Two years before winning that title in 2008, a 33-win Celtics team was in a fairly similar situation to the one today. They had a 28-year-old perennial All-Star (Paul Pierce), a young, forward-thinking head coach (44-year-old Doc Rivers), and a hodgepodge of suitably unspectacular veterans and promising assets filling out the roster.
Boston’s general manager was Danny Ainge—as it is now—but the organization’s vision to get better was a blurry one.
Everyone knows what happened next. Timing their odds in tune with the possibility that Greg Oden or Kevin Durant would be theirs in the draft, Boston crashed from the underbelly of mediocrity to the basement one year later, going from third in their division to second worst in the entire league.
Instead of the first or second pick, they ended up with the fifth, but were lucky enough to dangle it in front of the Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen. Now Boston had two All-Stars, but matching them up with a young, undeveloped roster didn’t make much sense.
So Ainge sent a grab bag of young assets (including Al Jefferson, who went on to become one of the finest low-post scorers of his generation) to Minnesota in exchange for the services of another, somewhat disgruntled, All-Star.
Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett won the NBA championship in 2008, and the Celtics were credited with lending other general managers a solid blueprint in which they too could turn around a hapless situation seemingly overnight.
What’s often swept under the rug whenever this story is told is an endlessly unpredictable factor known as “luck.” A million things had to go as they did for Ainge to pull off those two trades. The Supersonics and Allen had to be willing to part ways.
The Celtics had to get the fifth pick in the draft instead of the first or second, which they surely would’ve kept. Minnesota and Garnett (unjustly described as a mere “All-Star” earlier in this article, Garnett is more of a transcendental, first ballot Hall of Famer, and the odds of him becoming available when he did were extremely fortuitous) had to be in an unhappy situation AND Minnesota had to prefer Boston’s offer more than anything else another trade partner would be willing to give.
If just one of those things doesn’t happen, the Celtics look much different today.
Speaking of today, right now Ainge and the Celtics are at it again, except this time they’re armed with much shinier chips. And that’s necessary, because NBA organizations are considerably wiser today than they were a decade ago.
Comparing this team with the one from 2006, Boston has one 27-year-old perennial All-Star (Rajon Rondo), a young, forward-thinking head coach (37-year-old Brad Stevens) and a hodgepodge of unspectacular veterans and promising assets filling out the roster.
Comparing this team with the one from 2007, Boston has once again done a fantastic job of tilting the lottery odds in their favor at the right time. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and three or four other heavily sought after prospects are all expected to be eligible for this summer’s draft, and the Celtics will come ready with their own pick (Boston’s currently 6-10, and figure to have as good a shot at the number one pick as anyone) as well as the higher option between Brooklyn and Atlanta.
Why does this situation feel better than before? The Celtics aren’t in any rush whatsoever. Why aren’t they in a rush? A part of it has to be related to that 2008 championship, and the climate of desperation before that banner was hung that forced Ainge to deal promising assets and draft picks instead of giving them time to develop.
But another, more important reason is the plethora of riches Ainge has to play with. Boston has time on its side, yes, but they also have nine first round draft picks courtesy of the Nets and Clippers—including their own—over the next five years.
Given the league’s current economic climate, those draft picks are like gold bars to a San Franciscan in the mid-19th century. If Ainge wants to use them, he can, following a model popularized by the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and, most recently, the Indiana Pacers, of building from within, establishing a long-term culture of success with constantly evolving talent.
But if he doesn’t, and placing them on the trade market for proven talent is his plan, Ainge has all the leverage in the world. Everyone wants what he has. And he has too much to go around.
Boston also has more attractive pieces on their roster now than they did two years before the title was won. Jeff Green holds value in the latter stages of his once-pricey contract.
As do Brandon Bass and (to a lesser extent) Courtney Lee, Kris Humphries and Jordan Crawford. All can be rented out as modest contributors on more competitive teams.
Then there are the youngsters with skill who’d normally be viewed as untradeable, but instead are as tender a get as anything. Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are all quality long-term investments.
(Even though the Celtics weren't able to agree with Bradley on an extension before this year's October 31st deadline, it’s unlikely the two sides will part once he hits restricted free agency this summer.)
In which direction Ainge decides to take this franchise will ultimately be decided by this summer’s lottery, as opposed to this summer’s lottery deciding which direction he decides to take the franchise—as it was in 2007.
When a superstar becomes unhappy or a team is unable to afford his second contract (think about what happened with the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden), Ainge will be there with draft picks and actual juicy talent in his pocket.
Or, if Wiggins or Parker fall into Boston’s lap in this year’s draft, the process takes on a longer approach.
In 2006 the overwhelming dread that consumed Boston made it feel like another 20 years of gloom was more likely than one championship in the next five. Unless all goes horribly wrong, another era of prolonged success appears to be right around the corner.
Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.