Celtics need to find a unique path back to the top

Celtics need to find a unique path back to the top
May 23, 2014, 2:30 pm
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It’s Friday afternoon, we’re more than 60 hours removed from the NBA Lottery, and unfortunately, nothing has changed. Luck is still a cruel and miserable lady -- like Nancy Grace possessed by the ghost of Marge Schott. The Celtics still came up empty, they’re still stuck with the No. 6 pick, and we still have no idea what they’ll do with it.

Maybe they’ll make a trade.

Sure, but for who?

Maybe they’ll actually use the pick.

OK, but on who?

Or maybe they’ll do what they did with the No. 6 pick 36 years ago: Select an eligible college junior, wait one season, and then sit back as he revolutionizes the game.

No. They won’t. These days that sort of thing is illegal thanks to something called the Bird Collegiate Rule.

Anyway, I bring up Larry Bird for two reasons:

1. Can you believe it’s been 36 years since the Celtics drafted Larry Bird? Or how about this: Can you believe we’re only four years away from it being 40 years since the Celtics drafted Larry Bird? That’s crazy. Then again, there’s this: April 30 marked 58 years since the Celtics drafted Tommy Heinsohn.

2. Larry Bird currently runs the Indiana Pacers, who are one of the four teams still alive in the fight for the 2014 NBA title. This is the second straight year that Indiana has reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and last year they came within a game of advancing.

In other words, Bird has done in Indiana what Danny Ainge hopes to do once again in Boston. He’s built a contender. 

Same goes for Pat Riley in Miami. At present time (at least I assume they’ll play another game at some point), Miami’s in the midst of its fourth straight trip to the Conference Finals. The Heat have also played in the last three NBA Finals and won the last two. They’re currently seven wins shy of completing only the fourth three-peat in the last 45 years.

Bottom line: Regardless of what happens over the next two weeks, the Heat and Pacers are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.

In the West, Gregg Popovich and RC Buford have built a contender in San Antonio, although with all they’ve accomplished, “contender” is probably an insult.

Last year, the Spurs were a few bad bounces and one answered Ray Allen prayer away from an NBA title. Currently, they’re two wins away from reaching their second straight NBA Finals, and also their sixth in the last 16 years.

Finally, Oklahoma City’s on the other side of San Antonio’s 2-0 Western Conference Finals advantage and, with Serge Ibaka’s injury, it doesn’t look good for the Thunder. Still, this is a great team. Like the Spurs, OKC’s finished either first or second in the West in each of the last four seasons. Over that time, they’ve made one Finals appearance and three trips to Conference Finals (and very likely would’ve played in a fourth if not for last year’s injury to Russell Westbrook).

Either way, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the two best teams in the West.

San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Miami are the four best teams in the NBA.

What I’m saying is that the 2014 Conference Finals aren’t a fluke. They’re the NBA’s gold standard. And while we still don’t know how the Celtics plan to get there, we know that this is where they want to be. The top.

Not just a good team. Not just a competitive team. They want to be great. To be among that tiny handful of teams -- like Indiana, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- that the basketball world looks at every October and says, “Yup. They have a shot. These guys can win it all.”

So, seeing how the Pacers, Heat, Spurs and Thunder are all where the Celtics want to be, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how they got there. What they did and how they did it. Were there any common themes?

To quote the great Abraham Lincoln: “LOL”

The truth is that these four teams couldn’t have gone about their contender construction in four more different ways:

-- Bird, unsurprisingly, built the Pacers steadily and methodically, utilizing every tool at his disposal. He acquired center Roy Hibbert (2008) and point guard George Hill (2011) via trade. He grabbed franchise superstar Paul George with the 10th pick in the 2010 Draft and starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson at No. 40. Bird signed only one significant free agent, starting power forward David West -- who, like The Dude’s rug, really ties the room together.

- Pat Riley took the full-blown free agency route with Miami. He understood that in order to build a true winner, it’s not enough to just have cap space; you have to have cap space at the right time, when the right players are available. He also understood there would be few better times in NBA history than the summer of 2010. And when that summer rolled around, Miami cashed in.

And once Riley built that championship foundation, we saw what we always see: Veteran free agents flocking to a winning team, desperate to take less money for a shot at the title.

-- Not to downplay everything that Popovich and Buford have accomplished in San Antonio, but it all began with one giant stroke of lottery luck. Actually, two strokes: The first one happened in 1987, when the Spurs not only won the lottery, but won it in a year when one of the greatest centers in NBA history (David Robinson) was available. Then in 1996, after seven straight playoff appearances and an average of 54 wins a year, Robinson hurt his back, then broke his foot and the Spurs fell apart. (Along the way, they fired Brian Hill and hired Gregg Popovich.)

Now they were back in the lottery, and they not only won it, but they won in it a year when the best power forward in NBA history (Tim Duncan) was available. With Duncan on board (and with Popovich’s genius ready to be unleashed), San Antonio was on an incredibly fortunate path to greatness.

But it wouldn’t have been nearly as great if not for what the Spurs have done in the draft. And as a result of all their success, very late in the draft. In the years since acquiring Duncan -- at least as it pertains to this year’s team -- San Antonio selected Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick in 1999 and Hall of Famer Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001. They drafted Tiago Splitter with the 28th pick in 2007 and traded up to grab future All-Star Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick in 2011. So, that’s their current starting point guard, starting center, starting small forward and their most valuable shooting guard, all drafted with an average pick of 32.

-- Finally, GM Sam Presti built the heart of this Thunder team almost entirely through the lottery. From 2006-2009, Seattle/OKC was horrible; one of the worst teams in the league. After each of those three seasons, the Sonics/Thunder picked second, fourth and third, respectively, and drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Post-lottery, they grabbed Ibaka with the 24th pick in 2008 and Reggie Jackson with the 24th pick in 2011.

Presti also made two significant trades. In early 2011, he fleeced the Celtics on Jeff Green’s heart condition to acquire starting center Kendrick Perkins. In late 2012, he traded James Harden to Rockets in a deal that looks more questionable by the day, but at the very least put OKC in a position to grab Steven Adams last summer.

Harden deal aside, OKC is the team it is today because of six first-round picks -- three in the Top 5, one late in the lottery and two at No. 24 -- that it absolutely nailed.

***

That OKC scenario is at least somewhat reminiscent of where the Celtics stand today. You see what can become of six first-round picks, and can’t help but wonder what Danny Ainge can do with nine. However, in order to build a team like the Thunder did, you have be as bad as the Sonics/Thunder were for as long as they were. The Celtics would have to be even worse than they were last year for three more years, and still have to pray that a talent like Kevin Durant comes along. So that’s out.

San Antonio’s path doesn’t apply because even in the unlikely event that the next Duncan becomes available, and even if the Celtics have the worst record in the league, they’ll still somehow end up picking fourth.

Miami’s hard to emulate because there may never be another free-agent class that provides the opportunity that Pat Riley seized in 2010. LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA, and we know that he’s not ending up in Boston. (Kevin Durant will be unrestricted in 2016, and the Celtics could preemptively carve out space for him and another unrestricted star -- Kyrie Irving? -- but that would be an insane gamble.)

Ultimately, it’s more likely that Ainge will end up following Bird’s mix-and-match approach on the way back to the top, but it’s still too early to tell.

Who knows, maybe the Celtics find their Paul George at No. 6 this summer and their Lance Stephenson (eek!) at 17? Maybe they find their Ibaka and Jackson or Parker and Ginobili. Maybe they’ll find their Dwyane Wade, who dropped to No. 5 in 2003, probably the last time there’ve been this many “potential stars” in one draft.

Or maybe they trade both picks before ever finding out.

Like I said at the top, we don’t know what will happen next. But the one thing we can learn from the NBA’s current crop contenders is there’s no instruction manual for building a winner. Each project is different. They all start from different places. They’re all dealt different hands. They’re all afforded different opportunities. There’s really no comparison. Every rebuild is truly all its own.

Even the comparison between these Celtics and the 2007 Celtics falls short. Kevin Garnett was as much of a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition for Boston as Tim Duncan was for the Spurs. The Celtics will never again make a trade as impactful as that one.

And you know what? That’s okay. In the last 20 years, 19 different teams have won a title without Kevin Garnett on their roster. There are other ways to get there. There are million ways to get there. The Celtics are carving out a path that’s all their own.

It’s pretty clear that they want Kevin Love, but it remains to be seen whether they have enough to get him, or if he ultimately wants to come to Boston. If they do (and he does), he’s here with Rondo and you spend next season hoping that the two of them fall in love, while remaining in constant pursuit of one more star to add to the equation.

If they can’t get Love, the Celtics have to strongly consider trading Rajon Rondo. Not as an indictment on Rondo. The guy is a championship point guard. There are only two other active starting point guards (Tony Parker and Mario Chalmers) who can say that. Without question: You can win a title with Rajon Rondo as your starting point guard.

But if they don’t land Love (and others), the question becomes:

Can the Celtics, given their current situation, win a championship with Rondo?

And right now, that might be the only question that matters.

The Celtics might be on a unique path, but they’re coming up to a huge fork.

There’s life with Rondo and life without him, and for better or worse, the two roads look very different.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine