The process of tanking is a delicate one for an NBA general manager to handle.
Be too aggressive in the pursuit of lottery balls, and you run the risk of creating a rift between yourself and the coaching staff, players and fanbase. Be too passive, and you're lessening the chances for your franchise to draft a star and climb out of the cellar.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge probably didn't expect to have to navigate these waters when he traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for draft picks and almost no talent. The Celtics were going to be so bad that no intervention would be needed.
But alas, here we are with a third of the season in the books, and here are the Boston Celtics somehow holding on to a playoff spot.
How is this happening?
The collapses in New York help a lot, obviously, but Ainge is actually responsible for a lot of the success, despite his best efforts to play for the future.
The hiring of Brad Stevens might have been a little too good, as now the Celtics are faced with the very real possibility of winning the Atlantic Division or maybe even sliding into the No. 8 seed, which is where they currently sit.
It's important to remember that this is all being done without Rajon Rondo, who should be coming back from his ACL injury in the near future. That should lead to more wins eventually, which could lead to more potential problems for Ainge to consider.
A first-round exit, aside from the extra playoff-ticket money it generates, accomplishes very little for Boston in the grand scheme of things. While you could make the argument that developing a winning culture and earning playoff experience for Stevens has its value, having a top pick in the 2014 isn't something Ainge wants to miss out on.
So what can he do? How can Ainge keep the Celtics from enjoying short-term success to better increase the chances that the future will be brighter?
Trade Jordan Crawford
No one saw this coming, but Crawford has probably been Boston's best player this year. He's the only guard capable of finding his own shot while also creating for others, and Boston would be even more lost offensively than they already are without him.
Crawford's 5.4 assists leads the Celtics by a large margin. The next closest player on the roster has been turnover machine Gerald Wallace, who averages just 2.5 assists a game. Point being, if you take Crawford away, Boston's ball movement dies almost completely. Boston is No. 28 in the league with Crawford, so you can only imagine how bad they'd be in that department without him.
This is a move Ainge could easily justify, as well. Crawford had zero value before he blew up this season, so flipping him for a draft pick at this point would be a big victory. Since he's scheduled to hit restricted free agency next year and command a pretty decent contract, Ainge probably should move Crawford at his peak value instead of just losing him this offseason. It's hard to see Crawford being in the long-term plans, even though he's been great.
On a small contract worth just $2.1 million this year, Ainge can freely shop Crawford to every contender and not have to worry about bringing back any future salary. He's Ainge's best hope of getting back a good asset while simultaneously helping the tanking effort.
Stay in Stevens' Ear
Ainge obviously can't control the rotations and who plays when, but he can sell Stevens on "experimenting" with different lineups and putting young players in big spots. Ainge can only manipulate so much in terms of the roster, but getting Stevens on board with playing for the future could go a long way in the tanking effort.
Ainge has to be very careful here not to impede the GM-coach relationship, and that will become even more true once Rajon Rondo comes back to the lineup. Although Stevens has impressed just about everyone, he'll still need to win Rondo's trust, and that can't be accomplished by saddling him with bad lineups or limiting his minutes. Again, this is a delicate line to walk.
Ainge should still stay close to Stevens and not be afraid to ask him to "showcase" veterans who could be dealt, though, as that's something that doesn't seem to be uncommon around the league.
Trade Rajon Rondo
One of the biggest concerns in tanking is how it will impact Rondo. He's an insanely competitive guy, and he won't take kindly to losing games, especially if he feels the coaching staff or organization isn't giving it everything they have.
Ainge has been adamant about not wanting to trade Rondo, but that might just be wise posturing more than anything else. Here's what he told Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com:
"The calls are coming in, the calls have not been going out," Ainge said. "I think that the assumption is that, [given] what we are trying to accomplish, the reports are such that maybe the assumption is that we'll give away any of our players."
"I always listen to calls and listen to what [their] ideas are, but we have no intentions of moving Rajon," Ainge said.
Ainge is giving off the impression that the Celtics don't want to be active sellers around the deadline, which doesn't feel quite right.
While there is reason to see if Rondo can be happy, return to his high level of play and be a franchise building block, it may make more sense to try to deal him and make this a full-blown rebuild. Without Rondo, there's no real pressure to win games or do anything but play for the future. That may be a more advantageous position to be in right now, as odd as that is to say.
Of course, there's always the possibility that this will work itself out organically. Boston doesn't have much talent, Toronto is improved and you would think that at least a few of the bad teams in the Eastern Conference with no incentive to tank will start to figure things out.
If that doesn't happen, though, don't be surprised if Ainge keeps going down the path he chose for the Celtics this offseason. His work on this rebuild likely isn't done yet.
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