Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have their work cut out for them.
As a rebuilding franchise, the Boston Celtics are in a precarious position. Bottoming out seems like a catch-all panacea, but even after suffering through a year of sub-par play, it still all comes down to the bounces of ping pong balls. And even when a team does land a high pick, finding a franchise-altering superstar still involves a large amount of luck, as Blazers fans have learned.
Since the 2013-14 season is really about the future, it's time for Celtics fans to look ahead at the various paths Danny Ainge might follow to build the next great Celtics team. Contrary to popular belief, tanking is not a prerequisite, and even landing a superstar guarantees nothing.
The Celtics are not only trying to reacquire talent, but also trying to establish a culture and process that ensures sustainable success whenever that talent does arrive. Simply getting lucky on lottery day is not enough. The Charlotte Bobcats have held a top-10 pick every year in franchise history save for 2009, and that has done nothing to impede their run of historic ineptitude.
Nonetheless, several teams have charted disparate paths to success, proving there is more than one way to rise up in the NBA. Here's a look at three potential models that, if executed properly, could lay the foundation for Banner 18.
The Thunder Model
Premise: Bottom out with a bare roster to earn a series of high draft picks. Turn said draft picks into three of the best 10 players in the NBA and build an organization that emphasizes development and character almost as much as talent.
OK, so any rebuilding effort is a lot easier when you add Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to the roster. However, that certainly involves more than sheer luck and highlights OKC's commitment to the draft to both rebuild and bolster their roster.
Do you want to see the Celtics tank this year?
Indeed, though the Thunder nailed all four of their top-10 selections (the other was Jeff Green), 17 of their 20 selections under GM Sam Presti have been outside the top 10. Nevertheless, they unearthed one of the game's top young centers in Serge Ibaka with the 18th pick in 2008 and picked rotation players like Carl Landry, Glen Davis, Eric Bledsoe, Quincy Pondexter and Reggie Jackson.
Most of those players ended up getting traded, but Jackson's career embodies how well the Thunder prepare their young players for important minutes. Jackson struggled as a ball-handler in 2011-12, causing the Thunder to trade for Derek Fisher to manage the postseason backup duties. But last year, as Fisher's game continued to decline, Jackson was pressed into greater duty and responded, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
Remember when Jackson would bring the ball up the court last year? It was nothing but nerve-racking. He was overprotective, almost to the point of being fearful. Not anymore. Jackson was much smoother with the ball in his hands and began blowing by pressing defenders rather than succumbing to their pressure. He still has a tendency to over-dribble, but Jackson made great strides with ball security. He turned it over just 1.9 times per 36 minutes in the regular season, down from 2.6 per 36 minutes as a rookie.
But that's getting a bit too far ahead, as Boston still needs the foundation. In some ways, however, the Celtics already have a head start—if Rajon Rondo becomes a leader and recaptures his elite form.
If that happens, Rondo is undoubtedly a top-level player, though his style (if not his attitude) makes him better suited to play Robin rather than Batman. Fortunately, the Celtics should be able to replicate one crucial aspect of the Thunder model, namely staying bad while acquiring franchise-changing talent.
Additionally, the Celtics may only have to bottom out once. The Thunder won 20 and 23 games in the first two seasons of Durant's career, and a win total in the 20s could be enough to yield Boston a top-five pick to pair with Rondo.
That one player might be enough. Though there's a perception that teams need three huge stars to win, the James Harden trade has shown that it is extremely difficult to have three top-level players and still surround them with competence. That's the problem the Miami Heat ran into in 2011 and fixed only because veterans like Shane Battier and Ray Allen took discounts to play alongside LeBron.
Still, such a heavy reliance on the draft is tricky business, which is why the next team went after the proven commodities.
The Rockets Model
Premise: Stockpile draft picks and young assets, carve out huge amounts of cap room, and try to woo free agents and disgruntled stars. Avoid any mid-level commitments.
This strategy is certainly not for the impatient or faint of heart, but if the Celtics aren't particularly bad this year, this may be the direction in which they are headed.
It's mind-boggling to think about, but at this time last year, Rockets GM Daryl Morey was essentially the laughingstock of the league. Years of ninth-place finishes, constant roster turnover and a refusal to commit money to anyone besides the biggest stars nearly got Morey canned.
But as is the case when a team trades for a star, the perfect storm of circumstances ensued to bring James Harden to Houston. Each sides' motivations are well-documented at this point, so there is no need to recap the entire trade and analyze it. However, it is worth remembering that the catalyst to the deal was not a single player, but rather the top-three protected Raptors pick (skip to the 5:59 mark):
Indeed, draft picks are more valuable than ever in today's NBA, as teams are increasingly allured at the prospect of building a roster through cheap talent. So while it seems folly in hindsight to realize that incredibly raw center Steven Adams convinced the Thunder to trade one of the league's top-10 players, the possibility of landing an underpaid superstar is too enticing for most teams to pass up.
In that regard, the Celtics are in fantastic shape. Boston could own as many as 19 draft picks over the next five years, depending on if protected picks kick in or not. And Ainge does not necessarily have to turn those picks into stars, as they can be used to acquire young players other teams may want.
Consider the Rockets' roster composition in the years before the Harden trade. In just the last two seasons, Houston has employed 10 players who were lottery picks at one point, and that's discounting Jeremy Lamb and Royce White, who never played a game for them.
In fact, that's characteristic of most of the Rockets' draft picks, who have essentially been trade bait. Examining each of their draft picks over the last five years (excluding 2013), only Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson have ever made significant contributions:
The Celtics already have a few young players who hold attractive trade value in Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and perhaps Kelly Olynyk. It will take some time to gain as much cap flexibility as the Rockets had (thank you, Gerald Wallace), but if Boston is a middling team instead of a terrible one, it's not hard to see them becoming Houston East.
The Nuggets Model
Premise: Trade away a star and stockpile talented non-All-Star players that work well in harmony. Create a system that emphasizes depth and egalitarian offense over the dominance of a single superstar.
Like the Rockets model, the Nuggets model is an avenue out of the NBA middle class without resorting to tanking. However, the Nuggets did not "rebuild" so much as transformed their franchise overnight.
The Carmelo Anthony trade might be the most successful unloading of a superstar in recent NBA history. The Magic's haul for Dwight Howard is somewhat comparable, but Orlando was terrible last season and figures to be a 20-25 win team this year.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets went 18-7 following the departure of Anthony in the middle of the 2010-11 season, and their 57 wins in 2013 were more than in any season with Carmelo. The Nuggets somehow became better without their biggest star, a testament to GM Masai Ujiri's remarkable roster construction. The trade truly had staggering ripple effects, as elucidated by Harvey Araton of the New York Times:
Of the ex-Knicks, only forward Danilo Gallinari, a 24-year-old Italian import, starts for the Nuggets. But Wilson Chandler is a key bench player, and the Russian Timofey Mozgov provides insurance at center behind the starter Kosta Koufos, who was also a part of the three-team Anthony deal, from Minnesota, and the intriguing if erratic JaVale McGee. In addition, Andre Miller, who provides veteran backcourt leadership off the bench, was obtained in a trade for Raymond Felton, along with a young forward, Jordan Hamilton.
A 2014 first-round draft pick sent by the Knicks to Denver was used in another deal last summer that brought the defensive-minded swingman Andre Iguodala, an All-Star last season. The Nuggets have the right to switch first-round draft picks with the Knicks in 2016 and, for good measure, another contributing reserve, Corey Brewer, was reacquired in a trade after being cut by the Knicks after his inclusion in the Anthony deal.
If you're counting, that's eight rotation players from the team that finished with the fourth-best record in the NBA last season! And the other two, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, were obtained with the 18th and 22nd picks respectively.
The Nuggets really are the closest thing to an equal-opportunity system in the NBA. Compare the usage rates of every player with at least 1,000 minutes from last season to the 2009-10 team, the Anthony-led squad that fell to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, per NBA.com:
If the Celtics were to trade Rondo, it's not hard to imagine them getting a fairly sizable haul, assuming he rebounds well from ACL surgery. In fact, the teams bear some similarities already—hardworking yet undersized power forwards (Faried, Sullinger), dynamic scoring swingmen (Gallinari, Jeff Green) and well-regarded rookie coaches (Brian Shaw, Brad Stevens).
Of course, while Celtics fans would love to sidestep the drop-off period, it's worth noting that the Nuggets have not won a playoff series since Anthony's departure. And in an arena that only hangs championship banners, that would be tough for Boston to stomach.
Consider that of the 34 NBA championship teams since 1980, 26 have employed Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Those are all arguably top-10 all-time players, and even the teams that fall outside that category still include the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Dirk Nowitzki and, of course, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
It's incredibly hard to win the title without a top-notch Hall of Famer, and the 2004 Pistons are really the only team to accomplish that feat. Celtics fans will not suffer long if Ainge executes the rebuilding properly, but barring a miracle, it is likely the Garden will need to experience some lean years before Banner 18.