Friday, May 25, 2012

How Can the Celtics Be Like the Spurs?

"I like role players who aren't very good but have a skill."      
-Gregg Popovich

I already know how this Celtics season is going to end. They'll win Game 7 on Saturday. Then they'll put forth a good effort but ultimately lose in 6 to a Miami team that is healthier and more talented. 

With Bradley out for the season, Ray and Stiemsma shells of themselves, and Pierce and Pietrus severely limited, the Celtics have no one to guard Wade, no bigs to provide solid minutes with KG on the bench, and just a lack of firepower overall. Their season is on the ropes. They would've had a chance against Miami -- maybe even looked like the favorites -- if they could have knocked off Atlanta and Philly in five games apiece, but now, without rest and without Bradley, the odds look insurmountable. 

Meanwhile, across the country, a similarly old and rag-tag team, the San Antonio Spurs, looks like the class of the league and a heavy favorite to knock off Miami if they can get past the Thunder. The Celtics need to become this team. 

Check out the All-NBA teams, released yesterday:

Forward LeBron James, Miami (118) 596 
Forward Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City (117) 591 
Center Dwight Howard, Orlando (75) 476 
Guard Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers (104) 568 
Guard Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers (74) 484 

Forward Kevin Love, Minnesota (16) 365 
Forward Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers 170 
Center Andrew Bynum, L.A. Lakers (33) 400 
Guard Tony Parker, San Antonio (41) 367 
Guard Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City (5) 239 

Forward Carmelo Anthony, New York (1) 154 
Forward Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas 136 
Center Tyson Chandler, New York (4) 60 
Guard Dwyane Wade, Miami (1) 235 
Guard Rajon Rondo, Boston (4) 142

Now think about the teams that legitimately contended for the title this year: the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, and Clippers in the West, and the Bulls and Heat (and until recently, the Celtics) in the East. 

Those contenders fall into two main classes: the superstar-heavy teams (Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Heat) and the depth teams (Spurs and Bulls). In the first group you have four clubs that each possess two superstars in their prime. By superstar I mean a top-10 player in the world. You've got Miami with LBJ and Wade (who, despite missing weeks with injury, finished 4 votes shy of the All-NBA second team and is clearly top-10 in the NBA). You've got the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook. You've got the Lakers with Kobe and Bynum. And you've got the Clippers with CP3 and Blake. 

In the second group, you have two teams built legitimately around depth and a team concept. The Spurs have a second team point guard in Tony Parker and then surround him with a 10-man rotation (Dunca, Diaw, Green, Leonard, Ginobili, Jackson, Bonner, Neal, Splitter, and Blair) that combines savvy veterans and former all-stars with depth pieces and role players. The Bulls actually fall somewhere in between these two classes, surrounding Rose and Deng with a similarly deep cohort of Boozer, Noah, Korver, Rip, Taj, Asik, Brewer, and Watson. 

The Celtics are caught in between and need to go one way or the other as they move into the post-Big-3 era. I think they ought to move toward the latter group. 

Right now, the Celtics have an absolute maximum of 6 players you can trust to see the floor in a playoff game: Rondo, Pierce, Garnett, Ray Allen, Brandon Bass, and Avery Bradley. This postseason I might not even count Ray among that group. Pietrus, Stiemsma, and Dooling would all qualify as borderline when healthy. I like Pietrus for perimeter defense and scoring. Stiemsma maybe sneaks into the bottom of an 11-man rotation, where he can play 10 solid minutes and score some with 4 of the better players. And Dooling is a good locker-room glue-guy but not much help on the court. Of these three, I think only a healthy Pietrus would see any minutes on the Spurs. 

The Celtics have the following players under contract in 2012-13 for the following prices:

Paul Pierce --   $16.7M
Rajon Rondo --   $11.0M
Brandon Bass --  $4.0M 
Avery Bradley -- $1.6M
JaJuan Johnson --$1.2M

Bringing us to a total of about $35M. If I'm Danny Ainge, I throw Garnett a 2-year, $20M offer (some thank-you money included for all he's done for the team). I bring Dooling back for $2M a year (generous but fair given his sideline and locker-room contributions). I bring Pietrus back for $1M a year (prove-it-or-you're-gone situation). And I pick up Stiemsma's $1M deal (similar prove-it situation). That gives me the entire starting lineup (Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-KG) for $44M and the only bench pieces that mattered for $4M. The only guy who leaves is Ray Allen (I'm assuming somebody will overpay for him), allowing the Celtics to bring back virtually the entire 2011-2012 contending squad almost completely intact. Maybe even amnesty JaJuan Johnson for good measure. 

The biggest difference, though, is that this team would cost $48M instead of $88M. That would basically allow the Celtics to start rebuilding the team with $30M-$40M of open cap space, without having to go through the anguish of a losing season and shitty team. Rebuilding without rebuilding.

So at this point I've got Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-KG starting and Pietrus-Dooling-Stiemsma on the bench. For $48M and if healthy, that's the outline of a Spurs-like juggernaut that could easily take on the best of the Eastern Conference. The key is using that next $30M to grab the Danny Greens, Gary Neals, Kawhi Leonards and Matt Bonners. 

That's not an easy task but it's eminently doable. It involves looking for those "role players who aren't very good but have a skill." Maybe Jeff Green comes back and contributes playing behind Pierce. Maybe I draft Draymond Green and he contributes behind Bass. Maybe I find a good young big man who can rebound, defend, and share minutes with Stiemsma. Maybe I pay up for Ersan Ilyasova. Maybe I find a couple of guys who can knock down 3s. 

Whatever course of action Ainge charts, I'd love to see a team with depth, variety, and versatility come next October. You don't need LeBron-Wade-Bosh or Durant-Westbrook-Harden to win a title in this league. In fact, that might not even be the best way to go about it. What you do need is a deep rotation that can withstand injury and a large group of players with diverse skill sets to draw upon.

The San Antonio Spurs have a machine out on the court for all 48 minutes, every night. It doesn't matter who's playing at any given time, it doesn't matter who's on the sidelines. It doesn't start or end with any one guy (although there's something to be said for the leadership of Parker and Duncan in fostering the team concept). It's about the collection of players and the team concept under which they play. And there's no reason the Celtics can't put together something similar this offseason. 

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