The last two nights have brought us the best and worst that the NBA has to offer. First, the best: The Conference Finals — Miami vs. Indiana, San Antonio vs. Memphis — and the only four teams with any hope to still make something of this season.
And then, the worst: The Draft Lottery, where the 14 teams who didn’t make the playoffs send a representative to smile for the cameras, flash silly good luck charms and pretend that they have a shot against the powers of Nick Gilbert.
But as we well know, in reality, the most unfortunate place within the NBA hierarchy is to not be represented in either of these two arenas. Of course, there are exceptions — right now, Oklahoma City and Chicago both qualify — but in general, if you’re not one of the top four or one of the bottom 14, you’re in no man’s land. And that’s no good.
And as I type, that’s where you’ll find the Boston Celtics. With a roster that’s just talented enough to make the playoffs, but nowhere talented enough to win a title. Their best player is a moody, still somewhat unreliable point guard barely three months removed from ACL surgery. Their second best player is wildly inconsistent guy, who no one in the organization can quite figure out. Over the next month, they might part ways with their franchise cornerstone for the last 15 years, which in turn may scare off Kevin Garnett, which in turn may scare off Doc Rivers (until HE says he’s back, I won’t believe that he’s back).
To make matters worse, they already have $76M (although not all of it is guaranteed) committed to next season and about $55M the year after that, which puts them up against the tax threshold for the second straight year, and even in the best case scenario, will limit their flexibility moving forward.
And OK, I’ve obviously painted a pretty grim picture, with one obvious follow-up question: Is it really that bad?
Well, the answer is relative to what else is out there, so I thought it might be fun (or at least interesting) to pose yet another question: As a Celtics fan, if given the opportunity to switch rosters with any of other 29 teams in the league, which ones would you swap with?
The factors to consider are present day status, future potential, market-size, the front office and the state of the salary cap.
And here’s one man’s opinion. I’m going to break it down into three categories.
1. Yes, give me your team.
2. Hmm, let me think about it, but . . . maybe?
3. Hell no, I’ll stick with Celtics.
GIVE ME YOUR TEAM:
MIAMI: Regardless of what happens with LeBron next summer (I think he’s headed to the Lakers but that’s a conversation for another day/year), you take two seasons as the NBA favorite over anything else.
INDIANA: Franchise center Roy Hibbert (assuming Frank Vogel doesn’t send him to the D-League) is signed through 2016. Future (if not current) two-way superstar Paul George is on his rookie deal for two more seasons. They’ve got George Hill signed through 2017 and one more year of Lance Stephenson on the super-cheap. And with less than $50M on the cap for next season and less than $35M for the year after that, they should be able to bring back David West, who’s become the heart and soul of team that’s in no danger of falling off.
SAN ANTONIO: As long as Gregg Popovich is around (I’m sure him and Danny could work out an arrangement) the Spurs machine will remain in motion. They’ve got Tim Duncan and Tony Parker wrapped up for two more years, Danny Green and Kwahi Leonard on the cheap for two and three more years, respectively. They also have only about $41M on the books for next year (again, the Celtics are at about $76M), which should be enough to bring back Tiago Splitter (he’s up for a qualifying offer), work something out with unrestricted free agent Manu Ginobili and stay super competitive for the extent of Duncan’s career.
MEMPHIS: The best frontcourt duo in the game (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) is signed for two more years. Mike Conley is suddenly one of the better point guards in the business and an absolute steal at five years/$40M (through 2016). It won’t be too easy for the small-market Grizzlies to keep a strong core around this trio (Tony Allen will be unrestricted this summer), and their coaching situation may soon be in flux, but I’ll take the Grizz over Boston in a heartbeat.
OKLAHOMA CITY: Kevin Durant’s on board through 2016 and Russell Westbrook through 2017. Serge Ibaka was exposed against the Grizzlies, but as long as the first two guys are around he’s a big piece to the puzzle. It might help to bring in a lightly more capable coach, but if that day comes, Sam Presti will have his choice of the best of what’s available.
CHICAGO: Derrick Rose is somewhat of a wild card, but assuming he comes back among the best players in the game, surrounded by Joakim Noah (who proved his worth, and then some in these playoffs) and breakout star Jimmy Butler, that’s a foundation for success. Tom Thibodeau isn’t the easiest coach to play for, but now that his extension appears to be official, the Bulls will be better for having him around.
LA LAKERS: Short term doesn’t look that sweet, especially if Dwight heads to Houston, but as of now they have a total of $9M on the books for next summer — just in time for LeBron’s ETO. Either way, with that franchise and that market, it’s really hard to dig yourself into a hole. Even though Jim Buss will try his best.
HOUSTON: On the up-swing, with a superstar that anyone would love to play with, no state income tax and enough cap room to lure in the likes of Dwight Howard this summer. It always helps when you find diamond in the second round rough like Chandler Parsons, who won’t even make $2M combined over the next two years.
ATLANTA: Only 18 million on the books for next season, and $12M of that is invested in Al Horford. That’s freedom right there.
NEW ORLEANS: Only $34M in guaranteed money heading into this summer, with a fine centerpiece in Anthony Davis (on his rookie deal until 2016) and a great young point guard in Greivis Vasquez. Things will be much clearer once they sort out the Eric Gordon situation, he clearly wants no part of the Pelicans, but the future looks pretty bright.
CLEVELAND: You’ve got the game’s next super-duper-star (Kyrie Irving) under contract through 2016, plus young complementary pieces in Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson and the No. 1 overall pick. Once they fire Mike Brown for the second time, they might actually be in business.
DENVER: The Nuggets are in a similar spot as the Celtics in terms of the cap — with about $68 next year, and $56 the year after that (by the way, all these numbers are courtesy of the folks at ShamSports (LINK: www.shamsports.com). But you can do a lot worse than moving forward with a young core of Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and, if his head’s on straight, JaVale McGee.
Hmm . . .
BROOKLYN: They’ve got a great point guard and a close-to-great center, and that’s typically a recipe for success in this league. But between the money they’re paying those two, plus Joe Johnson absurd contract and the $30M still owed to Gerald Wallace, you wonder if the Nets will ever be able to surround their Big Three with enough talent to get over the hump. It also doesn’t help that they don’t have a coach. But it does help to have an owner who will sell his billion dollar soul to bring a winner to Brooklyn.
LA CLIPPERS: If Chris Paul re-signs then we can bump the Clippers up to the YES category. If not, they still have Blake Griffin, a centerpiece that dwarfs anything that the Celtics have. On the other hand, they still have no coach and more importantly, DO have Donald Sterling, arguably the worst owner in all of sports. That keeps this one in limbo for now.
DALLAS: With only $42M guaranteed for next year, and only $2M the year after that, the Mavs are in a good place with the cap, and like Houston, benefit from the absence of Texas income tax. They also have an owner who’s willing to do what it takes. BUT, they lost out on Deron Williams last year. They’ll likely lose out on Dwight Howard this year. It may not be long before the Mavericks have a whole lot of money, but nothing to really spend it on; no foundation to build around. Sure, there’s a chance they’ll find themselves back in contention, but right now it’s a crap shoot.
GOLDEN STATE: A lot of this depends on Steph Curry’s ankles, but let’s just assume that he’ll be healthy because it’s too depressing to do otherwise. Curry’s signed through 2017, with backcourt mate and budding star Klay Thompson on his rookie deal through the end of 2015. Then, you’ve got Harrison Barnes, who’s only 20 and won’t make $4M a year until after 2016. But, there’s a potential problem with some big contracts going to some big men — David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Andris Biedrins will make almost $37M next year — so that’s far from ideal.
WASHINGTON: As long as Ernie Grunfeld’s in charge, it’s hard to be too envious of the Wizards, but they’ve got a young core of John Wall, and Bradley Beal, plus the third pick in this year’s draft. Also, a legit center in Nene (even if he’s got three more years at $13M a pop). At the end of the day, I’ll probably still take the Celtics, but had to think about it much longer than I ever imagined I would.
PORTLAND: Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum are a good foundation, and they’ll be intact (short of a trade) for at least the next two years. If Lillard keeps growing, Portland could be in pretty good shape, but they’re overall future is no better or worse than Boston’s.
UTAH: They’ve got a ton of cap space right now (only $27M on the books this summer) which gives some hope for the future, but the less than desirable locale tempers most of the excitement.
DETROIT: Here’s another team with a ton of cap space (only $35M in guaranteed salary next year) and two young big men (Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe) that any franchise would be happy to have on board.
But what good is cap space when you’re counting on Joe Dumars to make it work?
THANKS, BUT I’LL STICK WITH THE C’s
NEW YORK: Amare Stoudemire is the worst contract in the NBA (good thing they used the Amnesty on Chauncey Billups!) and he’ll be there for the next two years. Iman Shumpert will be a bargain until he’s up for free agency but that is far outweighed by the guaranteed $21M they owe Steve Novak, Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby. And the fact that owner James Dolan is pure evil.
TORONTO: How’s a Big 3 of Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani and Demarr DeRozan sound? Pretty awful, and that’s before you factor in the more $97M in guaranteed money headed that trio’s way. Throw in more than $12M for Landry Fields, no lottery pick in this year’s draft and the fact that we’ve yet to find a superstar with any interest in playing up north, and there’s no way you’re swapping situations with the Raptors. (Their only hope might be to tank and somehow land Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins in next year’s draft)
PHILADELPHIA: Still looking for a coach, on their third GM in three years, reeling from the Bynum trade and the frustration that is Evan Turner. Sam Hinkie might have a shot to turn things around in Philly, but I like Danny’s chances a little better.
MILWAUKEE: Larry Sanders is special, but Milwaukee has a lot invested in random pieces like Ersan Ilysova, Drew Gooden and Luc Mbah a Moute; guys who could help a great team (at least Ersan and Luc), but are sort of misplaced with the Bucks current dynamic. Throw in Milwaukee’s less than desirable location and the uncertainty surrounding Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and . . . yeah, let’s move on.
MINNESOTA: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio is a nice start. So was finally freeing themselves from the Wrath of David Kahn. But they’ve got two seasons to reach the promise land before Love bolts (and he will be bolting), and then it’s back to the depressing drawing board.
ORLANDO: Nikola Vucevic was the steal of the Dwight Howard trade, and a surprise beacon of hope within the Magic franchise. They also have the second pick in this year’s draft and likely another high pick next year. But they’re a middle of the road team in terms of cap flexibility and haven’t proven themselves as a market (since the big McGrady/Grant Hill heist) where superstars want to go and more importantly, stay.
CHARLOTTE: There are some nice young pieces in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, not to mention the Top 4 pick in this year’s draft and most likely another high selection and next year’s much-better draft. BUT they’ve got another year of paying way too much ($13M) for Ben Gordon and two more years (and a combined $18M) for Tyrus Thomas. And they’ve still got Michael Jordan running the show, and he’s got as much interest in the Cats as he does a poker game with a $5 buy-in. On the bright side, at least they’re the Hornets again.
PHOENIX: Everyone wants to play in Phoenix, but as long as Robert Sarver is signing the checks, there’s no confidence that the Suns will go about business the right way. I’ll take Wyc Grousebeck and Celtic Pride.
SACRAMENTO: An insane situation, with a more insane franchise centerpiece. No thanks.
So, there you have it. And I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by the outcome: 12 “yesses”, nine “nos” and eight “I’m not sures”. If that doesn’t define middle of the pack, then . . . no, it pretty much does define it. That’s the Celtics. Floating in NBA limbo, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, but for now, just stuck in no man’s land.
Of course, just because a team has a better or worse situation on paper, doesn’t mean that the future will play out accordingly. With the way some of these GM’s and owners handle themselves, you could give them the most premium art supplies available, give the Celtics a pack of broken crayons, and Danny Ainge might still end up painting a prettier picture.
Right now, that might be the only hope that Celtics fans have.