Can the Celtics land a superstar?

Can the Celtics land a superstar?
December 3, 2013, 6:45 pm
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the Celtics rebuild in which I argued (or more just stated) that, despite popular opinion, tanking isn’t Boston’s only available path in the hopeful climb back to the top of the NBA food chain. This was on November 20, the morning after the Celts were embarrassed in Houston, and the Rockets were the example of that alternate route.
 
Just to recap quickly: Starting in 2009, following three consecutive 50-win seasons, Houston scaled back and missed the playoffs the next three years. However, they never even came close to bottoming out. In 2010, they were 42-40 and finished ninth in the West. In 2011, they were 43-39 and finished ninth in the West. In 2012, they were 34-32 and finished ninth in the West. They were in perpetual NBA purgatory. In three years, they never picked higher than 12th in the draft. Over that time, instead of just plain sucking, GM Daryl Morey left the team in the hands of smart coaches (Rick Adelman/Kevin McHale), collected assets and maintained cap flexibility. Then, in the fall of 2012, he used some of those assets to acquire James Harden. Then, last summer, he used Harden and the aforementioned cap flexibility to reel in Dwight Howard. Today, the Rockets are contenders.
 
So, I wondered, might the Celtics take a similar route?
 
The most common response from readers and Tweeters and the rest of the Internet was an emphatic NO. Why? Because the Rockets rebuild was founded on the assumption that they could lure that Dwight Howard-type superstar to Houston. Meanwhile, for the Celtics, that reality is nothing but a pipe dream.
 
As the story goes, the Green have never landed a big time free agent and never will. Those guys don’t want to play here and they never will. There’s no way a city like Boston can compete with the weather out west and down south, or the bright lights of New York and LA, or the absence of income tax in Texas and Florida.
 
I’m paraphrasing, but everything you just read has in some way, shape or form been repeated ad nauseam for an NBA eternity. And while you can’t argue with the past, the more I thought about it, I kept coming back to this:
 
How can everyone be so sure about the future?
 
I’ll get more specific in a second, but for now, just keeping it vague, let’s say that at some point down the line the Celtics find a team in a financial situation similar to where the Thunder were last fall, and trade a bunch of assets (which they’ll have) for a James Harden-caliber guy. If not that good, then close.
 
Now, let’s say that through some solid drafting and a few other shrewd basketball moves, the Celtics have built a roster that is truly one superstar away from contending. You know, the same way they did it back in the summer of 2007.
 
Finally, let’s give Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren some credit and assume that if they’ve gone down this path, they’ve also managed the salary cap in a manner that leaves room to sign said max superstar.
 
For fun, let’s call him Levin Kove.
 
In this case, given the scenario I just presented, are we really to believe that Levin will look at the Celtics, completely ignore the tradition, ignore the opportunity to win, ignore the unbelievable atmosphere that this city’s fans provide, and flip Boston the bird simply because it’s Boston? Because it’s cold? Because it’s not super glamorous? Because the equivalent of slightly more than two game checks will be taken away by the state of Massachusetts?
 
To answer that broader question, let’s take a look at what’s prevented previous superstars from signing here in the past.
 
 
In July of 1988, Tom Chambers carved out a special niche in basketball lore when he became the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history.
 
At the time, Chambers and his All Star-mullet made the jump from Seattle down to Phoenix* for a then-unprecedented five-year/$8.1M deal.
 
*A year later, he made the jump over Mark Jackson.
 

 
 
In the 25 years since, free agency has flipped the league on its head. It's won championships. It’s built dynasties. It’s made so many relatively undeserving players so filthy rich that the thought alone leaves you angrier than Tommy Heinsohn after a bad whistle. OK, fine. Any whistle.
 
But for the most part, when it comes to free agency, the Celtics have been a non-factor. In 1992, they signed Xavier McDaniel for three years. In 1994, they signed Pervis Ellison and Dominique Wilkins. In 1995, they signed Dana Barros and Eric Williams. In 1996, Marty Conlon and Frank Brickowski. In 1997, Travis Knight!
 
These aren’t just some the names, they’re the only names. Then again, for most of the mid-90s, the Celtics were in a bad place financially, still handcuffed by the league’s refusal to provide relief for the death of Reggie Lewis. They didn’t have much to work with. They had horrible owners — the Gastons. And anyway, NBA free agency didn’t really take off until the summer of 1996, when Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando for the Lakers.
 
On that note, starting with Shaq, here are the 12 biggest free agent contracts that have been signed in the NBA since, with a few stipulations.
 
Actually, just one stipulation. These are free agents who didn’t re-sign with their original team. In other words, free agents who were truly on the market and ready for a change of scenery.
 
Now, not all of these contracts turned out to be good ones, but that’s not the point. The argument is that the Celtics never have and never will be able to sign a big time free agent, and these guys were the biggest.
 
Shaquille O'Neal: 7 Years, $120 Million from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 - Shaq was going to LA regardless of anything. The Celtics, nor anyone else, really had a shot. But it’s worth noting that Shaq, probably the biggest superstar and attention/marketing whore in NBA history did sign with Boston in 2010. Why? For the chance to win a title.
 
For most players, or at least the right kind of players, location doesn’t matter when there’s a championship to be won. Boston might be Boston, but that didn’t stop James Posey, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Jason Terry and other established pros from signing on the dotted line once the other pieces were in place.
 
Shawn Kemp: 7 Years, $107 Million from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1997 - Fair to say that if Kemp was willing to sign in Cleveland, he would have taken that money to play anywhere. If for no other reason then to avoid wearing those awful ‘90s Cavs’ uniforms.
 
Penny Hardaway: 7 Years, $86 Million from the Phoenix Suns in 1999 – First of all, this was a horrendous move by Phoenix. Second of all, six months before Penny signed with the Suns, the Celtics had extended Antoine Walker for six-years and $71M, the largest contract in franchise history. They’d also struck gold in the previous summer’s draft, landing Paul Pierce with the 10th pick. He’d be up for an extension in a few years.  
 
Brian Grant: 7 Years, $86 Million from the Miami Heat in 2000 – Another awful contract, but as far as the Celtics were concerned, they’d just inked their power forward of the future to a megadeal. They weren’t going to break the bank for Grant. It’s also worth noting that until 2002, the Celitcs were owned by the cheap and miserable Gaston family. Free agency was never high on that family’s list of priorities.
 
Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady: 7 Years, $92.8 Million a piece from the Orlando Magic in 2000 – All things equal, would the Celtics have been able to convince either of these two superstars to sign? Maybe not, but we can’t be sure. Antoine was getting paid. Pierce was now a legitimate star and about to get paid. The time wasn’t right to go all in on either guy considering how similar their games were to Pierce’s. And again, there’s the Gaston factor.
 
Rashard Lewis: 6 Years, $126 Million from the Orlando Magic in 2007 – First, Lewis plays/played the same position as Pierce. Second, this signing happened a few weeks after Boston traded for Ray Allen and a few weeks before they traded for Kevin Garnett. And finally, this was one of the stupidest contracts in NBA history. There’s no way Ainge was touching it.
 
Amar'e Stoudemire: 5 Years, $99.7 Million from the New York Knicks; Chris Bosh: 6 Years, $110 Million from the Miami Heat; LeBron James: 6 Years, $110 Million from the Miami Heat; David Lee: 6 Years, $80 Million from the Golden State Warriors. All in 2010 – The Celtics were never even in the conversation to land any of these prized free agents. After all, at the time, they still had two years left on KG’s colossal contract. They couldn’t manage another. Not to mention, three of the four guys listed above played KG’s position. And anyway, they’d just made another run to the Finals, their second in three years, with the core they already had in place. So, they resigned Pierce, they resigned Ray Allen and went for another.
 
Dwight Howard: 4 Years, $88 Million from Houston Rockets in 2013 – Dwight was probably never coming to Boston, because Dwight hates Boston after years of being tormented by KG, Perk and the crew. He’s probably one of those few players who wouldn’t sign with the team that gave him the best chance to win because of some silly grudge or other non-basketball reasons. Regardless, this past summer, the Celtics didn’t give him the best chance to win. Or really, any chance.
 
And that’s that. The biggest free agent signings — at least among players who switched teams — in NBA history, and the Celtics came up empty. But looking back, is there any hard evidence to prove that the city of Boston is the reason why? If there is, I don’t see it. I mean, yeah, it could be a factor. For all the reasons we’ve already discussed, there are more desirable NBA locations. I don’t anticipate there will ever be a superstar who chooses to come to Boston for no other reason than that it’s Boston, and start from scratch with a team of nobodies. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Instead, we’re talking about the potential for the Celtics to plot and plan and manage their cap and build a winning foundation. To be in the position to sit down with a free agent superstar and say: “Look, we have this, this and this, and all we need is you. Here’s a max contract. It’s all yours. Here’s Russell. Here’s Bird. Here’s Pierce. Here’s KG. Here’s an opportunity to be a part of one of the most storied franchises in sports and play in front some of the most passionate fans in the country.”  
 
After all, that’s what they did with KG. I know he was traded here, but this wasn’t your typical trade. It was basically a free agent acquisition. And before 2007, Garnett was exactly the kind of NBA superstar that would NEVER come to Boston. But he had a chance to win, so he was in. And by all accounts, he enjoyed every second of it. If Boston was fit enough for Kevin Garnett, one of the biggest superstars this game has ever seen, in his prime, I have hard time believing Boston’s not good enough for anyone else.
 
“I enjoyed it here,” Pierce said about Boston this summer, after he and Garnett were traded to Brooklyn. “Hopefully, the fact that guys like me and Kevin liked it here is a sign to other players that it’s a good city to play in.”
 
And it is. And anyway, free agency is never about just one thing. It’s about a perfect storm of circumstances. Location being one of them, but more than that, it’s about having the right roster, with the right cap situation, at the right time. And when you look at the history, you realize that the Celtics have never really had that. They’ve had bad teams and bad owners. They’ve had already good teams, and owners that couldn’t shell out the money even if they wanted to.
 
For whatever reason, people just assume that superstars will turn down Boston’s advances from now until the end of time, just because they’re Boston, when the truth is that they’ve barely ever had a chance to turn them down in the first place. The Celtics have never been a desirable destination for reasons that go far beyond the city they play in. They’ve never caught that perfect storm in a bottle.
 
But now, given the state of this team, the assets in hand and the impending vacancies on the pay roll, the storm might be on the horizon. It’s not out of the question. At the very least, to simply scream “Free agents will never come to Boston!” without giving it any more thought is missing the point entirely. It doesn’t even make sense.
 
Of course, the perfect storm isn’t entirely on the Celtics. They can have all the money in the world, but if the right player isn’t there, it doesn’t matter. Looking ahead, next summer is probably too early to be thinking about a free agent payday. If the likes of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or even Zach Randolph go anywhere it won’t be Boston. But in the summer of 2015, when the Celtics have only $24M on the cap, potentially only $10M if they can find takers for Gerald Wallace and Courtney Lee, there’s an opportunity to make a run on guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert and, of course, Kevin Love. The summer after that, there’s Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Nic Batum and Kevin Durant.
 
There’s also the matter of that other piece, the James Harden to their potential Dwight Howard. In that case, I’d take a look at Golden State. They’ve got David Lee, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala on the books for eight figures a piece through 2016; Curry and Iggy through 2017. They’ll also have to worry about eventually re-signing Curry. And much like the Thunder were forced to basically choose between Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Warriors will probably be forced to do the same with Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Both those guys are going to be stars, and there’s a good chance that one of them will be available. The Celtics could have the assets to get it done.
 
Whether they get it done obviously remains to be seen. I think we have to see how the rest of this season, and this summer’s lottery, plays out before assuming anything about the specific direction that this franchise is headed.
 
But if you still think that tanking is the only way, I don’t know what else to tell you, other than that you might be surprised.