before the better than 17,500 fans in attendance and essentially serenaded them.

“…But there can only be one champion,” he said.

And that champion was, of course, the Boston Celtics.

As the seventh anniversary of that June 17 night approaches, the hope in Boston is that it will not take another seven years to experience that satisfaction again.

In all likelihood, it will not.

Rivers stood, teary-eyed, the collar of his white shirt stained red after receiving his celebratory gatorade bath from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Pierce, his captain, his rock and his partner, had endured countless trials and tribulations over the course of the 10 years prior to that point in Boston.

“It is the truth,” Stern said, his voice slightly raising as he made the announcement that the Oakland-born Celtics star had waited his entire life to hear.

“Paul Pierce is the 2008 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.”

It was the truth, indeed.

The team’s architect, Danny Ainge, could not have been more proud.

For Ainge, the 17th championship in franchise history was the culmination of five tumultuous years marked by the ineptitude of many of those who preceded him and personality clashes with the likes of Antoine Walker and Jim O’Brien.

More than anything else, though, Ainge had to deal with the frustration on the part of Pierce, who wanted nothing more than to become a champion.

Now, after five years, finally, Ainge had led his franchise to peak of the NBA’s mountain.

Today, his hopes are firmly set on scaling with a future generation.

——

Following the bursting of the housing bubble in mid-2007, the United States entered a severe recession. Millions of Americans lost their jobs while many of the wealthiest Americans lost millions. Having already spent considerable time functioning under what many felt were the pro-player collective bargaining agreements of 1999 and 2005, as a result of many of its owners hemorrhaging money from their other investments, the league’s own financial issues caused it to seriously reconsider and reevaluate its economics.

The San Antonio Spurs served as an inspiring model. Prudent salary cap management, profitability and championship contention—the Spurs had it all. What they also happened to have was one of the league’s best scouting departments and a propensity to make wise decisions with regard to drafting players.

Six years after Pierce won the award, in 2014, Kawhi Leonard would go on to be named the Finals MVP. By this time, the paradigm-shift under which the league has since functioned was well adapted, but the Leonard anointment illustrates the central point.

For the 2013-14 season, Leonard earned just $1.88 million. His salary was by far the lowest of any Finals MVP since the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed and he became the first Finals MVP since Dwyane Wade in 2006 to win the award while still playing under the terms of his rookie scale contract.

Leonard epitomizes the small-market Spurs and what the franchise figured out a long, long time ago: in the NBA: wisely utilized draft picks can be an effective source of cheap labor.

Since the NBA began questioning its economics, and certainly since the ratification of the 2011 CBA, general managers across the league have realized the newfound potential value in draft picks. In the post-2011 economic era of the NBA, this becomes all the more important, as the league’s current CBA has mechanisms that discourage overspending and others that both place restrictions on and levies hefty taxes against teams whose payrolls too often exceed the pre-determined tax threshold.

In the NBA’s new economic era, the league is now like many other industries in America. Maximizing dollars spent and wisely utilizing assets is no longer simply helpful toward the cause of building an NBA champion—it is now a requirement.

That was not exactly the case prior to the 2011, and the newfound perceived value attached to draft picks is a direct result of a team’s want to remain profitable and competitive in this new economic era.

Danny Ainge knows that now, and he knew it in the years proceeding Pierce’s anointment into basketball royalty. It is secretly why Ainge embarked on one of the most proactive and hellbent rebuilding schemes the league has seen in recent memory.

——

The legendary Bill Russell sat down with Kevin Garnett in his early days as a Celtic. The passionate and fiery Garnett sat with a respectful gaze, uncharacteristically meek and reserved.

“I think that you’re going to win at least two or three championship here,” Russell told Garnett.“If you play the way you play and you dedicate yourself to doing it, they will come.”

Garnett nodded intently.

Although Russell was not alone with that assessment, attrition would undercut that forecast. Over the next two years, debilitating injuries sustained by both Garnett and Kendrick Perkins preempted what perhaps should have been a Celtics three-peat. In the years following the franchise’s loss in the 2010 NBA Finals to Bryant’s Lakers, Ainge, perhaps against his better judgment, added talent and continued to attempt to build around his core, but Ray Allen’s departure to the Miami HEAT in July 2012 was both the figurative and literal changing of the guard.

Ainge was spurned by Allen’s departure, as he knew that the disbanding of the “Big Three” of which Allen was a crucial component meant that his team would no longer be a true contender, but deep down inside, he was probably more bothered by the fact that Allen’s departure as a free agent came with no compensation to the franchise.

In what was a poorly kept secret, the February 2011 trade that sent the aforementioned Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green fractured the relationship between Ainge, Garnett, Pierce and Allen. It was a rude awakening that was only amplified when Ainge called Ray Allen on March 15, 2012 and told him that he had been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for O.J. Mayo and a draft pick. Thereafter, the deal failed to materialize, but for Allen, it was the sobering final straw that served as confirmation; his days as a Celtic were numbered.

The ensuing summer, Allen left for Miami and left the Celtics with nothing. Allen took his talents to South Beach and never looked back, and Ainge was determined to not let that type of history repeat itself—not with Rivers, Garnett nor even the franchise’s pillar, Paul Pierce.

——

Since Allen’s departure, Ainge has been proactive and has begun selling his assets, one by one.

Knowing that the end of an era in Boston was nigh, Ainge began exploring the feasibility of the unthinkable—trading Garnett and/or Pierce for future assets. Rivers let it be known that he had no interest in being a part of another long-term rebuilding process in Boston and the two sides ultimately agreed that an amicable divorce was best.

Ainge received an unprotected 2015 first round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for letting Rivers out of his coaching contract. Just days letter, Ainge executed a blockbuster trade that saw Pierce and Garnett sent to the Brooklyn Nets. From that deal, the Celtics would received unprotected first round picks from the Nets in 2014, 2016 and 2018, as well as the right to swap first round picks in 2017. The 2014 pick ended up being the 17th overall pick and was used to select James Young.

Ainge hired Brad Stevens to lead the franchise and agreed to embark on a long rebuilding project. Since Rivers’ departure, knowing of what was ahead, Ainge has been arguably the most proactive general manager in the league with regard to accruing future draft picks.

By January 2014, Rajon Rondo would be the only player that remained from the team that last played in the Finals in 2010, and Rivers had his eyes set firmly on the future. He traded Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors in a three-team deal with the Miami HEAT which saw the Celtics acquire a conditional future first round pick. Months later, he traded guard Keith Bogans to the Cleveland Cavaliers for two future second round picks before pulling off a blockbuster trade consummated just a few weeks ago.

In December 2014, after months of speculation, Rondo himself was dealt. Rondo was the only remnant of the years of championship contention that Ainge oversaw and at just 28 years old, with assets and cap flexibility, many wondered whether Rondo would do what Pierce once did as a member of the Celtics—ride out the rebuild.

After not receiving any assurances from Rondo that he would re-sign with the club once he became a free agent in July 2015, Ainge decided to not take the risk of losing him to free agency and dealt him to the Mavericks in exchange for a conditional first round pick that is likely to end up vesting as a first round pick in 2016.

Since then, Ainge traded forward Brandan Wright to the Phoenix Suns in a deal that will ultimately result in the club receiving second round picks in 2017 and 2018 and is on the verge of trading Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for what will end up being an additional first round pick.

The best part for Ainge? The Celtics do not currently have any debts due for any of their own first round picks.

In a word, what Ainge has done is genius. He has traded away each and every asset that his team had and has fully embraced rebuilding. The team has a war chest of future draft picks and has put itself in good position to rebuild, and quickly.

——

In the NBA’s post-2011 economic era, the Celtics are wealthy. According to a few people familiar with the thinking of the front office, Plan A for the Celtics is not to necessarily exercise each and every one of the 13 (and counting) draft picks that the team will be credited with over the next few years.

Plan A, rather, is to wait patiently and eventually pull off another trade for whichever superstar eventually finds himself on the trade market in the near future.

If there is one thing that has been learned from Mark Cuban’s rebuilding of his Dallas Mavericks, it’s that patience and timeliness can go a long way toward building a contender.

With draft picks as his central currency, Ainge has put the Celtics in position to build naturally and organically, but has also put the team in a position where it can have a seat at any table where impact players will be dealt. That the team currently has ample cap space over the next two years, gives it increased flexibility.

For now and in the immediate future, the Celtics are done contending, but they join the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks as rebuilding teams that can offer young players a rich tradition and a huge market. Along with the Lakers, the Celtics have a front office which has proven that it can build a winner.

Unlike either of those teams, the Celtics are in control of a truckload of draft picks—the most valuable currency in today’s NBA.

Ainge has embarked on what amounts to the most proactive rebuilding project that this league has seen in a long time, and if he is successful, he may begin a new trend for fringe contenders that feel that their days of competing for championships are over.

In dismantling their core, the Celtics have become winners, even if not in the standings. The heart-wrenching decisions made along the way—divorcing from Rivers, trading Pierce and moving on without Rondo—they were all done with an eye toward the future and pleasant memories of the past.

Back in 2008, as Ainge stood beside Pierce, Rivers and Stern, he vowed that it would not be the last time his Celtics stood alone as the champions of the NBA.

Since then, in the post-2011 economic era of competition, Ainge has done all that he can to ensure that it was not. And someday, perhaps soon, that proactive approach may yield fruit that leaves the rest of the league green with envy again.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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