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Boston Celtics Offering Blueprint for How to Rebuild in the NBA

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2015

Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations, smiles as he discusses  the trade of point guard Rajon Rondo prior to an NBA basketball game in Boston, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. The Celtics traded Rondo to Dallas on Thursday night, Dec. 18, 2014, cutting ties with the last remnant of Boston's last NBA championship while giving Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks a chance at another title. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

It wouldn't be quite right to describe the Boston Celtics as the Eastern Conference's success story of the year. The Atlanta Hawks were dominant to the tune of a 60-22 record. The Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged overnight.

But there's still something special about these seventh-seeded Celtics—even if they await almost certain defeat at the hands of Cleveland in the opening round. So far, Boston trails the series 1-0, but that shouldn't dampen what's already been accomplished this season.

The Celtics are much further along in the rebuilding process than most would have imagined. Through addition-by-subtraction and some very real additions, general manager Danny Ainge has positioned this team to succeed far ahead of schedule.

A title is well beyond reach, and it remains to be seen what becomes of Boston's young core. But that's the exciting part. This team is on its way to bigger and better things, and now there's actually some evidence of that. 

In fact, Boston's approach to rebuilding may hold lessons for others attempting similar turnarounds.

Step 1: Clean House

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Boston's rebuilding process officially began in 2013 when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry were traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a handful of midlevel players and first-round draft picks. Parting ways with iconic talent is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary. The objective in this case was to turn declining stars into future-oriented assets.

Some were skeptical of the ostensible "haul" Brooklyn had claimed. 

As ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo put it at the time, "Critics wonder if both players [Pierce and Garnett] will be able to stay healthy and productive throughout the course of a long season at their advanced ages."

Pierce was 35 at the time, and Garnett was 37. Brooklyn's so-called gain was also the Celtics' gain.

There was an interest in creating playing time for younger big men like 2012 first-round pick Jared Sullinger and 2013 first-rounder Kelly Olynyk. With Garnett in place, the youth development project would have been delayed indefinitely.

Pierce's role has since gone to 26-year-old Evan Turner, and 25-year-old Tyler Zeller was added to the mix of young big men this season. The Celtics are now younger across the board, the inevitable result of a house-cleaning process that jettisoned far more recognizable names.

One could argue that Ray Allen's departure via free agency was the first domino to fall in 2012. But that core's days were numbered, either way. And Ainge was in no mood to wait it out.

The interim has been fraught with its share of predictable difficulties. Last season, first-year head coach Brad Stevens inherited a cobbled-together rotation that had lottery written all over it.

Boston's Turnaround By the Numbers
SeasonRecordOff. EfficiencyDef. EfficiencyRPGAPGSPGBPG
'13-1425-5799.7105.242.521.07.14.2
'14-1540-42101.7102.143.824.58.23.6
ESPN.com

But life was anything but peachy for the Nets, who ultimately flamed out in the 2014 conference semifinals against the Miami Heat. A similar season might have awaited Boston had the Celtics held on for too long—and then what?

Now the franchise has a new foundation in place, one that is flawed, incomplete and still growing. Most importantly, perhaps, that foundation is currently learning on the job against Cleveland and all its star power.

That has a lot to do with the man at the helm of this beautiful mess.

Step 2: Add a Mastermind

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Stevens may not have been the most obvious candidate to take over for the departed Doc Rivers, but he's proven himself in just two seasons with the club. After snagging just 25 wins in his first season, Stevens mustered a significantly more impressive 40 wins in his sophomore effort—good enough to move ahead of would-be postseason participants like the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.

His Celtics play within a system, moving the ball unselfishly and succeeding despite the absence of a legitimate superstar. They also play defense, rebound and generally tend to the little things that produce success in this business. Without the kind of larger-than-life core that preceded Stevens, that kind of culture is all but essential.

It will almost certainly prove even more essential over the course of Stevens' playoff debut. Here, his exceptional basketball IQ should yield serious dividends—perhaps enough to keep his team in a series against a far superior opponent.

"He's built for these moments," Sullinger recently told reporters. "And on top of that, to be able to see a team four to seven games...he's going to pick you apart. That's where he's at his best."

Other players appreciate his intangibles.

"He is a great leader," Turner added. "Especially [with] the type of season we had."

That leadership was abundantly evident after Game 1 against the Cavaliers. 

"We'll learn from it and improve from it," Stevens told reporters after the game. "Very simple. I don't want to overdo it. This is a long series."

That businesslike attitude appears to have trickled down to those who need it most, the Celtics themselves.

"We're still confident," sixth man Isaiah Thomas added. "Guys are ready for Game 2, knowing that good or bad, you've got to have a short memory. There are possibly seven games in this series, and it could go either way."

It's rare to unearth a coach who has the X's and O's down and says all the right things. The 38-year-old Stevens has all the makings of a guy who could stick around this team for a long time to come. It's only right that he see this rebuild all the way through after keeping this team afloat amid so much turnover and transition.

The best of Stevens is almost certainly still to come, but he's already demonstrated that he is a source of stability in otherwise turbulent times. That hasn't gone unnoticed by those in need of that leadership.

"I don't think he ever jumped off the ship," Turner explained, per CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely. "He kept his poise. And he always kept his mind on the bigger picture...Had he been a panicked type of leader, we wouldn't be in this situation."

Step 3: Economize

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Rajon Rondo threatened to derail that situation. Questions about his future were sure to interrupt the club's fledgling midseason momentum. Actually keeping him around would have cost tens of millions of dollars, probably more than he's really worth at this stage of his career. For all the sentimental reasons to keep him in the fold, there were better business reasons to trade the 29-year-old and get something in return.

After all, he might have walked this summer and left Boston with nothing to show for it.

Instead, Ainge and company did the wise thing. They traded Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for a package that included Jae Crowder, draft picks and a $12.9 million trade exception that can be used down the road. The deal didn't net Boston a premier star, but it created flexibility while excising a potential distraction.

That's a small victory for a rebuilding franchise. And it wasn't the only one this season.

While Rondo's departure created additional opportunity for rookie point guard Marcus Smart, it also opened the door for an affordable acquisition who could very well emerge as this club's floor general of the future.

The Celtics landed Thomas at the trade deadline in a deal that cost them Marcus Thornton and the Cavaliers' 2016 first-round draft pick. It was a modest price for a player capable of regularly dropping 20 points and providing offensive sparks virtually on demand. And while they're entirely different types of point guards, one can certainly argue that Thomas is every bit as valuable as Rondo at this juncture.

Rondo vs. Thomas' Production With Celtics in 2014-15
GamesMinPtsFG%AstRebStl
Rondo2231.88.3.40510.87.51.68
Thomas2126.019.0.4125.42.10.57
ESPN.com

He's certainly less expensive. Rondo made over $12.9 million this season, the last of his current contract. Thomas is scheduled to make less than $20 million combined over the course of the next three seasons. That's a bargain in its own right but particularly when compared to what Rondo might have cost going forward.

Thus far, Thomas has settled into a sixth man role for the Celtics—much as he had earlier in the season with the Phoenix Suns. He makes sense in that capacity, but he could easily win the starting job from Smart over the summer.

Either way, Stevens has two very good playmakers at his disposal, and both of them have bright futures. Smart is just 21, and Thomas is 26.

The organization also decided to send forward Jeff Green packing in a three-team trade to the Memphis Grizzlies. The deal gave Boston another protected first-round pick (from Memphis), and—to his credit—Ainge anticipated some fallout.

"Any time you lose your leading scorer, there's going to be challenges that come with that," he told reporters in January. "Losing him three weeks after losing your multiple-time All-Star point guard, there's going to be challenges that come with that."

Somehow, the Celtics have met many of those challenges head on.

In a world where more money often means more problems, Boston opted to economize. They're getting more for less and setting themselves up to acquire more young—and possibly established—talent in the near future.

Even without that additional talent, the Celtics already seem to be in a better place.

Lessons Learned

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

There's something to be said for delayed gratification. The Celtics indeed missed the postseason while the Nets experienced two rounds of it in 2014, but few would argue that Boston would be in better position now were their roles reversed. Now, even in its nascent ascent, Boston holds a higher seed than those Nets—who are now without Pierce, Garnett and Terry.

The Philadelphia 76ers have followed a similar path, perhaps to the extreme. The difference between those Sixers and these Celtics is that the latter are still playing for games that matter, learning experientially on a grand stage.

For other beleaguered organizations, a similarly moderate but decisive approach is probably in order. Trim the fat, but play to win. That winning can go a long way in building a culture around all that still-developing talent. That's the real victory in Boston's season.

We've seen it before, too. The Cavaliers built a young core that was bound to attract some star talent, perhaps previewing the next stage of Boston's growth. The Celtics will have plenty of money to spend and enough draft assets to acquire bigger names via trade.

Atlanta said its goodbyes to Joe Johnson and Josh Smith before moving forward with a leaner and more successful operation. Like Stevens, head coach Mike Budenholzer had a lot to do with his team's emergence, as well.

Admittedly, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. All the San Antonio Spurs had to do was draft Tim Duncan and pair him with a legendary coach (Gregg Popovich) and savvy general manager (R.C. Buford). The Houston Rockets quickly traded their assets in a bid to land a game-changer like James Harden. There are several paths to the top.

But current bottom-feeders like the 76ers, New York Knicks or Minnesota Timberwolves would do well to replicate the Celtics' success. It might mean finding a Thomas-like season-saver. It could mean moving some veteran contracts elsewhere. 

But it should never mean a losing culture. The Celtics have taught us that much.

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