The Boston Celtics shouldn't have had any leverage.
Doc Rivers was already in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Rajon Rondo was still recovering from an ACL tear. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had already slowed down a step or two. The alarms were sounding, and everyone heard them.
Remember, even with a full cast the season prior, the Celtics finished just one game over .500. The days of competing for a title weren't coming to an end—they had already ended.
The Celtics weren't at some crossroads. Pierce and Garnett didn't want any part of a rebuilding process. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge didn't want to wait until it was too late to get something of value in return. The motivations to trade Pierce, who was a serious candidate to be bought out, and move Garnett and his two-year deal alongside him were painfully clear.
As a package deal, Pierce and Garnett are making over $27 million combined this year. That number alone priced out quite a few teams, but Garnett's no-trade clause also eliminated any destination he deemed unfit for his services.
The question was always this: How many contending teams could afford Pierce and Garnett while remaining a contender and not gutting their core group of talent?
Probably the only team legitimately capable of satisfying all the involved parties was the Brooklyn Nets. You would think that would give the advantage to Nets GM Billy King in any negotiations.
But instead of letting Boston twist in the wind and negotiate a lower asking price, the Nets essentially kept outbidding themselves.
Could they afford to do so with a billionaire owner willing to fork over tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax? Maybe so, but the Nets also managed to mortgage the future by trading not one, not two, but three unprotected first-round picks in addition to taking on big salary. As a cherry on top, the Nets also gave the Celtics the right to swap picks in 2017, a time where Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry will all almost certainly be out of the league. (Note: The 2014 first-round pick is not protected by pick number but will be the worst pick between Brooklyn's and Atlanta's first-rounders due to a separate trade between the Hawks and Nets.)
This was a price even the Nets shouldn't have tried to afford. Yes, two Hall of Fame players were added, but so was a great deal of debt.
With no cap space coming anytime soon, King may have felt the need to bring back a player for Kris Humphries (who was signed to a $12 million-per-year deal for exactly that reason) or else run the risk of wasting his expiring deal. Or maybe there was pressure to establish a marquee team in Brooklyn and make a statement by contending for a title immediately.
Whatever the reason, it was a go-for-broke move from a franchise that will never be broke under Mikhail Prokhorov. But while Brooklyn threw caution to the wind with aging talents, Ainge wisely bet on the effects of time making the biggest impact in Brooklyn.
Maybe even more importantly, Ainge was betting on a historically poorly managed team not to change their colors.
The biggest vindication for Ainge in that regard likely came before the Nets stumbled out of the gate and into the cellar of the Eastern Conference. That moment probably happened when both the Celtics and Nets hired rookie head coaches.
The team most in need of someone with actual coaching experience opted for Jason Kidd, the one choice completely devoid of sideline experience. The Celtics went with Brad Stevens, an experienced yet young coach from the college ranks. Ainge can take pride in the Celtics being ahead of the Nets in the standings right now, but it's more meaningful in the grand scheme of things that Stevens is light-years ahead of Kidd at his craft.
At every turn, Ainge outmaneuvered King this offseason. The Celtics should have been the desperate team in any negotiation, but Ainge found a trading partner who gladly assumed that role in the negotiations. Again, this wasn't Brooklyn's only option for a deal that could vault them into title contention. Time was on their side and against Boston's, but Ainge flipped the tables.
Of course, it's important to note that Brooklyn's struggles this season benefit Boston much less than people think. The Atlanta Hawks have the rights to swap first-round draft picks with Brooklyn this year and next. Those owed picks are a leftover debt from Brooklyn's trade to acquire Joe Johnson, another deal where King failed to properly take advantage of being one of the only logical suitors.
The current spoils for the Hawks are exactly what Boston has to look forward to through 2018: the rewards of betting against a franchise that can buy everything except good management.