But what if it wasn’t?
What if the Celtics knew his impending free agency wasn’t an issue? That they would want him back and he would want to come back? That he would be their primary cornerstone for the next half-decade or more?
Well, like most teams tend to do, they would presumably tailor the roster to meet the needs of their only star. That’s how rebuilds are supposed to work: Teams lay a foundation, then build on top of it.
And for all this hubbub about Rondo’s future and the money Boston may or may not want to invest in him, he remains the team’s only star. He’s a top-five point guard when healthy and an established franchise face.
Building around Rondo is, regardless of cost and depending on health, the safe play. The Celtics already know what they have in him. They wouldn’t be waiting around for one of their many (many) first-round draft picks to develop into the player Rondo already is.
The foremost challenge they would face with him would be assembling a supporting cast that adequately complements his skill set and retransforms them into the championship contender they used to be.
What Rondo Needs
Framing a roster around Rondo would be twofold.
First the Celtics must cater to his strengths and on-court propensities. Then they’ll have to address his weaknesses.
Incoming players will ideally do both, though that’s never the case. There will always be specialists—players that fill one hole rather than two. The goal, though, is balance.
To start, we’ll acknowledge Rondo’s greatest weakness: shooting. Yes, it’s still shooting.
Paint Rondo’s jump-shot acumen as you like. Call it improved or developing. Argue that it’s easier on the eyes. None of that makes it a strength.
Rondo still cannot shoot threes. Last year’s 28.9 percent conversion rate from deep was the second highest of his career. Though he’s clearly more willing and comfortable launching rockets—his 90 three-point attempts last season set a new career high, despite the fact he only played in 33 games—there’s still much to be desired.
Mid-range consistency continues to allude him as well. There has been some movement on his perimeter game over the last few years, little of which has proved sustainable.
Here’s a look at how he’s fared between eight and 24 feet since 2009:
Things don’t get much better when we isolate the range to 10 and 16 feet, either:
Even the most encouraging improvements—like his 47.2 percent clip between eight and 24 feet in 2012-13—must be taken lightly.
Appearances can skew the sample size in the wrong direction, but it’s Rondo’s shot selection that makes it difficult to draw profound conclusions. Over the last five years he’s favored the area inside eight feet, and it’s not even close:
Surrounding range is essential. The Celtics can ill afford to clog the paint and employ swingmen that aren’t accustomed to jacking up threes. Their point guard needs room to operate. One can simply hope he changes, yet said change has now been nearly a decade in the making. The chances of Rondo morphing into some deadly perimeter marksman plummet with each passing season.
Floor spacing is already an issue for the Celtics anyway. They ranked 27th in three-point efficiency last season, drilling only 33.3 percent of their long balls, according to NBA.com.
Acquiring additional shooters does come with a caveat, though. They cannot be ball-brandishing scorers incapable of playing off the rock. Rondo prefers to dominate the ball. The Celtics need players who can move without it and thrive when spotting up.
Catch-and-shoot opportunities is an area they struggled in last season. They ranked 27th in spot-up efficiency for 2013-14, hitting only 36.3 percent of their shots in those situations, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), and they’ve done little, if anything, to address said problem this summer.
Transition-savvy players should be targeted, too. The Celtics haven’t really played uptempo with Rondo. Part of that is on him and his knack for over-dribbling, but the team has never really had the personnel that allows the quick and incisive Rondo to pilot fast breaks in volume.
Only twice have the Celtics ranked in the top half of possessions used per 48 minutes since Rondo entered the league—his rookie season, when he averaged slightly over 20 minutes per game, and last year, when he missed 49 of Boston’s contests.
The Celtics have finished in the bottom half of transition efficiency for each of the last three seasons as well, per Synergy. Fast-paced teams aren’t the NBA‘s title-winning standard, but creating easy opportunities—and then making the most of them—is not unimportant; the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs ranked in the top seven of fast-break efficiency last year.
None of this offensive firepower should come at the expense of defense, mind you. The Celtics established themselves as defensive juggernauts prior to last season. They’ve finished in the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions four times since 2009, and in the top five three times.
Last season’s squad was shaky amid the early stages of rebuilding; the team ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. Rondo isn’t what you would call a liability on that end of the floor, but he gambles a lot and there’s no predicting how effective he’ll be in coming years following his ACL injury.
Pitting him alongside strong defenders who can clean up after his risks, help out on assignments and protect the rim—the Celtics ranked 19th in iron protection last season—in the event he’s beaten off the dribble is most important.
Now, with all the Celtics need in mind, it’s time for president and general manager Danny Ainge to start working some overtime.
Before doing anything, he has to figure out who’s staying beyond next season. (Spoiler: The list isn’t long.)
Avery Bradley is a must at this point. Investing $32 million in him over the next four years is a huge gamble, but it’s one the Celtics had to make.
Perimeter defenders like him don’t grow on trees. Opposing guards averaged a combined player efficiency rating of 16.2 against him last year, per 82games.com. That’s slightly above the league average of 15, but it’s sound enough for someone who played on a rather poor defensive team.
The ability to defend either guard position is absolutely huge. He can face up against the more threatening backcourt scorer on a nightly basis, be they a 1- or 2-guard.
This backcourt pairing also skyrockets in value if Bradley’s offensive evolution continues. He averaged a career-high 14.9 points per game in 2013-14 while shooting a blistering 39.5 percent from beyond the rainbow. His three-point prowess—or lack thereof—has been something of a roller coaster ride these last four years, but he banged in a scorching 43.7 percent of his spot-up bombs last season, according to Synergy.
Off-ball scoring will, once again, come at a premium for the Celtics. Passing on Bradley’s developing offensive game isn’t something they can afford to do. Not when he’s fresh off a season during which he shot over 40 percent on one of the most useful threats in basketball—the strong-side corner three:
Jared Sullinger won’t be going anywhere for similar reasons.
Not only is he a nightly double-double threat despite being undersized, but head coach Brad Stevens began grooming him to be a stretch forward. Enticing as the concept is, though, Celtics Blog’s Evans Clinchy reminded us at the end of last season the results weren’t pretty:
Except, of course, where efficiency is concerned. Sullinger‘s percentages fell off dramatically this year, and a lot of that can be attributed to him expanding his shooting range, firing 3-pointers with reckless abandon despite his…well, inability to make them. Sullinger attempted 208 treys this season, and he made just 26.9 percent of them. Only five players in the league were over 200 attempts with under 30 percent makes in 2013-14 – Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jimmy Butler. In other words, the five worst high-volume distance shooters in the league were an untested rookie, two defensive specialists and Josh Smith. And Sullinger. It’s not good company to keep.
Bad company, indeed.
At the same time, this is a process. Sullinger isn’t going to turn into Kevin Love overnight. That he missed 78.7 percent of his spot-up threes last season isn’t concerning now because of how early it is. He didn’t enter the NBA as a perimeter-skulking 4. If the Celtics wait this out and push forward, the return could be huge.
Not to mention they need his scrappiness. Size has been hard to come by for them. Last year was the first time they didn’t rank in the bottom five of rebounds per game since 2009, and they still finished 18th. Someone like Sullinger, who battles on the glass—height be damned—is a must.
So, too, is Kelly Olynyk, another big man—who, unlike Sullinger, is actually big—with three-point range.
Olynyk shot an impressive 35.1 percent from deep last year on 114 attempts. Only five other players standing at 7’0″ or taller, who were no older than 22, have ever hoisted at least 110 three-pointers in a single season. One of them was Dirk Nowitzki. Another one was Andrea Bargnani. Make of that—along with his mercurial summer-league stint this year—what you will.
His main attraction is the range itself and the circumstances under which he uses it. More than 20 percent of Olynyk‘s offensive touches came within spot-up opportunities last year, per Synergy, so working off the ball isn’t unusual. He boasts size and a versatile, Rondo-friendly offensive skill set, two attributes the Celtics need.
Moving forward without him—in this universe we’re building—should not be an option.
Targeting the Rest
Everyone else on the roster can pack their bags. Kind of.
Players such as Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green shouldn’t factor into the Celtics’ long-term future. If they want to keep them through the end of their contracts for the cap space that follows, fine. But we’re operating under the assumption that—in this ideal world of ours—they might not be around.
That holds true for rookie Marcus Smart. Assembling a team around Rondo means he can’t be there. It’s one or the other.
Smart and Rondo have overlapping skill sets. Both of them prefer to act with the ball in their hands, and neither of them can shoot especially well. If Rondo stays, Smart needs to go.
Bradley, Rondo, Sullinger and Olynyk would be the guaranteed core. Depending on cost, others—like James Young—might stick around. For now, it’s these four.
And that brings us to cost.
Bradley, Sullinger and Olynyk combine to make roughly $12.2 million leading into 2015-16, the season we’re most concerned with. The league’s salary cap increased to more than $63 million this past year, so going off that number, the Celtics would have more than enough wiggle room to make free-agency splashes next summer even after factoring in minimum cap holds.
One such splash will have to be re-signing Rondo.
Former Celtic and current analyst Cedric Maxwell previously told Yahoo! Sports Radio (via Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com) Rondo was seeking a $100 million contract. In all likelihood, he’s not going to get one.
Point guard is a deep position. Rondo isn’t worth a max, cap-clogging deal to the Celtics. It would be surprising to see any team dangle one in front of him, especially after his ACL injury. If he plays out of his mind this year while remaining healthy, his value increases significantly. But a max contract remains unlikely regardless.
Signing an extension would be the most ideal scenario, as ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg laid out in January:
This summer, Boston has two potential extension options for Rondo. The team can tack on a three-year, $44.8 million extension to the final year of his current deal without a signing bonus, which would pay him the scheduled $12.9 million in 2014-15, $13.9 million in 2015-16; $14.9 million in 2016-17; and $16 million in 2017-18. Or, if Boston can stomach a signing bonus payment of $6.6 million, those annual salaries would drop to $11.7 million, $12.5 million and $13.4 million in the extended seasons.
Everyone should know by now Rondo isn’t signing that extension. Not if he’s seeking a max deal that could pay him $20-plus million in 2014-15.
In the name of idealism, let’s say he and the Celtics meet somewhere in the middle. Between $15 and $16 million with annual raises seems fair. That would put their financial commitment in their Core Four at $27.2 million for 2015-16—beyond rough numbers—leaving them with ample flexibility still.
Here’s where we’ll have to get super creative, which isn’t to be confused with ridiculous.
It would also be cool to breed flying possums that you flip for working magic carpets.
Ideal doesn’t mean absurd. The Celtics are unlikely to land a top-10 superstar in one of the next two summers.
Not that they don’t need another star. They do. But let’s be a little more real.
Available free agents in 2015 will include a number of talented players. If the Celtics can create cap space by shedding salary—specifically those of Green and Wallace—they could have enough to pursue top-flight names such as Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge.
Or, say, DeAndre Jordan. He’s slated to reach free agency next summer and would be perfect as an athletic, durable, rim-protecting big man for these theoretical Celtics.
Cost will be an issue—along with attainability—but Jordan’s only earning $11.4 million next season. If the price isn’t a max contract, the Celtics should be in play.
Paul Millsap is another affordable name that springs to mind. He’s developed into a dangerous stretch 4 who had success draining weak-side corner threes last season.
Picking him up in free agency, along with Jordan, would be difficult. But the Celtics could have enough young talent, expiring contracts and first-round draft picks to get trade talks—or sign-and-trade talks—rolling sometime next year.
Nothing out there suggests the Hawks are ready to unload Millsap. Let’s make that clear. There’s also no guarantee they want to pay him whatever he commands next summer, either. Plus, you know, we’re being green-tinged idealists and stuff.
To round out a starting five already consisting of Rondo, Bradley, Millsap and Jordan, the Celtics would need a small forward. A pretty cheap one, too. We’re already stretching Ainge‘s cap-navigating abilities wafer thin by entertaining the arrivals of Jordan and Millsap, along with the retention of Rondo.
How about a reunion with Gerald Green? The 28-year-old has found his scoring touch with the Phoenix Suns, remains an athletic freak and valuable defender and might not demand much more than the $3.5 million he’s making next season.
After all that pipe-dream actualizing, the Celtics’ starting lineup would be set. They would also have Sullinger and Olynyk ready to come in and wreak havoc off the bench. It’s now a matter of filling out the rotation.
Looking at backup point guards such as Mo Williams and Jameer Nelson would be a good start. Perhaps seeking relief on the wing in Dorell Wright would be a good course of action.
Here’s what a contention-worthy roster built around Rondo could potentially look like:
Incredibly unlikely? You bet.
Perfect? Not at all.
The second unit could have defensive issues and the Celtics have to create the means to sign or trade for all these players. But this is what a serious contender around Rondo should look like—a blend of talent that meets different needs and allows Rondo to be Rondo.
Forming the supporting cast is a fluid task. Names could, names will change. The core of the team he’s headlining is what’s most important. The starting five here—unrealistic as it may be—provides a nice balance between offense and defense, speed and calculated pace, inside and outside acuity.
Those are the player-types Boston will want to put around Rondo if it wishes pilot a rebuild in the right direction.
Separating Real From Whimsical
All this is pure conjecture.
There’s no telling how much cap space the Celtics can legitimately create or how much unwanted talent they can unload by next summer. There’s no telling which talent they even want to move forward with yet, and that includes Rondo.
Rebuilds take time as well. Completing it in one summer rarely happens if you’re not the Miami Heat or Cavaliers.
The point is retooling around Rondo is not impossible. It may take some time, but it’s feasible; it requires the Celtics follow a very specific path, but it’s something they can attempt.
“I want to win a championship-I want to win another championship,” Rondo said in an interview with Hoop China (via Red’s Army). “I want to get back to being a contender and compete for a championship.”
Rondo may win another championship. It may even be with the Celtics.
It all depends on what they have planned for him next, and what that plan ends up looking like if there is actually one at all.
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Thaddeus Young’s departure from the Philadelphia 76ers was but one piece of a much broader puzzle.
The 26-year-old forward was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a three-team deal centered around the exchange of disaffected star Kevin Love for 2014 first-overall pick Andrew Wiggins.
Per Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, “The Timberwolves will send Philadelphia the Miami Heat‘s 2015 first-round pick Minnesota will acquire as part of the Kevin Love deal with Cleveland, sources said. The T-Wolves will send forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and guard Alexey Shved to the Sixers.”
Wojnarowski adds, “The draft pick is lottery protected to No. 10 in the 2015 and 2016 drafts, and unprotected in 2017.”
According to 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, that draft pick was key to the organization’s involvement in the deal.
Meanwhile, Young has a player-option for the 2015-16 season, meaning he very well could have walked away from the $9,721,740 he was owed—and leaving Philadelphia with nothing to show for it.
To be sure, however, this deal was about more than hedging bets. It was part of Hinkie‘s long-term effort to rebuild a franchise that wasn’t going anywhere fast, an effort that began in earnest with last season’s 19-63 record.
Ugly as it may be in the near-term, the franchise’s deliberate approach to starting from scratch is treating the NBA at large to a crash course on how one rebuilds.
It’s a valuable lesson.
Beset by public pressure and overly optimistic prognostications, many organizations rely on half-steps and band-aid solutions in their respective bids to turn the corner. More often than not, the result is sustained mediocrity—teams that are just good enough to miss out on premier draft position while nowhere near good enough to contend for a title.
These are the clubs that barely miss the playoffs or quickly exit in the first round, the kind of middling disappointment that characterized Love’s years in Minnesota.
Philadelphia will have none of that. It understands big ambitions often entail even bigger sacrifices.
Parting ways with Young and the 17.9 points he averaged a season ago is only the most recent of those sacrifices.
The first was probably the team’s decision to acquire big man Nerlens Noel despite the risk he’d miss his rookie season after tearing his ACL in the February before the draft, a risk that eventually came to fruition.
“The draft is an important pipeline of talent for our team and our intention was to add players who could position us well for the future, while also allowing us to capitalize on attractive opportunities to acquire top-flight talent or additional future draft choices,” Hinkie said at the time, per the team’s statement. “Nerlens Noel and an additional 2014 first round draft choice give us two new opportunities to add talent to our team.”
That logic similarly characterized Philadelphia’s approach to this summer’s draft.
With the No. 3 overall pick, the organization selected Joel Embiid out of Kansas. Like Noel before him, the 20-year-old may miss his rookie season—this time on account of recovery from surgery performed to repair a stress fracture in Embiid‘s foot.
According to NJ.com’s Matt Lombardo, “Hinkie outlined a similar plan for Embiid to the one that allowed Noel to miss an entire season in order to fully rehab before making his anticipated debut this summer in the Orlando Summer league.”
“We will focus on the long-term health of the player,” Hinkie said, per Lombardo. “That’s all that matters. Will we be smart about that? Of course. Will we be patient? Yes. If he can remain healthy, he can have a fantastic NBA career.”
Indeed, Hinkie and Co. are all too happy to remain patient.
After all, they followed up their selection of Embiid by also acquiring No. 12 overall pick Dario Saric from the Orlando Magic. The Croatian forward won’t make it to the NBA for another two years at the very soonest.
So while this season will offer Noel and 2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams plenty of playing time with which to hone their skills, the 76ers will have to do without any help from this summer’s draft. Two immediate contributors wouldn’t have radically altered Philadelphia’s immediate fate, but they very well might have improved the team’s record by a handful of wins.
And therein would have lied the problem.
Those extra wins would have jeopardized Philadelphia’s chances at landing more premium draft talent. In fact, if the organization’s 2015 pick isn’t among the first 15 selections, it would belong to the Boston Celtics.
Beyond jettisoning Young and using this summer’s draft to think long-term, Hinkie‘s involvement in the free-agent market was non-existent. While there probably wasn’t a lot of interest out there among prospective targets, Hinkie wouldn’t have it any other way.
His end game is the exhaustive aggregation of assets. The best kinds of assets are young, affordable prospects with loads of upside—the kind of guys you typically acquire via the draft.
There will come a time when the 76ers are prepared to invest their ample cap space in outside talent. There will come a time when Hinkie uses the trade market to acquire guys like Young rather than set them free.
That time isn’t now.
It probably isn’t even a year from now.
But if you fast forward to 2016 or so, things start falling into place in a big way. Carter-Williams and Noel should be entering the primes of their careers. Embiid will have a full season under his belt. Saric will arrive from overseas. And by that time, you can rest assured another prominent draft pick or two will have entered the equation.
A young core will slowly but surely evolve into a respectable one where the sky’s the limit.
The Oklahoma City Thunder traveled a similar path, drafting the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. After missing the playoffs in four straight seasons, the new-and-improved OKC has subsequently qualified for five postseasons in a row—once reaching the NBA Finals and twice coming up just short in the conference finals.
It remains premature to predict similar success for the Sixers, but the common theme is that short-term suffering begets much better things in time—even if it takes a long time.
Sam Hinkie is in no rush.
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Kevin Love‘s relocation affects more than just the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
When the trade that Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski says will become official actually is official, it will leave a trail of disappointed and slighted parties that is far longer than two teams.
At least three more clubs will be impacted by Love joining LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, probably more. But three of them are especially noteworthy in that they’re flagship franchises, all transitioning, all rebuilding at the same time: the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Rare is the time when three such esteemed organizations are pining for better days together. Even rarer is the time their fate—even if only part of it—is manipulated by the same player none of them have.
Of the three, Boston’s rebuild is the one most loosely tied to Love’s Minnesota exit.
Or maybe not.
Unlike the Lakers and Knicks, the Celtics were considered legitimate trade suitors, armed with enough draft picks and young talent—though mostly just the draft picks—to wedge their way into the expansive conversation.
Talks between the Celtics and Timberwolves appeared to cool following the NBA draft, but they gained serious traction ahead of it. So much so that Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (via NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman) indicated the Celtics were Love-or-bust:
If the Celtics cannot get Love, they are planning to continue with the longer and more methodical rebuilding process, a process that would likely see Rajon Rondo traded. (An NBA source said they would also have a taker for Jeff Green if they chose to move him.)
With Love heading to Cleveland, the Celtics are free to continue their conventional rebuilding efforts by bidding adieu to Rajon Rondo and his expiring contract. Not that they will, or that they weren’t free to do so before.
Drafting Marcus Smart and re-signing Avery Bradley were moves some saw as writing on the wall. Factor in former Celtics player and current analyst Cedric Maxwell saying Rondo is seeking a max contract, per WEEI.com’s Ben Rohrbach, and the groundwork for his departure has already been laid.
Little of this would have to do with Love. If the Celtics trade or inevitably part ways with Rondo, he won’t be the lone reason. But in the event Rondo leaves as Boston continues laboring through a protracted restructuring period, Love can be remembered as the last hope that didn’t pan out.
Had the Celtics acquired him, their rebuild would have been effectively over. Pairing him with a pass-first, All-Star point guard like Rondo—who is, in fact, an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the moment—would have vaulted the Celtics back into playoff contention.
Attentions could have turned to assembling a strong supporting cast around two stars. Perhaps president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would have began lusting after a third one.
Whatever happened, the end result would have come in quicker fashion. Instead, the Celtics and their fans are left wondering “What if?”—likely for years to come.
New York Knicks
Phil Jackson is going to be so upset—assuming, of course, the Zen Master is familiar with that emotion.
New York had no chance of acquiring Love via trade. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero.
But according to Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, obvious inability didn’t stop the Knicks from trying. Jackson apparently dangled a “Hey! We had to try!” package built around Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Amar’e Stoudemire in front of Minnesota.
Reaction to said proposal was mixed. OK, fine; it was pretty one-sided—a side NBC Sports’ Brett Pollakoff excellently encapsulated:
Phil Jackson is aged, but he’s not yet delusional.
He knew that New York had little chance of appealing to the Timberwolves here, and nothing would make the Knicks more immediately ready to build some semblance of a decent team than to unload the uninsurable final year of Stoudemire’s deal in trade; getting an All-Star back in exchange for doing so is so far beyond the realm of possibility that Jackson likely couldn’t get through pitching such a proposal with a straight face.
New York’s market size will always have the Knicks at least initially in the conversation to land All-Stars like Love. But until the team can assemble some legitimate assets, most stars are going to pass up the bright lights for a more readily available winning situation.
The Knicks were never going to acquire Love by trade. Their proposal was only noteworthy because of who they are and what they plan to do: sign another star next summer, as Sporting News’ Sean Deveney reminded us once Carmelo Anthony’s return became official.
Free agency was always their best chance at acquiring Love, and Marc Berman of the New York Post confirmed they were definitely interested. Like Wojnarowski‘s report alleges, though, Love has assured the Cavaliers of his return, rendering his impending free-agency status a mere formality.
Pundits and fans and anyone else with a vested interest in the Knicks’ long-term plans can argue whether or not Love would be a good fit next to Anthony until kingdom come. But the fact is, Anthony seems to be preparing for a move back to small forward, and a playmaking big man is one element of Jackson’s famed triangle offense—which the team is expected to run—that the Knicks sorely lack.
Love is exactly that. He could have played center or power forward within the Knicks’ new system, all while giving Anthony the superstar comrade he doesn’t yet have.
The list of star free agents isn’t nearly as impressive after him. The Knicks could give chase to Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson or Goran Dragic, among others, but none of the remaining talent compares to Love.
One way or another, the Knicks are forced to regroup—even if that only means operating under the assumption that there will be one less superstar ripe for the poaching in 2015.
Los Angeles Lakers
That Love won’t be parading through Staples Center draped in purple-and-gold attire is huge for the Lakers.
In a bad way.
Love and the Lakers were supposed to sync up in the eyes of so many. One anonymous general manager told ESPN Insider Chris Broussard (subscription required) that their future marriage was a “100 percent certainty.”
Now it feels like they’re divorced, even though they were never joined in holy basketball matrimony. Worse still, the Lakers and their fans are forced to accept a new reality, per USA Today‘s Mark Whicker:
The latest destiny’s child was supposed to be Kevin Love. From the moment he expressed weariness with Minnesota, Lakers fans nodded their heads expectantly. Let’s see –- win the lottery, draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, get Kobe Bryant rolling again, and trade whomever’s left for Love and sign him. How could Kevin Durant or any future legend resist that? …
There are roadblocks, but the trade reaffirms an important point about Tiffany free agents. It is not where they want to play. It is with whom they want to play.
The absence of a superstar in his prime has always been a deterrent for the Lakers, who are trying to expedite their rebuilding process. Kobe Bryant isn’t a selling point on his last legs. Neither is anyone else on the roster.
Cap space is all the Lakers will have next summer. If they wish to build a powerhouse, they’ll need an initial domino to fall.
Said domino could have been Love. He would be only 26 upon entering free agency. He attended UCLA. He was born in Santa Monica. The opportunity to headline and revive the Lakers would hopefully appeal to him. And if he came, others—like Kevin Durant in 2016—might, too.
Perhaps that’s true. Maybe Love could have been seduced by the Lakers’ allure. Maybe additional stars would have even followed his lead, instantly or in due time. It doesn’t appear to matter now. Things would have to go real bad, real quick with the Cavaliers for him to desert James for a transitioning faction in Los Angeles.
Similar to the Knicks, this leaves the Lakers to look elsewhere, where they could find Gasol and Aldridge and Rondo and Dragic and maybe even Greg Monroe or Eric Bledsoe, depending on how their restricted-free-agency situations play out.
Any one or two of them would be stellar choices and solid acquisitions. They just aren’t Love, nor are they guaranteed to give the Loveless Lakers a second look.
Gasol will be 30 when he enters free agency. So will Jefferson. Rondo will be 29. Aldridge himself will turn 30 next July. Of all the available stars, no one is young enough or better suited to anchor a franchise for the next five-plus years than Love, so you can understand any interest the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and various suitors would show.
“No matter what the outcome is, I just want to end up in a great place where I can win,” Love said while on ESPN’s SportsNation July (via ESPN.com). “At the end of the day, I’ve played six years, haven’t made the playoffs yet, that burns me and hurts my heart, so I really want to be playing.”
Los Angeles could have been his next destination. Boston, too. Even New York. But Love will most likely be taking his fortune-turning abilities to Cleveland, forcing prominent restoration projects to adjust their plans—whatever they may be—to account for his premature departure from the Land of Possibility.
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Goran Dragic enjoyed an incredible 2013-14 season, breaking out while running the point for the Phoenix Suns and becoming one of the most enjoyable players to watch on any of the Association’s 30 rosters. Ty Lawson was just one of many players who couldn’t prevent him from turning the corner, as he’s doing up above.
But how many franchises are going to be turning a corner during the 2014-15 campaign?
Plenty of teams are rebuilding, but that’s often a slow process. Only a select few have the ability to get around that corner (or over the hump, if you prefer that metaphor) by accelerating the rebuild this offseason, making significant moves that lead to immediately increased levels of competition.
For the sake of this article, only teams that finished out of the playoffs last year will be featured here. Playoff teams may still be rebuilding, but they’re not in the same type of dire straits as many lottery-bound squads.
So, who has cap space? Who can make trades? Who seems most motivated to get that rebuild speeding along as quickly as possible?
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After agreeing to all opt out of their contracts together, Miami Heat stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have been discussing financial terms of new contracts among each other, sources told ESPN.com.
Bosh’s agent says his client has not decided officially on whether to opt out, but sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard that the All-Star big man will indeed follow suit and choose free agency by Monday’s midnight ET deadline.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, top-tier free agents almost always opt out of their contracts at the first opportunity because the chance to ink long-term extensions is generally a good business move.
But this is different.
The Big Three aren’t opting out to lock in multiyear, max-level extensions. They’re opting out to take less money—at least that’s what it seems like.
Calling this development inevitable is probably a bit of an overstatement, but it was widely expected. Heat president Pat Riley had this to say on June 24, per an official team release:
I was informed this morning of his intentions. We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise. As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options.
Here’s his (prepared) reaction to the next wave of opt-outs:
Today we were notified of Dwyane’s intention to opt-out of his contract and Udonis’ intention to not opt into his contract, making both players free agents. Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade … We look forward to meeting with Dwyane and Udonis and their agent in the coming days to discuss our future together.
If Riley and the Heat brass weren’t surprised, they must have been at least slightly relieved.
That’s because all these opt-outs pave the way for Miami to build yet another super team.
Practically speaking, the opt-outs had to happen. Without them, the Heat had no way to substantially improve the roster because the contracts of the Big Three alone would have pushed the Heat right up to the brink of the projected 2014-15 salary cap of $63.2 million. That would mean Miami’s options for roster improvement would be limited to veteran’s minimums and the mid-level exception.
It should. That’s essentially how the Heat have operated in recent seasons, and this past campaign proved a new approach was in order.
It’s unclear exactly how the Heat will proceed from here. Much depends on the extent of the pay cuts the team’s stars will accept. Make no mistake, though; even with relatively minor salary reductions for James, Wade and Bosh, the Heat will almost certainly have enough cash to pursue another impact player.
From there, Miami can exceed the cap to bring back whichever of its own free agents it desires. So if Ray Allen, Chris Andersen or even Rashard Lewis figure into Riley’s plans, they could return. (The Heat could renounce their rights for all of their ancillary free agents to free up as much cap space as possible, then re-sign them after inking the Big Three.) After that, the Heat can rely on the championship appeal of an improved core to attract more ring-hungry vets at a discount.
More important than the practical, necessary flexibility the Big Three’s triple opt-out allows is the unity of purpose it conveys.
NBA teams are made up of different personalities with different agendas, which makes consensus ridiculously difficult to achieve. By agreeing to walk away from millions of guaranteed dollars, theoretically committing to take much less in the short term, James, Wade and Bosh are making a decision that would seem unprecedented if they hadn’t already done it in 2010.
The fragility of the Heat’s plan is difficult to overstate.
If any one of the Big Three had refused to opt out, the scheme doesn’t work. And Wade deserves more credit for his sacrifice than either James or Bosh because for him, the $41 million he’s giving up over the next two years will be nearly impossible for him to recoup on the open market.
Miami’s grand plan is far from complete, and things could fall through at any moment.
James could wake up on July 1 and decide the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets offer him a better chance to win rings. Maybe he’ll feel that familiar tug of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe he’ll suddenly decide he wants to be part of the next Los Angeles Lakers dynasty—a legacy-building position if ever there was one.
The same is largely true for Bosh, who is still young and productive enough to potentially field a max offer from another club.
The dangers of unrestricted free agency are real, and even if there’s already some kind of pre-arranged deal between the Big Three to return to Miami, it’s hard to discount the options that have suddenly become available elsewhere.
We can’t call this process a success for the Heat until all three of their stars are back under contract—along with another impact free agent and at least three or four starter-quality veterans to complete the rotation. We’re a long way from that end point right now.
But the first step is complete.
So, in a summer everyone thought would involve player movement that could redefine the power structure in the NBA, it turns out the biggest moves might be the ones that preserve the status quo.
In a strange way, this all feels familiar.
Nobody thought the Heat could pull such a complicated, risky plan together four years ago, but they did. And in executing that plan, they created a super team that visited the Finals in every season of its existence.
Now, Miami is effecting an even bolder gambit, and to the dismay of the rest of the league, it looks like it’s going to work.
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The NBA barely uses the word “tanking,” preferring instead to see it as “rebuilding.”
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Despite Kobe Bryant saying he doesn’t have “one lick” of patience to wait for the Los Angeles Lakers to turn this ship around, general manager Mitch Kupchak is adamant that the team will be careful about how and when they spend their cap space over the next few summers.
While Bryant may be hoping that the Lakers go into the summer with the intention to spend all their cap space and possibly sign a player such as Carmelo Anthony, Kupchak notes that he won’t be signing any players that could create a team that only makes the playoffs and then gets eliminated in the first round.
As always, the Lakers are thinking about championships.
“Patience is the key,” Kupchak said, according to David Leon Moore from USA Today. “With the new collective bargaining agreement, there are no quick fixes. You cannot outbid teams for star players. The one thing we feel is not a good thing is to be saddled with contracts of players that put us in the middle of the pack. That’s a danger in this league.”
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And yes, rebuilding will be done to some extent, even if the 2013-14 squad is hanging tough in the competition for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Rose, while still a fantastic point guard, has quite a few question marks surrounding him.
Not only was he rather ineffective during his long-awaited return from a torn ACL, but he went down with yet another major knee injury. For a player whose game is predicated on athleticism and explosiveness, that’s problematic. Even if he recovers physically, the mental aspects are a different ball game.
Thibodeau still has a few question marks—minute management being the primary one—but he’s emerged as a bigger asset to the team. So long as he’s on the sidelines, Chicago is going to remain competitive.
It’s time NBA fans as a whole started to recognize this.
Creator of an Incredible Defense
When the Bulls are looming on the schedule, you know a team is going to be in for a hard-fought defensive struggle. Points come at a premium, and each and every possession forces the opponent to maintain a grind-it-out mentality that wears everyone down.
Chicago might not have an abundance of talent on the roster, but it has a clear identity.
For a rebuilding team, that’s the first step. It’s harder to successfully restock and regain competitiveness when there’s an amorphous product on the court, one that isn’t sure what type of basketball it wants to play and what type of players it wants to recruit to the roster.
And that’s not a problem for Chicago, so long as Thibodeau is pacing the sideline.
Even during a year without Derrick Rose in the lineup. Even after trading away Luol Deng for absolutely nothing except cap space. Even after withstanding plenty of injuries throughout the early portion of the season.
The Bulls have every excuse in the book available to them, but Thibodeau refuses to use any of them. He has this defense ramping up the intensity each and every night, and the result has been one of the most impressive units in the league.
Going into their 50th game of the season, the Bulls have allowed only 101 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves them sitting pretty at No. 2 on the defensive rating leaderboard, according to Basketball-Reference. Only the Indiana Pacers, owners of a wealth of defensive talent and a historically excellent set of stats, beat them out.
Despite the opportunity for excuses, Chicago is actually allowing 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last year. Granted, the Eastern Conference is weaker, but it’s an impressive mark nonetheless.
Just as always seems to be the case, the Bulls’ defense is elite because it refuses to allow points in the paint. That’s the identity that goes beyond just trying on the defensive end, and it’s where Thibodeau comes into the equation in a big way.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Bulls are allowing only 37.1 points per game in the paint. It’s a mark that, just as was the case with defensive rating, leaves them trailing the Indiana Pacers and beating every other team in the Association.
Because of the Thibs system, one that advocates packing the paint as much as possible and almost daring referees to whistle three-second violations. If more men are in the paint, it cuts off driving lanes and makes the interior of the defense more crowded, thus forcing opponents into less-efficient shots.
Last January, ESPN’s Beckley Mason broke down the outline of the scheme thusly:
He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau‘s defenses force ball handlers — whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls — to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration.
That strategy, combined with having big men fall back against screens to keep more big bodies in the paint (as you can see below), allows Chicago both to depress opponents’ field-goal percentages and prevent second-chance points. The Bulls are always a premier rebounding team and not just because they have talented rebounders.
Thibodeau‘s defensive genius—more so with Xs and Os than in-game adjustments—has spawned imitators, but no one has been able to mimic the nuances that he brings to the Windy City. No one is better at overcoming the many obstacles and remaining right near the top of the league’s best defensive teams.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe is another to give Thibodeau credit for his innovation, even if the Chicago coach won’t do so himself:
Thibodeau didn’t invent this system, and he’s loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA’s newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses. Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt.
The NBA is a copycat league.
As Thibdeau’s defense proved its merits, others copied him. Then offenses—like the Miami Heat‘s pick-and-roll heavy system that moves the ball with ridiculous frequency—adjusted. It’s a cyclical process, but there’s a distinct advantage to the position in which Thibs sits.
He’s ahead of the curve. Defenses will eventually adjust to the new-wave offenses, and the gravelly voiced head coach gets to be one of those doing the reacting.
Refuse to Lose
So long as Thibodeau is pacing the sidelines of the United Center, that word will never be allowed to enter into the Chicago game plan.
The Bulls probably should’ve tried to do everything possible to earn a better pick in the draft once Derrick Rose went down with his second major knee injury. Without the former MVP in the lineup, there was no hope for this team’s ability to compete with the Heat and Pacers in the race to advance out of the East.
This was a team that was banking on Rose.
The rest of the roster was worse than the 2012-13 squad—one that experienced an early playoff exit—namely because Nate Robinson was gone. The diminutive point guard was one of the few players capable of creating his own shots, but he left for the Denver Nuggets during the offseason.
So when Rose went down, all hope was essentially lost. Just not in the mind of Thibodeau.
“My job is to coach the team,” he told ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell shortly after D-Rose suffered yet another knee injury. “Whoever I have on the roster, that’s who I’m coaching. Whether Derrick’s here or not, that’s what they have to do. [The front office has] to always look at the players that are available. They have to study, which they do. And you go from there.”
And so he coached the team.
Two weeks later, he expanded on his anti-tanking views to Friedell:
There’s all kinds of talk about that (tanking). And, to me, as a coach, you put everything you have into each and every day. And that’s what I love about our team. There’s no quit in our team. We’re going to play to win. I think once you start doing those other things, you’re headed down a slippery slope.
I think you put forth your best effort each and every day. I think every game is winnable, and then you’re trying to build the right habits along the way. As we get guys back, I think we’re going to be fine. I have great belief in our team, and that’s the way you approach it. Some teams may not believe in it, but I also think [tanking] is risky. Everyone talks about the great player, but what happens to all the franchises that don’t get the great player? If you look at history, it’s not good.
Eventually, he was just doing too good a job, and the front office stepped in. General manager Gar Forman shipped off Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Thibs‘ job became even tougher.
This time it was Joakim Noah who voiced his opinion on the dishonor of tanking. But hmm…I wonder where he got that mentality from? The Florida product has always been a supremely passionate player, but it’s hard to imagine Thibodeau didn‘t have some influence there.
You can view this stubborn attachment to winning basketball in one of two ways.
Some might see it as an unwillingness to maximize the prospects of the future. Tanking is supposed to be a beneficial endeavor, as it helps bring more talent to the team once the losing stops.
However, I prefer to view it as an attractive quality when recruiting free agents, which also happens to help with the whole rebuilding process.
Would you rather play for a coach that doesn’t stick to his principles or one who steadfastly refuses to give up, even when he’s faced with overwhelming odds and a significant talent deficit?
That’s what I thought.
“Between the offseason firing of assistant Ron Adams against Thibodeau’s wishes to the recent trade of Thibs’ favorite player, Luol Deng, you have to wonder when the head coach is going to say he has had enough,” writes Rick Morrissey for the Chicago Sun-Times.
There have also been rumblings about the end of Thibodeau‘s tenure in the Windy City, with reasons ranging from his horrid management of players’ minutes—Jimmy Butler literally spent an hour on the court during a single game—to his insistence on winning games rather than tanking.
But the problems must be patched up.
This system that Thibodeau has created and nearly perfected is too important. So too is his reputation among players and ability to inspire greatness from everyone he coaches.
Rose might be the one with the most jerseys sold and the MVP to his name, but it’s the head coach who is Chicago’s No. 1 asset during the rebuilding process.
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Derrick Rose, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, is reportedly uninterested in rebuilding and worried that the Bulls will let upcoming key free agents walk, i.e. Luol Deng. According to Mitch Lawrence of the NY Daily News: Rose has told several confidantes that he is worried that the Bulls will start to let the team hit the skids by allowing key players to leave via free agency, forcing him to go through a rebuilding program that he wants no part of. “Derrick is worried that the Bulls are going to lose what they have,” said a league source. “He doesn’t want to go through rebuilding. The post Report: Derrick Rose Worried Bulls Will Let Key Free Agents Walk, Doesn’t Want To Rebuild appeared first on Beyond The Buzzer.
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A few weeks into overseeing his first NBA regular season, Stevens has already demonstrated a keen ability to identify a problem and make it better, regardless of which players he has to work with.
Stevens is a chemist, mixing and matching chemicals, testing to see what creates a positive reaction and what’s combustible. His hardest task so far has been making Boston’s lackadaisical offense stronger.
With Rajon Rondo out rehabbing his torn ACL, and Paul Pierce—one of the most comforting scorers in league history—now a Brooklyn Net, the line of thinking was that Boston would be even less effective on offense than last year (when they finished the season ranked 20th), struggling in an area most had already pegged as a disaster long before Stevens even took the job.
So far those expectations have been realized.
Right now the Celtics rank 25th in offensive rating. They aren’t exactly in love with threes (Boston is below average in attempts from the corner and above the break) or getting to the free-throw line (bottom 10 in free-throw attempts rate). And their crunch-time offense is dead last in the league.
Only five teams average fewer three-point attempts per game, only three are less accurate from beyond the arc and way too many of Boston’s points come from mid-range jumpers.
So, you ask, what is it Stevens is doing well? A coach can only do so much to influence a game at the NBA level, and so far Stevens has maximized his power through constant experimentation.
After starting the season 0-4, Boston was one of the league’s slowest teams, and they turned it over a ton. Stevens adapted to his inexperienced, hyper-athletic personnel, swapping Gerald Wallace for Jordan Crawford and Kelly Olynyk for Vitor Faverani.
(As of Nov. 20, out of all five-man units in the league that have logged at least 50 minutes, Crawford, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Olynyk have been the seventh-most efficient, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions.)
The Celtics began to pick up the pace, pushing the ball off missed shots. This is notable and appreciated because Stevens could have kept things sedated, which is how he coached to great success at Butler. Instead of being stubborn, he adapted. Quickly. An obvious juxtaposition with Rick Pitino, who was convinced a full-court press would work in the NBA because it worked at the University of Kentucky.
Stevens wasn’t convinced his way would work with the players he had, so he’s decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Wallace and Green have been given free reign to rip a ball off the glass and take it the other way themselves, keeping defenses on their heels and forcing mismatches in transition.
After starting the year off on a glacial march, Boston’s pace is currently above average. Here are two examples where the Celtics are looking to attack as quickly as possible, especially when rookie backup point guard Phil Pressey is running the show.
Here, against the Houston Rockets, we see Boston look to attack as quickly as possible, off either a missed free throw or a made three from the corner. It doesn’t matter, they just want the ball up the court before Houston can set their Dwight Howard-led defense.
The Celtics have also attacked defenses in other ways not seen too often over the past few years. One example being from the post. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), the Celtics are scoring 0.89 points per possession on post-ups, good for eighth-best in the league.
It’s where 13 percent (up 6 percent from last season) of all their offensive possessions ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws occur, and guys like Bass and Jared Sullinger have shown notable improvement.
Here’s Bass against Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He catches the ball and goes right into his move (despite poor spacing courtesy of Wallace). There’s very little hesitation when this happens, which is good.
But where Stevens has the greatest influence is in play design. The Celtics never isolate or rely on “hero ball” at the end of quarters. Instead, they run formulated plays that possess counters, progression and ball movement.
This also applies to after-timeout situations and side-out-of-bounds sets. Here are two such plays from a game earlier this season against the Portland Trail Blazers. Wallace is the inbounder on both. After passing it in, he cuts off a back screen towards the rim. The first time Boston ran this, they scored an easy layup.
The second time around, Portland was ready, with Wallace’s defender darting above the screen and cutting off his open passing lane. The Celtics calmly went into Plan B, which was having Courtney Lee curl off a stagger screen set by Faverani and Sullinger (no defender feels OK after fighting through those two), and sinking a wide open jump shot.
These are all hopeful signs for a coach who only has a dozen games’ worth of experience. Despite facing new obstacles each and every game, Stevens’ power is evident based on how his team plays (hard) and the style they exploit.
Once the Celtics find the talent they need to be one of basketball’s most competitive teams, their head coach will be ready and waiting.
Michael Pina is a writer with bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.
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