You've got to hand it to Danny Ainge: he's not afraid to make a dramatic move. Four years after changing the course of Celtics history with his blockbuster deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Ainge has once again decided to seemingly throw caution to the wind and take a big gamble. Kendrick Perkins and a sizable portion of the bench are out. Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic are in, along with a pair of draft picks, including what should be a decent lottery pick in 2012 from the Clippers.
That's a lot to get your head around at first glance, and it introduces a lot of questions. Is Shaquille O'Neal our new starting center? Why did we send out a pair of rookies for Cleveland's pick? Did we have a reason to suspect that Marquis Daniels wasn't going to be back at full force anytime soon? If not, why give him up for cash? What about Perkins' knee? Was it a factor?
But the single biggest question is simply this: "Why?"
Ultimately, the answer will have to come down to our chances. Our chances to win a championship now, and in three years time. It's that answer that I'm going to attempt to shed some light on now, but to do so, we have to start in the past.
June 17, 2010
83-79: The final score of Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was not exactly what you would have expected it to be. But over the last eight quarters of postseason basketball, the boys in green could manage only 146 points. That's 73 per game. The causes were numerous, but it boiled down to two things.
The first, and less important of the two, was a disappearing bench that lacked the faith of head coach Doc Rivers. We all like to remember the Shrek and Donkey night of Davis and Robinson, but really only Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis had proven themselves to be reliable during the playoffs.
But the fact that the Celtics lacked a reliable bench helped cause the second side of things, as the team's starting five were forced into playing more minutes. The result was a group of 30-year-olds with dead legs clanking shots off the front of the rim and giving up offensive rebounds.
Of course, the missing piece in both of these games was Kendrick Perkins, who played all of seven minutes before going down with an ACL injury.
July 2, 2010
Paul Pierce signs a four-year, $60 million contract with the Boston Celtics, returning to the team for what will likely be the rest of his career after opting out in late June. Five days later, Ray Allen follows suit, re-upping for two years and $20 million.
January 25, 2011
Kendrick Perkins returns to the Celtics for the first time since last year's finals.
February 7, 2011
A. Sherrod Blakely reports that Kendrick Perkins has rejected a four-year, $22 million contract extension.
February 22, 2011
In the first game back from the All-Star break, Kendrick Perkins injures his left knee (it was his right knee that was injured during the Finals). It's diagnosed as a sprained MCL.
This brings us to the present day. Let's consider what Danny Ainge is dealing with here.
The Celtics have a slim lead in the Eastern Conference over the Bulls and Heat. The Big Four, as they must now be called, have all been promising. Rajon Rondo is putting up record assist numbers and triple-doubles, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are having the best shooting years of their career, and Kevin Garnett, while not in MVP form, is looking as healthy as we've seen him since 2007.
The bench, on the other hand, is kind of a mess. Glen Davis is having a tremendous year as the sixth man, to be sure, but who else is there? The increasingly frustrating Nate Robinson is jacking up ill-advised threes and proving every bit the defensive liability expected. Jermaine O'Neal has been out just about all season, and Shaquille O'Neal's deceivingly fragile nature is showing, having missed seven straight games and ten of the last thirteen.
Marquis Daniels is also down with injury, and not the kind that provides a nice manageable recovery timeline. Von Wafer and Semih Erden have proved surprisingly serviceable, but neither is the type of guy to be depended on come crunch time, and neither Avery Bradley nor Luke Harangody have done much, if for want of opportunities.
And, oh yes, there's Kendrick Perkins. The man who slots in oh so neatly with the Big Four, providing rebounds and defense when clearly all the scoring is nicely distributed between the stars. But he's hurt his left knee now, possibly because he's overcompensating for the previously injured right one.
February 24, 2011
The immediate impact of the trades is confusing, but can be worked out to a point. Jeff Green provides the backup wing that's been needed for Paul Pierce. While Green hasn't worked out tremendously as a PF, he's not being asked to play that position in Boston, and he's able to score the ball even if his shot selection is suspect. If he can buy into the defensive mentality of the Celtics (and he hasn't much choice, so long as one Kevin Garnett remains with the team), then he might turn out to be a strong sixth/seventh man type to go along with Davis.
The Celtics are likely banking on at least one of Shaquille or Jermaine O'Neal being able to take over the starting center role on the team, with a rather heavy focus on Shaq. With that in mind, Krstic will play center with the second unit. He's nothing special, but he's also far from the level of Sheldon Williams and Patrick O'Bryant, the types of backup centers who made Celtics fans avert their eyes every time they set foot on the court.
Delonte West will take over the backup point guard role. Von Wafer will fill the shooting guard spot for now. Meanwhile, the Celtics will keep an eye on buyout candidates Rip Hamilton and Troy Murphy -- space for any such pickups having been made by dealing Harangody and Erden. Getting Murphy and his rebounding would help insure the Celtics against injuries to either O'Neal, and Hamilton would be a huge offensive weapon taking over for Wafer.
But realistically, it's hard to say that the team is better off in 2011.
We know that this starting five worked. The bench was messy, but that could've been taken care of with less dramatic moves. What Danny Ainge has done is taken a risk. If Jeff Green works out, and the hole at center isn't too conspicuous, then this is a storm that can be weathered. It's rare that a 41-14 team takes such a gamble, and for good reason. It's a fine thing to go full-steam ahead with a championship in sight.
But, at the same time, it'd be a poor GM who didn't think of ...
And, in the end, this is really what it comes down to. Our question is "Why make this deal?" The answer is not "to get Paul Pierce a backup wing," or "to screw with writers by making them spell Krstic," but because Danny Ainge is looking ahead. It kind of sucks to hear that right now, when it seems crazy to trade even the smallest advantage in the playoffs for a shot at the playoffs in the future, but it seems like that's the overwhelming truth of it.
Kendrick Perkins will be, after all, an free agent at the end of the year, and the Celtics didn't seem ready to bring him back at the amount he wanted. Because, in the end, Perkins is just a solid player. He's neither a star, nor does he really have any potential to be one. Jeff Green, also a free agent (albeit a restricted one) this coming offseason, is not the same type of player. He's not there yet, but he could emerge as something special, and is already a good guy to have on a team. That's the sort of guy that Danny and co. could legitimately take a risk on, so long as no GM decides to offer him a ridiculous amount.
Add in the Clippers' pick, which should be a decent lottery choice, and the Cavaliers' first pick in the second round, and the Celtics could have a few serviceable players to build around come 2012, when they are committed to all of two contracts.
Unfortunately, though, the question becomes what are we looking at then? The obvious name is Dwight Howard, and it would be a huge acquisition if the Celtics could sign him. But what kind of team are we making?
With the Heats and seemingly now the Knicks of the world forming super teams around three players, will Rondo, Green, Howard, an older Pierce, and a couple of draft picks really make for a Championship team? Will Green and Howard even be involved come 2012? It's far from a fait accompli.
I worry that the answer to that is no, and that the Celtics are on the fast track to being a team like the Suns -- always in the mix, but never going all the way.
It will be years before we see the ultimate impact of this deal. At the earliest, if the C's do manage to win it all this year, we'll at least be able to say nothing was lost. But if we don't, will we be, for the second straight year, wondering if things wouldn't have been different with Kendrick Perkins?