Tonight in Toronto, after one of the craziest and most impactful summers in franchise history, the Celtics will kick off a new era of basketball in relative obscurity.
First, it’s relative to the rest of the NBA. There are 14 games on Wednesday’s schedule, and few, if any, will generate as little buzz as the action at Air Canada Centre. (Note: Unless someone finally trips over one of those enormous RAPTORS signs propped up under the hoop.)
It’s also relative to recent history. In each of the last five years, the Celtics opened the season in the same place the Heat and Bulls did last night: On national TV. Boston fans are accustomed to spending the first Wednesday of the season passing around clips of KG clowning Craig Sager, instead of staring into space, wondering how the Celtics are suddenly eight-point underdogs against the Raptors.
Finally, that obscurity is very relative to the city of Boston. That’s because about an hour (and seven minutes!!!) after the Celtics season tips off in Toronto, the Red Sox will take the field at Fenway with a chance to clinch the World Series on their home turf for the first time since 1918. (For reference, that’s the same year Dick Bavetta graduated college.) And it doesn’t help that the Bruins are playing, too. Over in Pittsburgh, in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
All things considered, the vibe surrounding the Celtics 2013-14 season opener is, well, almost exactly how we imagined it would be. Save for the fantasy playing out at Fenway, Celtics fans always knew this day would come. Even at the height of the Big 3 (v. 2) era, the clock was always ticking. And more recently, it became depressingly obvious that time had run out.
By last summer, this rebuild was like a colonoscopy. Danny Ainge could put it off all he wanted, but at some point it had to happen, and the longer he waited, the greater risk he ran. So, he didn’t wait. At least not any longer than he already had. Instead, Ainge did what he always said he would do: TRADE E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E! Or almost everyone. He committed himself to finding a new home for Paul Pierce, creating a scenario where it was also time to say goodbye to Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers no longer wanted to coach the team.
On that note, whether or not you’re happy with the general direction Ainge has taken the Celtics, give him this: He flipped Rivers, Garnett and Pierce for rebuilding gold.
For Doc, he received a 2015 first-round pick. Sure, it’s the Clippers pick so it might end up in the high 20s, but it’s still a first-rounder. How would you feel about a player like Nicholas Batum? George Hill? Taj Gibson? Quincy Pondexter? Greivis Vasquez? Jimmy Butler? Each one was drafted between 25-30 at some point over the last five years.
At the very least, that Clippers pick stands as another asset to be included in a future deal. Either way, it does far more for the Celtics cause than investing $7 million a year in a coach who was no longer invested in them.
But the real haul came in from Brooklyn. Ainge honestly couldn’t have found a better match. First, from a sentimental point of view, he was able to ship Pierce to a big-market contender, as opposed to somewhere like Utah or Milwaukee. He was able to keep Pierce and Garnett together, which, after the Clippers were ruled out, certainly increased the probability of Garnett waving his no-trade clause. But more than that, in the Nets, Ainge found one of the few teams in the league, maybe the only team, still willing to drastically overpay for the Pierce/Garnett name. A team with an owner who’s out of his mind and will spare no cost in the pursuit of stealing headlines (and eventually all five boroughs) from the Knicks. With a GM who knows that every day that goes by without a championship brings him another day closer to the unemployment line. Why would Billy King care about the 2018 draft when, unless he wins right now, he’ll already be deep in Siberian exile? The Celtics knew that. They used that and abused that on their way to acquiring more for Pierce and KG than could have anywhere else.
They not only walked away from the Brooklyn deal with three (three!) more first-round picks, but they also finagled a $10.3 million trade exception. Like most aspects of the CBA, the “trade exception” details are more wordy and complicated than Infinite Jest, but it basically allows the Celtics to make a trade in which they absorb $10.3 million more than they send out, salary cap be damned. It opens the door from them to make a little splash next summer. It also expires on July 12, and it would be a shock if they let it go to waste.
All told, while it obviously hurt to say goodbye to the past, the Celtics managed to set themselves up for the future. If nothing else, they begin this season with nine first-round picks over the next five years. They’ve worked themselves under the luxury-tax threshold. They don’t have any truly atrocious, crippling (and most important, immovable) contracts on the books and they’re in line to clear significant cap space over the next few years.
They also hired a young, insanely motivated coach. One who may not have any NBA experience, but who possesses a level of intelligence, drive, humility and obsession with learning that’s helped him find success at pretty much everything he’s done in life. He’s a coach who’s completely in tune with the wants and needs of the front office, who understands and believes in what the Celtics are trying to do more than Doc Rivers ever did. That’s not a knock on Doc; he’s earned the right to stand by his convictions. That doesn’t guarantee that Brad Stevens will be more successful than Doc, either. But perfect, ego-free harmony between coach and front office is a nice foundation. Just ask the Red Sox.
Stevens might not be the analytical robot that some make him out to be, but he’ll never let tradition and conventional ideas stand in the way of success. And his hiring only reinforces the Celtics' commitment to progressive thinking.
Aside from Stevens, they added more than a few other accomplished, like-minded brains to the mix this offseason. They’re one of the teams that stand to benefit most from the new SportVU cameras that were installed league-wide over the summer. That’s because they’ve been using them for years, long before many franchises even knew what they were.
Moving forward, one thing you can be sure of is that as the game continues to evolve, the Celtics won’t be left behind. More often than not, they’ll be among the teams leading the charge.
Having said all that, here’s the bottom line: The Celtics aren’t in a great place right now. Certainly not relative to where they were, or to where the rest of the league is or to where their counterparts in Boston are. But it’s all relative.
This is the Season of Relativity.
Yeah, they’re in a tough spot. But given the state of this franchise at the end of last season, it’s the spot where they need to be. They might not have the slightest hope of winning a title this year. According to Bovada, there’s a better chance that 50-year-old Michael Jordan suits up for the Bobcats (100/1) than there is of the Celtics raising Banner 18 (150/1). They might not have a point guard (at least for the next few months). They definitely don’t have a center. Or an identity. Or any semblance of a solid rotation.
But for everything they don’t have, here’s what they do:
-- They have extremely smart people working behind the scenes. Folks who are constantly ahead of the curve, with a track record of understanding and exposing every little loophole in that crazy CBA.
-- Unlike many teams, they have owners who genuinely care, who take everything that happens to this team very personally, who are competitive as hell, and have proven that they’re willing to spend big money, as long as it’s in the name of winning another title.
-- They have assets.
-- Soon enough, they’ll have some cap space.
Make no mistake: Rebuilding sucks. There’s a very good chance that this season sucks. But again, it’s all relative. In the Celtics case, it could stand to suck a lot more. That might not be the most inspiring message. Don’t count on the team unveiling a “Hey, it could suck a lot more!” promotional campaign. It’s true, though. The Celtics are embarking on extremely difficult, frustrating and scary voyage, but to this point, they’re going about it the right way. They’re committed to the process. That’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot of over the next few years.
Of course, there are no guarantees. There’s a big difference between being in the position to carry out a successful rebuild and actually doing it. So much of the Celtics future will be dictated by a thousand random bounces in five separate baskets full of ping-pong balls. By random injuries to players who aren’t even on the roster yet. There’s an opportunity for them to get very lucky or very unlucky. And anyway, with so many draft picks spread out over so many years, who knows what will become of things? There will be lottery picks in that 2018 draft who have just now started their freshman year of high school. Who knows what the world will even be like in 2018? (You think people will still be using napkins, or is this mouth vacuum thing for real?)
But while there are no guarantees, there’s optimism. In the big picture, at least. And really, this all about the big picture. That’s the biggest difference between now and the last six years.
Back then, every season was processed in a vacuum. Entirely independent of the past or future. Success and failure were black and white. It was championship or bust. Now? I don’t know.
Before you can measure success, you first need to define it. And I’m not sure the 2013-14 Celtics have done that yet. Above all else, that’s still the most glaring question facing this team. Not, what happens with Rondo? Not, will Jeff Green ever fulfill his potential? Not, is Vitor Faverani the modern day Dino Radja, because that answer is most definitely yes.
The question is simply: How will these Celtics define success?
What needs to happen for Ainge to survey this team at the end of the season, maniacally rubs his hands together and say, “All right, Danny. It’s all falling into place.”
Is winning still the goal, or is winning the new losing?
That mentality feels so foreign after everything this team accomplished over the last six years, but for anyone who cared before that, it’s also very familiar. It’s a dirty, but significant aspect of NBA life. That sometimes its better to be worse. That failure is often a key ingredient to success.
And ultimately, for a franchise like the Celtics, success means only one thing: A title. That’s all that matters. That’s always the goal. Obviously, when Boston takes the floor tonight against the Raptors, that goal will be more distant than it’s been in a while. This is only the first step in what will be an incredibly long, chaotic and hopeful journey back to the top.
But relatively speaking, they’re off to a great start.
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