At the time, it must’ve felt like a devil’s bargain to fans of the Boston Celtics: five players worth of flotsam and three first-round draft picks*—"assets," the cold jargon goes—for future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (as well as throw-ins Jason Terry and D.J. White).
To watch Pierce in particular bow beneath the banner of the Brooklyn Nets, his 15-year Celtic career mere fodder for the history books, must’ve cut a painful picture, Garnett only slightly less so, his mercenary muscle having been lost on no one.
A year and change later, however, the Nets-Celtics megatrade is looking like a laugher for Boston.
With Brooklyn looking every bit the middling team many believed it to be, those three picks were bound to pay off anyway. Soon, Boston’s lottery prospects could become even more lucrative.
Call it waving the white flag. Call it a fire sale. Call it a desperate team resorting to desperate measures. Whatever your choice of descriptors, the Celtics are the ones ready to cash in the misery chips.
Even months after the trade, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge couldn’t help but give his take on the trade with a little bit of a smirk. From a Q&A with The Boston Globe’s Baxter Holmes:
I thought it was a really gutsy move by Brooklyn. I admired it. I thought the way KG finished last year, and Paul - both of them looked like they had a lot of basketball left in them, as the season finished last year. And so, I felt that it was a good deal for both teams. … I didn't think that Paul and KG could carry us like they had for the five or six years previous. We were a team, I felt, that was destined to mediocrity as opposed to excellence with those guys.
All told, Boston boasts nine picks in the next two drafts, including a handful of chances to swap picks. It’s a haul that could fast-forward Ainge’s rebuilding project by light years.
Assuming, of course, that the Celtics choose to render them. The other, more nebulous option is to package some of those picks—along with a handful of undesirable assets—to reel in other, more seasoned players should an even further fast-forwarding become necessary.
Couple all that with the team’s current core, and you have a renaissance of riches-to-rags-and-back-again. Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, James Young, Avery Bradley—these are legitimately enticing players. Even if there isn’t a single All-Star among them, their true value is only starting to wax.
That’s not to say all of them are part of Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens’ long-term plans. As fungible assets in a wildly speculative market, though, they’re as good as gold.
It'll likely take another year before the Celtics' precarious salary commitments flush themselves out. Still, with loads of cap space on the horizon and enviable asset flexibility to boot, Boston stands to be potent players indeed during the 2016 and 2017 free-agency periods.
However, the biggest X-factor in Boston’s return to relevance was and very much remains the fate of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.
The conundrum is anything but a simple one: At 28 years old, Rondo is—theoretically—still in the prime of his career. At the same time, his recent knee injury and famously idiosyncratic game make him a huge gamble as a future cornerstone. Add to that the fact that Rondo is purportedly seeking a max contract, and the decision gets even more dicey.
From a recent piece by Bleacher Report’s own Howard Beck:
Seven years ago, after years of frustration and futility, the Celtics had a similar decision to make on Pierce: trade him and start over, or find a suitable surrounding cast and keep building. Ainge held on to Pierce, then struck gold that summer, landing Garnett and Allen in two blockbuster trades.
It's unreasonable to bank on another Garnett-Allen haul, but it's also risky to simply let Rondo walk away and count on landing another foundational star. Pierce, for one, believes Rondo could be the centerpiece for another Celtics powerhouse.
Ainge’s thought process is certainly easy to understand: If keeping the team’s somewhat-disgruntled star worked once, then it can work again.
But what such an approach fails to consider is that, unlike Pierce—a classic scoring forward capable of thriving in just about any system—Rondo’s game is a much fickler beast to tame. It’s not that building around him is impossible; it’s that the margin for error is as thin as floss.
Ironically, Pierce may prove more valuable than Rondo to Boston’s next rebuild—without even being there.
From Brooklyn’s perspective, Pierce and Garnett were supposed to push an already cap-busted team over the top. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez may have been Mikhail Prokhorov’s shiny cornerstones, but it was Boston’s ballers-for-hire—34 seasons and a billion tricks between them—who would raise banners to the roof.
With Garnett now left to endure a full-on roster meltdown and Pierce taking on twilight with the Washington Wizards, the two look less like mighty mercenaries than moles in the service of a not-so-secret cause.
There are dozens of dominoes left to fall before the true scope of the Pierce-Garnett trade fully takes shape. Judging by the early returns, though, it’s looking like that ball isn't the only thing the old parquet leprechaun had spun around his finger.
(*The Celtics acquired Brooklyn's 2014, 2016 and 2018 first-round picks, as well as rights to swap picks in 2017.)