Monday, July 8, 2013

A Brave New Association?

By Bob Ekstrom

Boston, like so many pro towns, abhors the rebuilding cycle. That was never more clear than in 2010 when former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein endured endless public tongue-lashings for calling the upcoming season a "bridge year." It was his clever attempt at taking a knee while giving fans a future to hope for, a reminder that there was indeed something to bridge to, but it became the prominent passage of his legacy that included two World Series championships, Boston's first in 86 years.

Now Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge is building a bridge of his own, but with only a wisp of promised land on the other side. His alternative? Ride out Coach Doc Rivers and future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, make the playoffs for two or three more years, and not be known as the guy who broke the party up. Yet there appears to have been a meeting of the minds between Ainge and a fan base who largely remembers a time two decades earlier when a passive front office allowed Father Time to pick at the carcasses of the original Big Three. After the five-year run by the second Big Three that earned the C's their 17th banner, the inevitability of time and mediocrity has settled in.

The permissive air among Ainge's Boston constituency has initially empowered him in his efforts, but this tolerance is tentative at best. Celtics fans have a limited appetite for a long rebuilding campaign. They may like the concept now, but Ainge's leash will be much shorter than those wielded by M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino throughout the 1990s, when a string of lousy seasons produced such venerable lottery picks as Eric Montross, Ron Mercer, and Jerome Moiso.

The call to break up the remnants of Ainge's core was gutsy, especially in a league that typically hangs its kahunas on a peg by the door before leaving on summer vacation. It was also the table-setter for a different kind of Hot Stove this offseason.

NBA free agency periods often have a by-the-books predictability to them. They are the basketball equivalent of the sacrifice bunt. Play it safe and look for the big score. Mostly, players chase the money. Sometimes they chase the coast; Los Angeles and Miami are always sexy destinations, and that can translate into an opportunity cost worth paying.

Three years ago, LeBron James's Decision appeared gutsy. He flew the coup, leaving behind friends, the team he routed on as a kid, and a city that idolized him with ten-story effigies. He incurred the wrath of Cavaliers ownership and the community in which he was raised, not to mention every non-Heat fan in the country, of which there are plenty. Yet, fundamentally, it was the safe choice. He headed for Miami and formed a triumvirate guaranteed to go deep into every postseason. He also got the bucks, compliments of a sign-and-trade that assured him a max contract.

On the other hand, Ray Allen didn't get a max contract. He reportedly took half of what the Celtics were offering and became the first crumbling brick in Ainge's once mighty fortress. Money aside, his decision was as easy as James' two years prior. Again, there's that allure of South Beach, where Allen immediately became part of James' supporting cast. It paid off. He rode the King's coattails to the Finals, then hit the biggest shot of the postseason to secure his — and James' — second ring. In retrospect, it was a slam-dunk.

Contrast those decisions with the one just made by Dwight Howard. Even when he wanted out of Orlando, Howard's body English made it clear he didn't want in on Hollywood, even if everyone else does. The focus last year was on Brooklyn, but when talks between the Magic and Nets broke down, Superman became a reluctant passenger on the next flight to La La Land, where he bucked the prevailing sentiment of the Shaquille O'Neals and Karl Malones of the world who feel it a privilege to play for the Buss family and their money.

Where it would be so easy to stay put among the stars and earn a max contract and occasional movie cameo, Howard has now shaken his sandals of glitter — not to mention Kobe Bryant — to start up a new axis of power in Houston. He did so without commitments from other free agents or the Rockets organization. And as Rondo rumors are centered more on the Rockets' neighbors in Dallas, and former AAU teammate Josh Smith has signed with Detroit, it's clear he's prepared to help build that power with existing resources. A courageous move by NBA free agency standards.

To a lesser degree, so was Smith's. Think about it. He leaves the team on which he'd spent his first nine years, and a coaching staff that left his shot selection unharnessed for that entire duration. Gone will be the warmth of Southern hospitality, replaced by the cold desolation of a destination at the bottom of every free agent's list. Sure, there are 56 million reasons to move on, and no, it doesn't seem as though Atlanta planned on keeping him, even though NBC Sports reported that the Hawks were one of several teams still interested. But anyone who has ever been compelled to make a career change against their better judgment will appreciate Smith's moxie.

Which brings us back to Boston and Danny Ainge.

An agreement in principle is not the same as a buy-in to the specific rebuilding plan, and fans will regard each of Ainge's successive moves with skepticism. His immediate hiring of Brad Stevens to replace Doc Rivers has started that process, but such criticism speaks more to fan ignorance of the circumstances.

Success stories of college coaches in the pros are limited. In Boston, they end with Rick Pitino. It's not surprising that the Stevens hiring is viewed in that same light. The Pitino era was the darkest in Celtics history, as potential succumbed each year to underachievement against the stark backdrop of an egotistical coach and president with a keenly misplaced overzealousness that brought out the worst in everyone. Stevens is carrying the baggage of Pitino's legacy into a no-win situation in trying to mold a plethora of college draft picks into a competitive pro team. One has to wonder if he has that same lump in his throat that Smith must have.

But for Ainge, this is not an against-all-odds act of heroism. Stevens is not being asked to do what was asked of Pitino but rather, of M.L. Carr. In the wake of the original Big Three's breakup, Carr's job was to drive the bus off the road and keep it in the ditch until sufficient draft picks could be acquired or traded, at which time a marquee coach could assume the wheel of rebuilding.

Stevens will do that for up to six years, but more likely only three. his heir-apparent may well be former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. The Chicago Bulls head coach is under contract through 2016-17, but tensions have been building in his relationship with GM Gar Forman, who recently fired Thibodeau's top assistant. Thibodeau was a player and fan favorite alike, and could mold Stevens' pieces into a contender in a way Pitino never could.

On its face, this hiring appears to be one more in a string of bold and unpredictable moves this offseason, but in reality, it may be its safest. What better way to accumulate ping-pong balls for the ultimate prize of Andrew Wiggins next year? In today's NBA, it's hard to build a new bridge until you drive off the old one first.

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