Tag Archives: Celtics

Danny Ainge’s confidence (and sequencing) problem

11 Jul

Gordon Hayward is a very good player, an All-Star who is just entering his prime. The Boston Celtics are a very good team, with mostly under-30 guys on the rise. So, both parties seem to be a great match for each other, especially when you consider that Boston’s coach, Brad Stevens, was only of only three to offer Hayward a college scholarship after the forward finished high school in his home state of Indiana.

Adding Hayward to a core already featuring Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (no more Avery Bradley) affirms Boston’s status as the Eastern Conference’s second-best team. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t do much more than that.

In an alternate reality, Hayward would be the Celtics’ second-biggest pickup of the offseason. In that world, the 27-year-old — who was a top high school tennis player — just might put Boston over the top. Confused? Okay, let’s back it up a bit.

Adrian Wojnarowski, in one of his last scoops for Yahoo!, reported on June 27 that the Celtics wanted to snag both Hayward and Paul George in a sequential pair of moves. For cap purposes, Woj said, Danny Ainge wanted a commitment from Hayward before making a push for George, whose intent to leave the Pacers put Indiana in a bind to trade the star a year before he was set to hit the open market.

However, Ainge’s plans went awry as the Thunder swooped in three days later to get George for a measly package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. It was a calculated risk for Sam Presti, who spent two young assets (with Oladipo on an inflated contract) for at least one season of George, who has made his interest in going to the Lakers clear but could be swayed to stick around in Oklahoma City if the pairing with fellow LA native Russell Westbrook works out.

That took two of Boston’s forward options, George and Jimmy Butler (traded to Minnesota on draft night), off the board. Ainge made the “2K Franchise Mode” mistake. With 30 autonomous actors each making decisions in their own (presumable) best interest, trying to sync up various moves in sequence is just too unpredictable. In the real world, the other 29 teams are run by real people, not a computerized game engine.

By hoping that Kevin Pritchard would wait until after the Celtics got Hayward to deal George, Ainge incorrectly aligned the Pacers’ perceptions of the market with his own. For Ainge, Indiana would be doing the smart thing by waiting for a potentially bigger offer from the Celtics before pulling the trigger on a trade. But, he didn’t factor in that Pritchard knew he needed to get something for George and the uncertainty (and wavering) of Hayward’s own decision-making got in the way.

Due to his hubris and the assumption that Indiana would at least wait for free agency to start in order to deal away their franchise cornerstone, Ainge lost out on what could have been a great situation for Boston.

It’s great the Celtics did wind up with Hayward but in order to clear the requisite cap space in order for him to officially sign the four-year, $128 million maximum contract agreed upon, they had to deal Avery Bradley to Detroit with a second-round pick for Marcus Morris.

Bradley was set to earn $8,808,989 this season before becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. As one of the better two-way guards in the league — and a perfect complement to offense-first Isaiah Thomas — the 26-year-old is well on his way to a massive payday, which certainly played a role in Boston being willing to deal him.

With that said, the Celtics can’t make up for his loss, especially on defense. For two spots, Boston essentially has four people: Brown, Crowder, Smart, Tatum. Each of those guys has their own strengths — Brown is a freak athlete, Crowder is that tough son of a gun who would have fit in with the Bad Boy Pistons, Smart can check the other team’s best player, Tatum has a ton of upside and could be an elite scorer¬† — but none has the all-around game of a guy like Bradley, who shot 39 percent from three his final season in Beantown. You could throw Terry Rozier into that mix as well, but he was rarely on the court at the same time as Thomas for obvious size-related reasons.

The defensive peripherals aren’t great for Bradley — his -0.4 defensive box plus/minus was 10th on the team — but they should be taken with a grain of a salt at best. Remember that most of his minutes, over 67 percent (1240 out of 1835), were played alongside Thomas, who may have been the worst defender in the entire NBA last season.

Had the Celtics cashed out maybe two or three of those extra pieces, along with draft considerations, for either George or Butler, they would have gotten that other necessary¬† star while tightening up the rotation a bit. Instead of having their overflowing assets condensed into one player that could be the difference in a conference finals, they have them as is, spread out into multiple players. Depth is great, but not when it’s so competitive that in crucial moments of close games, various key guys are relegated to the bench.

While we don’t truly know if the Celtics did indeed offer the Pacers a better haul for George than Indiana accepted from Oklahoma City, it begs the question why Ainge wasn’t more aggressive in a pre-free agency trade with the assumption that adding a top talent would only make Boston a more attractive locale for Hayward.

He could have dangled next year’s Brooklyn pick (or the extra pick received from Philadelphia in the Markelle Fultz trade) along with Bradley and Crowder, for example, to get George in the door first. Then, a pursuit of Hayward could have been made as well as additional salary shedding to make both moves work.

I’ve been a outright critic of Ainge’s seeming unwillingness to part with his prized assets, most of which have been obtained from the Brooklyn Nets, but this didn’t seem like a case of loss aversion. Rather, it was a presumption that the market would wait for July 1st to open itself up. The reverse happened instead.

So the work still isn’t done for the Celtics, which further shows how Ainge might have waited too long to make a bet with his extremely stacked hand. This current team, plus a few extra pieces to be added in the coming weeks on minimum deals and those signed with exceptions, is a good one but it isn’t good enough to seriously be considered a threat to the Cavaliers’ throne. Had it also included a more ball-dominant scorer in Paul George, who happens to be a more-than-capable defender, Boston might actually be the favorite in the East.

The Celtics continue to have an overabundance of similar players, which is fine if the forward glut consists of Paul George, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum but less so when Crowder is substituted for George. They still don’t have the firepower to match Cleveland and their possible top lineup of Thomas-Brown-Tatum/Crowder/Smart-Hayward-Horford is good, but not good enough.

That feels like the common refrain for this team, which is in that all-too-uncomfortable position of standing right on the door of title contention. Last season, the Celtics showed us they keep up with the Cavaliers, which is only the first step. The next is to best them, which Boston is still as far away from accomplishing as it was before the start of the 2016-17 campaign.

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