Pulse of the Celtic Fan: An Unintended Guest Post, by Brian J

(Perhaps you’ve already seen and read The Danny Ainge Anniversary Party, written by Bill Simmons and published this morning on Grantland.  In it he uses biting sarcasm and his usual wit to make an absolute mockery of Danny Ainge and the current state of the Celtics.  If you haven’t read it and you’ve got 20 minutes to spare, give it a read.  This is Simmons at his best, pulling no punches.  Since the C’s are falling apart faster than some expected (except me, of course) I had to share this link with friend and PDW reader, Brian J.  Brian is an avid Wolves fan, but his loyalties split to a degree when KG departed for the greener pastures of the Boston Garden.  He joined in celebration with many others in ‘Sota when Garnett and Company won the 2008 title.  In any case, that’s enough background and I’ll give Brian the floor.  He wrote about 1,500 words more than I expected in response to a short email.  I think what comes through in his email is a sentiment probably shared by Celtics fans across New England and Minnesota alike. With his permission, I’m posting in here. -Andy G)

Read this over lunch – indeed, pretty painful to read, but also kind of cathartic to read someone else expressing a lot of your frustrations with C’s management.

Lots of things I agree with, particularly the way this year’s team has been assembled/treated. Beyond the C’s big four, they might have the worst 5-12 players in the league, and Danny Ainge has to take the blame for that. Ainge’s thought process in acquiring Wilcox and Dooling to play key supporting roles this year is unfathomable to me. At what point in the last 5 years did anybody think either of them could be key contributors on a contending team? There has been way too much turnover on this team to build any sort of chemistry or stability, and their stars are no longer good enough to make that not matter. Every year Ainge is plugging in new players and messing with the roster. For a supposed contender, the C’s have had a ridiculous amount of turnover in their supporting roles. Some have been better than others I guess – Delonte West was a good addition, but they couldn’t even hold on to him.

Ainge absolutely fucked up the team with the indefensible Kendrick Perkins trade. There was no real good reason for it (per Simmons, C’s were 41-14 at the time) other than Ainge wanted to make some kind of awkward transition to being younger while still supposedly contending for a title. You can’t do that. Simmons’ “Sam Presti” nails it when he tells Danny he’s stuck between trying to rebuild and trying to contend. Only on extremely rare occasions can I recall teams ever managing to contend for a title (legitimately being in the championship discussion, not just making the playoffs) and simultaneously adding solid young pieces for the future without compromising their contender status. The Spurs are the team that most obviously comes to mind, but even though they’ve managed to have a stellar regular season record, it’s debatable the extent to which they have been truly a championship contender the past couple of years. Other than that, it’s hard enough to rebuild a middling-playoff contender without completely bottoming out at some point to clear cap space and acquire lottery draft picks. But Ainge for some reason thought the C’s could do something like that by trading Perk for Jeff Green. I get that he felt they needed defensive help on the wing to spell Paul Pierce, especially after Marquis Daniels went down (I wonder if that trade ever gets made if Marquis is healthy), but he could have gone out and gotten someone capable enough without destroying the chemistry and Ubuntu the C’s had going (honestly, does Green even bring that much to the table? Is he really that much better than, say, Ryan Gomes? Or Wilson Chandler? Jeff Green type players are a dime a dozen). That absolutely wrecked the magical sense of togetherness of that team.

Look, everybody knows that the NBA is a business – that cliche gets repeated over and over again whenever trade rumors circulate. But the C’s had somehow managed to create this sense that their team was something more, that it had transcended the business aspect of the game and reached some purer form of team-ness, where things like loyalty and brotherhood mattered. Those guys killed themselves for each other. Sure they had their fights, but at the end of the day they went to war together and had each others’ backs. Other teams and fans hated them, partly for the reputation for nastiness they developed, but also partly, I’m convinced, for the sense of internal cohesion they radiated, which other teams could never hope to attain. 

Danny Ainge ruined all of that when he traded Perkins, and he continues to destroy whatever sense of Ubuntu might have remained by ruthlessly shopping his guys publicly. I understand that management has other responsibilities and that includes looking for ways to improve the team, but I disagree that it needs to be done at such a public level. This same issue came up with  Kobe calling out the Lakers for all the Gasol stuff. Here was Mitch Kupchak’s response the other day: “As general manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come,” Kupchak said in the statement. “To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans.” That seems like a load of bullshit to me. The first sentence is true enough, but I don’t see how keeping that private does a disservice to the team or puts them at a competitive disadvantage. On the contrary, making it publicly known that you are shopping one of your stars seems to be the action that would put you at a competitive disadvantage – obviously if teams and their fans know that the Lakers are trying to move Gasol, that significantly impacts the value they are going to get for him. I don’t see why it wouldn’t serve everybody better to keep that stuff quiet. Obviously certain things will work their way into the public regardless, but it seems like the prudent course of action would be to keep quiet, from an official standpoint, and let those things die out as rumors. 

At any rate, I couldn’t agree more with Simmons that Ainge is responsible for destroying what was really a rare sense of togetherness on that Celtics team. But it is hard to take his laments about loyalty and Ubuntu seriously when he turns around and spends half the column making up similarly crazy trades that would violate those same principles. Some of his trade ideas are so horribly ill conceived that I’m almost afraid Ainge might consider them. Take proposal (b) in his first footnote, for example. For the C’s this would basically be trading Rondo for Evan Turner and Nikola Vucevic…WTF?! How does it in anyway benefit the C’s to trade their most valuable asset for Evan freaking Turner. Am I missing something here? And yet Simmons says he’d do any of these trades. Later on he discusses trading KG (huge expiring contract) for Lamar Odom and Shawn Marion – also a terrible idea, nothing but a lateral move at best. Odom is averaging under 8 points a game since he left the Lakers, and Marion is getting darn near washed up. Both these guys are already into their 30s, and wouldn’t bring the C’s anywhere near contender status. All that move would do is ensure several more years of frustration watching old former stars try to contend for a low playoff seed, without really being able to start over. That is a perfect example of not knowing whether you want to try one more year contending for a title, or really start over – because that move would guarantee you get neither of those things.

Even though the final lineup he proposes sounds intriguing – Gasol, Odom, Pierce, Marion, and Mo Williams starring – I really doubt whether that team gets you any further than the current iteration of the Celtics. They certainly wouldn’t win it this year, and even if that core stayed together for next year you are looking at another team of guys frighteningly close to their mid-30s (which isn’t working right now, turns out). Plus you still have the issue with some really shitty players off the bench – “Presti” tries to sneak in the names of Wilcox and Avery Bradley as if those could be key rotation guys on a contender.

I’ve wanted these C’s to make one last run at it this year, but unfortunately Ainge has made that seem like a long-shot. It’s painful to watch them play on nights when injuries (or Rondo chucking the ball at referees) means big minutes for JaJuan Johnson and E’Twuan Moore. I still can’t bring myself to call for blowing it up just yet. I’d like KG to be able to retire as a Celtic and not have to switch teams one more meaningless time. He puts so much of himself into his team and the game, that it makes me depressed to think about him having to adjust to another team in the twilight of his career. Loyalty matters to KG – it did in Minneapolis, and it does now in Boston. He’s the guy who taught me how much loyalty can mean even in this business-driven league by giving his all to the T-Wolves even when the management had effectively abandoned him. I’d like to see Danny Ainge and the C’s organization show him a little bit of that same respect. He’s earned it.

Until next time.

Brian

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10 responses to “Pulse of the Celtic Fan: An Unintended Guest Post, by Brian J

  1. Eric in Madison

    Good stuff. Ainge has made mistakes, but this day was coming since they traded for KG. Perhaps they left things a year too long, but they made an active choice to win, and they did so. Now there is some detritus. The shortened off-season probably did not help them, but deciding to keep the core together this season was defensible if a long shot to be particularly successful.

    The Perkins trade never made sense, I agree, but as someone who has always loved KG, and was thrilled for him when he got his title, I would caution you not to go too far down the “this team was different, they REALLY had a sense of loyalty…” road. We like to impute qualities we admire to our favorite teams, but we really have to be careful. Mostly they were just really good, and now they’re not.

    I was actually putting together a long post on trading in the NBA, how it usually works, and what is generally doable and not doable, and how it relates to success cycles and where the Wolves are. It wound up with me wondering if the Wolves could/should try to acquire Paul Pierce. I probably won’t finish it at this point, but I was interested to read your take on the Cs.

  2. Brian J.

    Hey Eric – thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, I’m sure I tend to wax poetic when writing about the Celtics core from the past few years – in part, the real over-the-top stuff is intended to needle Andy G, an avid anti-Celtic and occasional Lakers fan. But I also think there was something more to that team than just being really good, as you put it. (Just noticed I’m already speaking of them in the past tense). I think the cast of characters they assembled was particularly well-suited to form some sort of weird team bond – a bunch of combustible, temperamental guys (with maybe the exception of Ray, though he also has had a few outbursts and scuffles – see, e.g., relationship with Kobe) who wear their emotions on their sleeve and leave it all on the court. The personalities of the veterans, Paul, KG, and Ray, seemed to mesh particularly well, and they got the young guys to buy into what they were trying to accomplish. And Doc was the perfect coach for that situation – a real players coach who could manage the inevitable conflicts between strong personalities, command loyalty from his guys, and channel their passion and drive. I also think that the type of exceptional team defense that defined those Celtics requires players to rely more on their teammates than any other aspect of the game, and I suspect that adopting that style of play might also have played a role in how closely those guys bonded. Though I’m obviously commenting from an outsider’s perspective, it always seemed to be that those Celtics really did have some sort of bond beyond what the vast majority of current teams achieve. We know KG’s tendency to form extreme bonds of loyalty, far beyond what most people would consider reasonable. Watch his maniacal reaction after winning the title in 2008 and ask yourself how he feels about the guys who finally helped him get there. And hell, Kendrick Perkins, a guy who relies on his reputation as a bad-ass enforcer on the court, broke down and wept when he found out he was being traded. Perk probably bought into the whole thing more than anybody, but I think it shows that there was something special there beyond an assembly of great talent. I know I have a fan’s tainted perspective here, but it’s hard for me to envision any of the other NBA teams of the past couple of years sharing the same type of strong emotional attachment that the Celtics had, if only because few other teams have a roster full of that many emotional guys. (Duncan’s Spurs, for example, have had the continuity and success to form team bonds – and I’m sure Parker, Ginobli, and Duncan get along to some extent – but they just don’t have the same intensely emotional character that the C’s guys do).

    One of the most common criticisms I hear from friends who are sports fans but have disavowed the NBA is that they hate watching players who don’t care. Whether they supposedly don’t care about winning, don’t care about the team, or just plain don’t care about anything other than themselves, this is the biggest reason I repeatedly hear for tuning out the NBA. Well I am convinced that if any of those friends had really followed the KG-Ray-Paul-Rondo-Perk era of Celtics basketball (R.I.P.) (also, Andy G, still undefeated in a playoff series as a starting 5, as Doc likes to say), they would have been forced to admit that those guys cared more than anything about team and winning. Unfortunately that all seems to be coming to a premature close. I guess I knew it had to end sometime – I just didn’t think it would be this ugly.

    • Eric in Madison

      As to your last remark: “Unfortunately that all seems to be coming to a premature close.”

      I dunno. It’s hard to see it as all that premature. Those guys are old. Look, Andy will tell you that I am not a believer in stripping down and rebuilding at the drop of a hat. I believe that you win as much as you can when you can. The big mistake Ainge made was trading Perkins. It’s possible (likely) that last year would have had a better outcome had they kept Perkins, though ultimately another title was probably not in the cards.

      Complaining that Ainge allows trade rumors to flow seems silly. That IS the league; its how it goes. Simmons berating Ainge for discussing the future of the team…well, if that’s what’s causing the poor play, that doesn’t reflect all that well. I know you spent a long paragraph defending it, but, well, screw Ubuntu. If your Ubuntu can’t get you through some trade rumors, what is it worth?

      Here’s the thing: like I said, win as much as you can right now. On that theory, I have no problem with keeping it together after the 2010 Finals, even though a lot of people would have probably suggested breaking it up then. The Celtics are ultimately the team that was going to reach this point; they sold out with aging players. Good for them, but it seems to me that both you and Simmons are blaming Ainge because Pierce, Garnett and Allen get older every year. That’s a fact of nature, not a mistake by the GM.

      Simmons seems to think that they could possibly reload around Pierce with some extremely unlikely trades (Pau Gasol). Might work. Seems unlikely that it will all come together near as well as it did in 2008, but it’s a plan of sorts. It might be an option if you can make the necessary moves.

      The more natural decision, and one that still doesn’t require really bottoming out, is to conclude that you have a very good player in his prime under a reasonable contract for the next 3 seasons. You will have cap space, which can be difficult to use, but also allows you to take players in trade.

      Either approach might work; what I have a hard time with (as much as I find him rather smarmy) is to blame Ainge for the current situation. Would you be any happier had he traded Allen and Rondo before this season?

      • @Brian J.: Thanks for the detailed take. I lived in Cambridge for two years and became a big Cs fan while I was there. And I’d say they’re still my second favorite team, (to the Wolves, of course). I agree with most of your blame of Ainge, but mostly for one single action–the Perkins trade–rather than the continued Rondo trade rumors and another talks that, as Eric points out, are common hat in the NBA, which players seem to get (and if they don’t, you don’t want them on your team because they’re not pros). Still, I think the importance of the Perkins trade *can’t* be overstated despite all the attention it has gotten ever since Ainge made it.

        Thanks again for a very nice guest post and spirited back-and-forth with Eric in Madison–very good stuff.

  3. All I can add to this (well, other than the intro I already wrote) is that Ubuntu works a lot better with the refs in your back pocket.

    Game 2 of the 2008 Finals was the worst officiated game in the history of sports.

  4. Thanks for this post and sharing with us. Really enjoyable post. Complaining that Ainge allows trade rumors to flow seems silly. That IS the league; its how it goes. Simmons berating Ainge for discussing the future of the team…well, if that’s what’s causing the poor play, that doesn’t reflect all that well. I know you spent a long paragraph defending it, but, well, screw Ubuntu. If your Ubuntu can’t get you through some trade rumors, what is it worth? Thanks for the post. keep posting.