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Two Lessons on the Draft from Boston's Past

Two Lessons on the Draft from Boston's Past

I want to talk about Boston and the draft. And I want to remind you of the spot Boston was in in two various times in the past.

Boston versus Seattle

In 2007 Boston was in a weird place. They won 24 games and had an injured star (Paul Pierce). But the good news was they were entering a top heavy draft with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Except, despite good odds to get a top two pick, Boston missed. And here's where it gets interesting. Another team was in a very similar position. The Seattle Supersonics also had an injured star (Ray Allen), had only won 31 games, and were entering a top heavy draft. Except, unlike Boston, Seattle got "lucky" and earned the number two pick. But I'm curious if Seattle was really the winner here.

In basketball, a popular myth is if your team is bad that you need to "blow it up" and rebuild through the draft. And in terms of these two teams, Seattle was in the best spot to do so. They drafted Kevin Durant (who turned into Kevin Durant), and traded away Ray Allen, and got more draft picks and got a solid young core and eventually made it to the NBA Finals! By the classic mythology, Seattle was in a better spot, followed the plan perfectly and won, right? Of course not! Boston didn't end up blowing anything up. They did the opposite. They kept their injured star, instead of drafting a hot prospect, they traded all their unproven young pieces for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Thanks to an underrated Rajon Rondo and James Posey, they turned into a great team that made it to two NBA Finals, and won one. And they did this all before Seattle reached the Finals. Now, it's important to note that both Seattle and Boston had luck. Seattle lucked into a top draft pick turning into a star, something that happens much less often than people realize. Boston lucked into a marquee name being available, which oddly happens more often than people realize. But between the models - blow it up, rebuild through the draft (and get lucky) vs. keep your good contracts, trade prospects for good veterans (and get lucky), the second model not only beat the first, it lapped it!

Boston versus Philadelphia

Story number two! In 2013 the Celtics has reached the end of the line with the stellar core from above. And indeed, it was time to move on. In 2012, the Philadelphia 76ers made a similar decision. In 2012 the 76ers jettisoned their best player in Andre Iguodala in a failed trade for Andrew Bynum. And shortly after they hired Sam Hinkie as General Manager. Sam Hinkie systematically removed the 76ers bad veteran contracts while acquiring tons of draft picks. The Celtics did a similar strategy. After Ray Allen left in free agency, the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for future draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets (this may come up soon ...) they traded Rajon Rondo for Jae Crowder. And they also acquired draft picks. That said, they did something else too. The Celtics traded the Sacramento Kings for Isaiah Thomas. They also signed Amir Johnson and Al Horford. And these four players actually helped the Celtics win the Eastern Conference and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this season. Now, the difference between Philadelphia and Boston is that Philadelphia continually tanked and attempted to "win" the NBA draft. Boston, however, kept acquiring good veterans, and as such is now a 50 win team that was a few wins from another NBA Finals. Philadelphia? Well despite the amazing enthusiasm I'm seeing about a core of Embiid (who has played 31 NBA games, and has never cracked 30 minutes in a game), Ben Simmons (never played an NBA game), and Fultz (more on that in a second, and again never played an NBA game), it's ludicrous to think they'll be sniffing an NBA Finals sooner than the Celtics will.

The moral? The tanking is the path to an NBA title is one of my most hated myths in NBA lore. And where it gets weird is we can use the Celtics as a pace car for it, multiple times now! As I've said, I think the work Hinkie did with draft picks in the NBA was genius. I love getting rid of bad contracts too. But the path to winning in the NBA has always involved signing productive veterans. And the Celtics have twice now shown how much quicker you can retool by doing this. When you're lucky and the stars align, you can get a championship squad. Even, with so-so "stars", you can still be a top seed. And there will always be teams getting rid of veterans in a rush to rebuild. The Celtics currently have the number one pick in the NBA draft. However, it looks like they are trading it to Philadelphia in exchange for the third pick in the draft, and a future first round pick (either the Lakers pick next year, or the Kings pick in 2019). And some are speculating this means their end goal is to trade assets for Jimmy Butler and/or Gordon Hayward. And if that's the case? I'm all for it! The Celtics have twice now easily "won the race" with teams that tried to rebuild through the draft. I'm not worried about the Celtics waiting for a top prospect to pan out. The Celtics were a good team last year, and with a few upgrades could be a great team. Hopefully they remember their own recent history.

 

Has Ainge been the best Exec in the NBA for the last 14 years?
As a Nets fan, I'd prefer not to discuss Story #2. But I do have a comment on Story #1. The overall idea on Boston's side in #1 ("trade prospects for good veterans") is fine. But how about the specifics of that trade from Boston's perspective? I don't think it was good. Ray Allen was a slightly above average player, on a Max or near-Max contract. His WP48 for the 4 years prior to the trade (when Allen played in Seattle) were: .104, .137, .117, and .140. Do you think those WP48s were worth a Max or near-Max contract? I don't. Allen improved somewhat when he was with Boston, but he was NEVER a star (he never had a WP48 of >.200 in his entire career). Frankly, the guy the Celtics got rid of - Delonte West - was nearly as good as Allen at a fraction of the price.

The story of Boston's late 2000s past isn't trading a pick for Ray Allen. That trade was a minor upgrade at best, at the cost of taking on a bad contract. Rather, the story of Boston's past was acquiring superstar Kevin Garnett. Garnett had a WP48 of .287 in that championshiop year of 2008, compared to Allen's pretty good (but nothing spectacular) WP48 of .164. Allen was a sideshow.
AI,

Lots of points here. First, I agree Allen was overpaid, but still productive. And another key part is KG turned down a trade to Boston before they got Allen. I've talked about the Ray Allen Principle before, where an overpaid player that gets a star might be worth it (Paul George could turn into this). It's funny though that KG recognized - established veteran > all the potential in the world!
Dre,

There could be some exceptions. For instance you could be the Spurs with their first overall picks looking at David Robinson and Tim Duncan. While anybody could turn out to be a bust, in those two cases the Spurs had extraordinary circumstances where they were pretty much looking at "established potential" barring a major injury but even a veteran could always get hit by a serious injury.
The starting point for the Sixers and Celtics was not nearly the same in 2013. The return in trade value for Garnett and Pierce was much greater than the returns on anyone the Sixers could trade, and the Sixers owed two of their future first round draft picks to other teams at the time Hinkie was hired. Their 2014 first would have disappeared if they made the playoffs that year from a trade-up for Arnette Moultrie under the previous regime and they owed Orlando their 2017 1st from the Bynum deal (done by that same regime). The Sixers cupboard was about as bare as any team in the league at that point. The Celtics were able to pick up the Nets pick for 3 consecutive seasons which allowed them to build their team to win now while also having high draft picks courtesy of Brooklyn. The Sixers didn't have that luxury. If the Sixers had tried to win in 2013-2014 with that roster they had, they would have come nowhere near being a contender (and slipping into the playoffs as an 8 seed would have meant forfeiting their first rounder) and had no clear path toward future contention with no building block players or picks or even cap space. Ainge has been an amazing GM for a long time, and full credit to him, but comparing the situations of the two teams at that time is disingenuous.
Basically, being a true championship contender in the NBA is really hard. It's even harder when handed a roster/asset combination like the 2013 76ers had. Now you could make the case that being a contender is not all that matters and being mediocre for a long time is better than being bad in the short-term. But IF you decide that true contention is your goal and IF you are in a situation like the 2013 76ers were, there was not a better plan than the one they put in place. I saw a tweet from Dre saying that the Sixers would need to win 66 games per year to be an "average team" over a certain timeframe. But taking the mean wins of a team over time is certainly silly. I'm pretty sure most people would agree that going 0-82 followed by 82-0 is preferable to 41-41, 41-41. The 76ers goal (which they made clear when ownership took over) was to win a championship. Most of the fanbase who had suffered through 8 seeds for a decade were on board with that. Now that doesn't make contention any guarantee but it increased their odds more than "sign vets" would have.
"The Celtics were able to pick up the Nets pick for 3 consecutive seasons which allowed them to build their team to win now while also having high draft picks courtesy of Brooklyn."

Yeah, I think this is an important point. What allows Boston to be a "win now" team is an all-time fleecing of the Nets (as painful as it is for me). That trade is now being called the "worst trade of all time" in NY (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/basketball/nets/worst-trade-back-nets-celtics-deal-2013-article-1.3255407). It's not really a replicable strategy. I mean, if your strategy is "trade aging players for a #1 pick, a #3 pick, a #17 pick, and another pick that is likely to be very high lottery", well, it's probably going to be difficult to implement.

The strategy the Sixers took seems to be much more replicable - trade everything you have away and get as many young players as possible until you find some really good ones.
AI + Briks,

A decent point but it almost feels like MJ's Gatorade in Space Jam. They didn't try to tank because they had the draft picks, but they've won before any of their young assets have turned into anything. And teams in past have traded up in the draft. The idea that you have to tank instead of just grabbing one or two good veterans a season instead is silly.
I'm not sure what my favorite Danny Ainge swindle is. The KG-Pierce trade and Rondo trade are nice, but way less intricate than some of the others.

Jeff Green for Tayshaun Prince (who they flipped for Jerebko and Datome), Austin Rivers (flipped for #56 this year and a trade exception), and a 2019-21 first round pick with Top 8, Top 6, and No protections is up there (I don't see how the Grizzlies aren't going to be bad by then).

As is turning a player exception into Zeller, Marcus Thornton, and a Cleveland 1st rounder then flipping Thornton and the 1st for Isaiah Thomas.
The Celtics make trades and rely on other teams being bad for them.
Celtics are being graded on the biggest curve ever this time around. This is the weakest the East has ever been (as stated by this site) with only the Cavs even trying to win now. And they almost lost in the first round until Rondo got injured.
What about getting a number one for Doc Rivers?
Ainge makes stellar trades and weak draft picks.
We've discussed Boston's strategy prior to winning their championship before. The key, and causally necessary, first step to them acquiring Allen and KG was tanking for a high lottery pick.

It's still not clear to me how you see this as an argument against tanking.
Butler was traded for peanuts, Huston is willing to trade Beverly and Nuggets are trying to gift Faried. Almost any team had chance to transform itself into a contender.
The Celtics weren't trying to tank in 2006-07. They had a ton of injuries that year. Ratliff, Szczerbiak, Pierce, Jefferson, and Tony Allen (who suffered a career-altering injury as he was breaking out as an offensive player) all missed significant time.

That group was supposed to carry a competitive team as younger players developed from the bench. They weren't trying to lose, it was just a disaster of a season.
Celtics traded with the Suns, not Sacramento. Sactown had already move IT on.
Jesot,

The Celtics had some injuries, which ruined their chances of winning season, and then they leaned into that by shutting Pierce down for longer than necessary and giving plenty of minutes to young, terrible, players like Gerald Green. This had the added benefit of boosting the value of guys who would go on to form part of the trade package for Garnett.

Fate made them a lotto team, but management gave them the second worst record in the league. That record got them the pick that got them Allen who got them Garnett...
Stellar work as usual, pulling back the curtain on the machinations of the league. FWIW, the Celtics have been competitive and shown improvement from one year to the next. The 76ers haven't been relevant but are benefiting from the largesse of the NBA's yaypoints/#1 pick marketing machine; becoming media darlings to the consternation of some. It seems like there are two approaches to fielding a competitive squad: lucking into a .300-.400 wp48 player that *might* carry a team to the finals or filling a roster with players that don't suck. GSW seems to be hitting on all cylinders in both those aspects---you mentioned cutting Barnes loose and acquiring McGee and Pachulia in a podcast. Those moves were probably as critical as acquiring Durant. And their draft looked like it might be filling a near term need: Green's productivity has dropped and he was relentlessly attacked by opponents' offenses wherever he was positioned during the playoffs. Bell might be groomed to take his place and I'd put the W's in the genius category if Green was dealt during the off-season while he still has some value.
Don't know if you keep track of comments in past posts. There's a crazy story about the Bulls on Yahoo! that claims they'll be the worst in the league, and that's where they want to be. They're another cautionary tale for tanking, they burned through six rookies from '82-'84. I'm old enough to remember the hype ;-)

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