Grade: A. The blockbuster deal between the Celtics and Nets worked out well for both teams, as Brooklyn doubled down to satisfy its win-now bent while Boston embraced a much-needed transition. The next era of Celtics basketball begins with a promising coach, a collection of future picks and a likely lottery selection in 2014.
What Went Right: Boston’s transition. Rather than simply let time (and contracts) expire on the team’s long-standing core, general manager Danny Ainge found a solid return on both Garnett and Pierce in a trade with Brooklyn. Shipping out such beloved players wasn’t taken lightly, but with Garnett nearing retirement and Pierce set to be a free agent next summer, it made sense for Boston to take the assets it could from a trade partner willing to splurge. Otherwise, Boston’s trajectory — with an aging core and still-injured Rajon Rondo — wasn’t promising in the slightest. The Celtics could have strung out another year or two of playoff basketball but without realistic hope of title contention.
Instead, Ainge redeemed Garnett’s and Pierce’s trade value while that option was still on the table. In return for the two future Hall of Famers, the Celtics acquired three first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018), the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in 2017, Humphries’ $12 million expiring contract, a decent prospect in Brooks and whatever can be salvaged from the three years Wallace has left under contract. The Celtics also shed the $11.5 million owed to Terry over two seasons, offsetting some of the cost of obtaining Wallace’s weighty salary*.
That’s quite a haul considering that Garnett and Pierce are on the downswing and that KG owned a no-trade clause. Garnett’s ability to pick and choose acceptable trade destinations limited the kinds of deals that Boston was able to pursue. The Clippers (after hiring Rivers to replace Vinny Del Negro as coach) seemed an amenable landing spot for Garnett, but talks between the two teams reportedly stalled when Boston demanded DeAndre Jordan and multiple draft picks. Beyond that, the degree of difficulty in completing any transaction involving Garnett would only scale upward. Not only would Ainge need to find a bounty sufficient for a trade chip of Garnett’s stature and build a trade package that would satisfy another team, but he also had to create an exchange that KG, too, would find desirable. This kind of veto power isn’t merely an inconvenience for a team like the Celtics, but an active obstruction in transitioning from one era to the next.
But Brooklyn’s desperation after a first-round playoff exit created an incredible opportunity. The Nets were willing to surrender three first-round picks — two of which might come after their new acquisitions have already moved on or retired — and a few lesser assets in exchange for both Garnett and Pierce, all of which primes the Celtics’ rebuild. Boston needed this kind of turnover and these kinds of assets. A deal of this magnitude had to happen lest Garnett and Pierce age into irrelevance with nothing for the Celtics to show for it, and it’s hard to imagine a better deal coming along given the decline of both players and the layered complications involved.
Boston will be a bad team until some of its picks and prospects pan out. But the Celtics have taken measures to grow through their struggles with the hiring of Stevens as a first-time NBA coach. In addition to the motivational charisma that made him such an effective coach at Butler, Stevens is an exceptionally modern thinker in how he approaches the game and a great fit for the Celtics’ progressive front office. He’s not some retread with a stale style and defined range of potential success, but a prospect of a different kind in whom the Celtics are wise to invest.
The NBA learning curve will undoubtedly get the better of Stevens at times in his first few seasons. But he deserves this kind of opportunity, and Boston could well thrive under his strategic guidance. His hiring is a gamble, surely, but a smart roll of the dice to land a sharp, personable basketball mind. Stevens will have some interesting pieces to juggle in Rondo (who is set to miss the start of the season as he recovers from an ACL tear), Wallace, Olynyk (who looks to be NBA-ready), Humphries, Brooks, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass. It’s a combination that gives Stevens NBA talent and professionalism while still affording room for the younger players on the roster to play and learn.
But most important of all: Stevens will be left to his own devices in a debut season with minimal expectations. Boston is banking on losing games ahead of the deep 2014 draft, and though building chemistry through a losing season might hold its own challenges, it’s helpful that Stevens will have a chance to immerse himself in the NBA world without facing any immediate pressure to win.
*It should be noted that while most teams wouldn’t want to touch the three years and $30.3 million that Wallace has remaining on his deal, Boston’s rebuild mitigates the limitations and damage of acquiring such a contract. The Celtics will likely have little urgent need to make use of their cap space, and thus can survive a few seasons of Wallace’s deal at less penalty than a borderline playoff team or tax-conscious contender might.
What Went Wrong: If anything, the break in the dissolution of the roster. There’s nothing wrong with keeping some veteran players on mid-level contracts, but players such as Lee and Bass could theoretically be flipped for assets that might make more sense to a rebuilding team, as is true of Wallace’s hefty deal and Humphries’ expiring contract. All of which is to only say that Boston’s work isn’t finished yet. The Celtics still have players to move and prospects to acquire, meaning that the team’s greatest misstep this summer is merely that those subsequent moves have yet to be completed.
Otherwise, the Celtics have made the most of their circumstances. They’ve landed a bevy of long-term assets with only short-term losses; hired an up-and-coming coach to replace a proven one who wished to leave; and seem to have drafted well based on early returns.