The NBA Lockout mercifully came to an end last week as the players and owners reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The news that the season would begin on Christmas Day (one of the most celebrated days in the NBA's often tedious regular season) signaled fans and writers to stop writing and talking about who was responsible for the labor mess and start proposing wild scenarios that will land their team the superstar that will carry the franchise for the next decade. No matter how wild and completely irrational these scenarios may be, they're a part of every NBA season.
One fan base that has gotten into all the fun of wild and near impossible trade and free agency scenarios is the Boston Celtics. Celtics fans have convinced themselves that New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul would sign a contract extension with a rebuilding Celtics team and that Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard will follow suit and join the C's to create a juggernaut that will transition seamlessly from the "New Big Three" era and keep the team in contention for NBA Championships until long into the next decade.
I realize that the Celtics have picked up a significant number of new fans since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen hopped aboard and led the team into a brief golden era, but has it really been that long since this team was losing 58 games with Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, and Ryan Gomes in the starting line-up?
Much as it may pain Boston fans to hear it, I feel the need to bring reality into this situation. The Celtics have ZERO chance to lure any young franchise cornerstone to Boston via free agency.
Zero. As in none.
Lest we forget, Garnett and Allen did not sign with the team as free agents back in that magical summer of 2007. Both were acquired in blockbuster trades, and neither came willingly.
Allen was publicly unhappy with the draft night deal that sent him to Boston in exchange for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the rights to Jeff Green, claiming that he wasn't thrilled with the idea of moving to a re-building team. Garnett was even more unwilling, going so far as to squash an agreed upon deal (before the Allen trade) by refusing to sign a contract extension with the Celtics. It wasn't until Allen and team mainstay Paul Pierce were in place that KG grudgingly agreed to leave his beloved Minnesota Timberwolves to chase a championship ring.
So why is it that young franchise cornerstones like Howard and Paul won't join the Celtics? The team, and more specifically, the city simply doesn't offer what those stars are looking for.
During the free agent gold rush last year in which LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami, followed by Carmelo Anthony disgracefully forcing his way out of Denver to team up with Amare Stoudemire, it was a stark reminder that players of their ilk are mostly interested in playing with their friends in glamor cities like Miami, New York, or Los Angeles.
While Boston is a great city to go to college and get a degree and find a well paying job in the financial district, it doesn't have the nightlife, warm weather, or the general appeal that New York, Los Angeles or Miami does for young celebrity athletes.
The only real selling point for the city and the franchise is the passion of the fan base and the history of the team. Unfortunately, the fact that the teams last sustained run of success was almost 30 years ago doesn't hold much weight with younger players.
For example, Dwight Howard was only six months old the last time that the Celtics had won a championship before 2008. Players like him have only known the Celtics as the team that ranged from downright horrendous (mid-late 90's) to perennial second tier playoff team (early-mid 200's). You simply can't sell the tradition of the franchise based on players like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale to today's generation of players.
This isn't to say that ALL players think the same way that James, Bosh and Anthony do. Kevin Durant was thrilled to sign his max contract extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder during last season and seems to genuinely enjoy playing in one the league's smallest markets. Similarly, Tim Duncan was drafted by and chose to stay with the San Antonio Spurs throughout his career, never making so much as a peep about the fact that he played in a smaller market.
But, by and large, guys like Durant and Duncan are rare. Superstar players are almost always going to want to play with their buddies and then want to go out on the town and party it up.
The Celtics aren't alone in this situation though. In fact, it's one of the main reasons that a lockout occurred in the first place. Part of the goal was to limit the ability of star players who were drafted into smaller markets (like Orlando, New Orleans, Charlotte, Milwaukee, etc) to be able to pick up and leave the moment their contracts were up. Unfortunately, the compromise that the players and owners ultimately reached wasn't as restrictive as some would have preferred.
As a result, there's only two truly proven methods for a franchise in a smaller or less attractive market to build a championship contender.
You can acquire a superstar through the draft and try and build a championship team around him (the method that worked for the Spurs). The trouble with this model is that it requires an unbelievable amount of luck. You need to be an absolutely awful team during the right year, have the ping pong balls bounce your way in the draft lottery, and then hope that the player you draft fulfills the potential that he shows in college.
The other method is a little more practical and is the one that the Celtics were able to pull off back in 2007. You need to acquire a slew of tradeable assets (read: expiring contracts, first round draft picks, cash exceptions, etc.) and then find a team that is hoping to unload a superstar that is a little bit further along in his career who isn't contending for a title and make them a "godfather" offer (like the one the C's made to the T'Wolves).
Obviously neither method is foolproof and both come with the serious risk of damaging your team for the long haul via half empty stadiums and an unwillingness of ANY players to sign on with the team. But those really are the only options for a team like the Celtics.
So rather than fantasize about a team featuring Chris Paul and Dwight Howard that has no chance of ever happening, enjoy the final season of the "New Big Three" era and then prepare for the possibly lengthy rebuilding process that the team is about to undertake.