Can Celts emulate Spurs' talent of drafting for success?

Can Celts emulate Spurs' talent of drafting for success?
June 17, 2014, 2:15 pm
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On Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs won themselves another NBA championship. It was their first since 2007, their fifth in the last 15 years and, all in all, it was beautiful. In so many ways (Tim Duncan’s wardrobe notwithstanding), the Spurs are beautiful. They’re the kind of team you want to bring home to your mother. They play a brand of selfless basketball that even the “NBA h8ers” have to respect, and do it in a way that leaves you scratching your head, wondering how a team can make something so hard look so damn easy.
“It’s clear now that we’re all chasing them,” Brad Stevens said of the Spurs at yesterday’s Celtics pre-draft workout in Waltham.
“I just think everybody is so locked in to their role and trying to be the best teammate they can be . . . The way that they played and the way that their young guys have increased their roles and the way that their old guys have continued to play great and accept those young guys — at the end of the day, it’s been a great thing to emulate.”
The Celtics want to emulate the Spurs? OK, sounds good. In that case, they can start next Thursday at the NBA Draft. After all, the draft is what made the Spurs who they are today. And I’m not just talking about Duncan. While winning that sweepstakes set the foundation for all of San Antonio’s success, the success itself was only realized because of a consistent helping of draft day magic. The fact that, over the years, the Spurs picked up Hall of Famer Tony Parker at the end of the first round, Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili in the second round and, most recently, NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard with the 15th overall pick.
After so many summers of grand theft draft day, it’s fair to wonder if the Spurs know something that the rest of the teams don’t. However, I’d argue that it’s not a matter of the Spurs knowing something special, but more about them having something special. Something I’ll hit back on in a second, but first —
As of today, we can’t be sure if the Celtics will ultimately even use their two first round picks. The rumor mill has been quiet, but that doesn’t mean the phones have stopped buzzing. I guarantee that Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren have spent more time discussing deals with other GMs over these last few weeks than that maniac in your fantasy baseball league. They want to make something happen, and that “something” might involve trading a draft pick, or two draft picks or ALL the draft picks. (Like, “Hey, Pop. It’s Danny. So, what would you say if I offered you nine first rounders and Chris Baab for your entire roster?”)
But at the same time, Danny Ainge is still Danny Ainge. He’s not going to make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. He’ll only make one that meets Danny Ainge standards, and there’s no guarantee that a trade like that will present itself between now and next Thursday.
So, at the very least, whether it’s at No. 6 or No. 17 or another pick they acquire on draft day, let’s assume that the Celtics make at least one pick. And in that case, let’s assume that they need to get it right. If the goal is to climb back to the top as soon as possible, Boston can’t afford to swing and miss. That means no more Fab Melos. No more JaJuan Johnsons. No more JR Giddens. That means finding talent below the top tier. Another Paul Pierce. Another Rajon Rondo. Another Al Jefferson.
Or, to bring it back to the Spurs, another Kawhi Leonard.
As you know, on Sunday night, Leonard became the third-youngest Finals MVP in NBA history. He deserved it, too. Over the final three games, during which the Spurs took a series that most assumed would go seven games and snapped it over their knee, Leonard was San Antonio’s best player. He averaged 23.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, two blocks and two steals a game. He also shot 69 percent from the field (25-34), 58 percent from three (7-13) and, oh by the way, he was San Antonio’s primary defender on LeBron James.
He’s also 22 years old. Which is to say, this is just the beginning for Kawhi Leonard. He is the next star in this Spurs system. And I know that some people don’t like to use that word, or consider it an insult to say that a player is a product of a system. But it doesn’t have to be negative. Or maybe we should call it a program? Fine. A program. Like in college. The Spurs have it. Other teams don’t. And it makes a bigger difference than you think.
For instance, one of the most interesting aspects of Leonard’s Finals MVP is that he didn’t play well in the first two games. He was probably San Antonio’s worst player, which is probably why those two games were the closest of the series.
After Leonard won the MVP, Stuart Scott asked him about those first two games, and how he was able to bounce back:
“Man, I’m not sure,” he said. “(The team) said that I have the talent to go out there every night. They just told me that I had to keep being aggressive for us to win this series. They all pushed me. Coach Pop pushed me.”
In his own post-game press conference, Popovich was asked what he said to get Leonard back on track. “That’s family business,” Popovich said. “We have conversations throughout the year that are mostly one-way because Kawhi's a really quiet young man. But he listens and he's a great learner and super-competitive, and has a drive to be the best that's really uncommon in our league.”
And now Leonard is a star. From here on out (unless something changes drastically) he’ll be remembered as another legendary draft day steal for the Spurs. Another case of the rest of the league not being smart enough and San Antonio reaping the benefits. The idea being that Kawhi Leonard was going to turn into this version of Kawhi Leonard regardless of where he ended up.
But I’m not sure if that’s true.
And I don’t say that as a knock on Leonard. It’s just real life.
Looking back at the 2011 Draft, Leonard was the 15th pick. So, let’s say he fell one more spot and landed in Philadelphia, a franchise that was a few months away from being sold and undergoing a major upheaval in every aspect of basketball operations.
Or, what if Leonard fell two more spots, landed in New York, and spent the last three years with Mike Woodson in his ear instead of Gregg Popovich? Or learning from the likes of disgruntled Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith and Ray Felton, instead of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili?
What do we think about Kawhi Leonard? What kind of player has he become?
At the same time, during the NBA Finals, it was interesting to look across the court and wonder what might have been with Michael Beasley. What if he’d been trapped under Pop’s force field from Day 1. What if he’d spent those early years in sleepy San Antonio instead of in the middle of Miami?
Now, let’s rev the discussion up to ludicrous speed:
In 1997, the Spurs won the lottery, and drafted Tim Duncan, who was immediately taken under Popovich and David Robinson’s wing and brainwashed to live and breathe like a Spur.
In 1998, the Clippers won the lottery and drafted Michael Olowokandi. The KandiMan went on to play for three coaches in three years, for one of the most pathetic organizations in all of sports.
My argument isn’t that Olowokandi could have been Duncan, so calm down. Duncan doesn’t even have to be part of this discussion. Instead, let’s just say that David Robinson’s injury happened a year later, and the Spurs won the Lottery a year later; and they drafted Olowokandi.
Would the KandiMan still be remembered as one of the biggest busts in NBA history? I don’t think so.
Or what if the Robinson injury happens two years later, and the Spurs draft Elton Brand with No. 1 pick in 1999? In that case, if Brand stays healthy, he might be headed for the Hall of Fame.
And you get the point by now. And in reality, it might not matter. What’s done is done. Kawhi Leonard is a star. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are Hall of Famers. KandiMan and Beasley are busts. But regardless of the situation, here’s one major takeaway:
Drafting a player is only half the battle. It’s one thing to get him, but then you have to know what to do with him. You need to put him in a position to succeed. With the right coach. In the right system. With the right demographic of teammates. You need to build a culture where young talent can thrive while the young minds are being molded. It’s a science.
One that Popovich has mastered. One that, beyond anything else that the Celtics might try to emulate about the Spurs, means the most in terms of Boston turning next week’s draft and this entire rebuild into a success.
And all in all, I’d say they’re off to a good start. They have a sound ownership group, which trusts its chief executive. A chief executive that trusts his head coach. It’s one big happy trust tree at the top. It’s a bunch of smart people, with open minds, working together towards a common goal. And that alone gives Boston a leg up on so much of the competition. It’s the first step in creating and fostering a system — or if you prefer, program — of success.
The next step is finding the right players to fill the right holes. Next Thursday night, whether it’s through the draft or a trade, the Celtics have an opportunity to do just that.
And in the name of catching the Spurs, it’s an opportunity that Boston can’t afford to miss out on.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine