Reflections on a Decade: The 10 Best Personnel Moves of the 2000s
Posted by Zach Lowe on Dec 31, 2009
If you haven’t noticed, the 2000s (the decade, not the millennium) are coming to an end. It has been an interesting decade to be a Celtics fan, one spent mostly in mediocrity before a summer 2007 trade frenzy rocketed the C’s back to the league’s elite. We saw a surprise (and surprisingly exhilarating) conference finals run in 2002, the end of the Antoine Walker era (the the beginning of a new one, then the end of that one), the immortal Celtic tenures of Ricky Davis and Mark Blount and the maturation of the Truth into a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be reflecting now and then on the last decade of C’s fandom.
Forthwith, the 10 best personnel moves of the aughts:
#10: Celtics sign Antoine Walker to six-year, $53 million deal and trade him to Miami for Curtis Borchardt, Qyntel Woods, the rights to Albert Miralles and two future second-round picks (Edin Bavic, Nikola Pekovic) as part of a five-team, 13-player trade. (Aug. 2, 2005)
You have to know when it’s over. And six months after acquiring ‘Toine largely to appease Paul Pierce and an angry fan base, Danny Ainge knew it was over for Employee #8. He understood ‘Toine would never be an All-Star-level player again, that he wanted far more money than he was worth and that it was time to end—permanently, this time—the tenure of Antoine Walker in a Celtic uniform.
(Side note: The C’s acquired ‘Toine from the Hawks in February 2005 for a package headlined by Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta and a first-round pick that became Rajon Rondo. That’s right, the C’s gave this pick away to get Antoine Walker back in 2005. How lucky is Boston—and Danny Ainge—that this pick found its way to a cheap-o franchise like Phoenix which would be more than willing to give it away for nothing?)
(Side note #2: If you want to read a feel-good magazine story that looked hilariously ridiculous just months after it ran, check out this ESPN the Magazine piece about the C’s re-acquiring ‘Toine. It’s all about how Danny Ainge overcame his personal distaste for ‘Toine’s game, how ‘Toine lost weight and reinvented himself as a low-post threat and how the C’s brass never fully understood ‘Toine’s positive impact in the locker room. Less than half a year after this story ran, the C’s unloaded ‘Toine for nothing).
In the first of many, many sad codas to ‘Toine’s Celtic career, the team accepted nothing in terms of basketball talent in exchange for shoving his salary off onto someone else. The C’s waived Borchardt and Woods before the start of the 2005 season, meaning neither ever suited up for the C’s in a regular season game. Miralles, Bavic and Pekovic never played for Boston, either.
Part of being a smart executive in the salary cap era is knowing when you’ve screwed up and finding a way to undo the screw-ups as quickly as possible. Announcing to the world, “I have made an awful decision” isn’t easy. Lots of GMs aren’t willing to do it. Ainge is, and the C’s are better for it.
#9: The Celtics hire Tom Thibodeau as assistant coach (Aug. 2007)
Be honest: Had you heard of Tom Thibodeau before the C’s hired him? If you were an NBA junkie, you might have recognized Thibs as longtime Jeff Van Gundy lieutenant in New York and Houston, the guy JVG credited with Yao Ming’s emergence as an elite defensive player.
Once the C’s dealt for KG, Doc Rivers zeroed in on Thibodeau as the assistant who could push the C’s into elite territory on defense. The Wizards struck first, hiring Thibodeau as an assistant, but he quit four days later after having what the Wizards called “a change of heart.”
Boston swooped in, and the team won the championship 10 months later behind one of the great defenses in NBA history.
Kevin Garnett got most of the credit for that, and that’s appropriate. Coaches can yell all they want, but it amounts to nothing without talented players willing to sacrifice on defense.
But Thibodeau is always there, screaming for close-outs and making sure the C’s get the details right. “Tom pays a greater attention to detail,” Doc said in 2007, according to the Globe. “And it was needed.”
It sure was.
#8:The Celtics sign Paul Pierce to three-year, $60M extension through 2010-11 (July 17, 2006)
Paul Pierce was already locked up through 2008 when the C’s inked this extension with the captain, so you can’t make the argument that failing to re-sign Pierce would have amounted to dropping the MVP of the 2008 Finals.
But hitching the team’s wagon to Pierce for three extra years nonetheless signaled the team’s commitment to centering the rebuilding project around Pierce instead of, say, Allen Iverson, a player Ainge flirted with around the time of this Pierce extension. The extension prevented the C’s from dealing Pierce for spare parts, and it showed KG the C’s were committed to winning beyond 2008—and every little thing that helped convince KG to accept a deal to Boston has to count for something.
Most of all, the C’s bet correctly that Pierce would continue to mature as a player on both ends of the floor.
They were right. Now Pierce is a Finals MVP, the team’s most productive crunch-time scorer since Larry Legend and one of the elite wing defenders in the game.
#7: Celtics hire Danny Ainge as executive director of basketball operations: May 2003
Ainge has been a top C’s executive for parts of seven NBA seasons, and the C’s have been title contenders in three of those seasons. He inherited a direction-less mediocrity in 2003, and he will always have critics who say he couldn’t have dug his way out of it had the T’Wolves not dealt the C’s Kevin Garnett in exchange for (basically, at this point) Al Jefferson.
But Ainge is the one who made that trade—the one who hit golf balls with KG to sell him on Boston, the guy who convinced his teammate Kevin McHale to make the trade without including Rajon Rondo, the guy who worked long nights to make it happen. There were other paths to take—such as trading Paul Pierce, keeping the 2007 lottery pick that became Jeff Green and building around a solid young core.
You want to be the guy to make those decisions? Good luck.
Sure, not every move was a home run (the horrific Mark Blount extension came on Danny’s watch), but this full list proves that a) Ainge was capable of home runs both obvious and not; and, b) he was aggressive and smart about undoing his bad moves.
The Celtics are where they are in part because of choices Ainge made with consultation from others. This top 10 list isn’t really valid without his presence.
#6: The Celtics sign Kendrick Perkins to a four-year, (approximately) $18M extension (Sept. 2006)
I wanted one Perk move on the list, and this beats out the C’s 2003 draft day trade in which they acquired the rights to Perkins and Marcus Banks from the Grizzlies in exchange for Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones.
That’s a nice trade, but the extension looks even wiser. In September of 2006, Perkins had played 138 games over three seasons (starting just 43 of them) and had career averages of less than five points and five boards per game. In the 2005-06 season (Perk’s last before this extension), he averaged 5.2 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20 minutes per game with an ungodly turnover rate and (slightly) negative plus/minus stats.
This resume looks more like that of a young big who flames out of the league than someone you lock up to a four-year extension a year before the team even had to bother with an extension. That sort of move says, “This guy is a building block.” In fact, that’s what Ainge called Perk at the time—a “building block.”
A lot of us were skeptical. Too many Acie Earls and Jerome Moisos and Eric Montrosses and Kedrick Browns (whose first name is a letter away from Kendrick).
We were wrong. Happily, Happily wrong.
#5: The Celtics trade Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Marcus Banks, Justin Reed and two second-round picks (Craig Smith–2006, Nikola Pekovic–2008) to Minnesota for Wally Szczerbiak, Dwayne Jones, Michael Olowokandi and a future first-round pick (2009–Jonny Flynn). (Jan. 26, 2006)
There are a lot of names in this deal. Focus on three of them: Davis, Blount and Szczerbiak. When this trade went down, the C’s brass publicly built it up as proof of their commitment to surrounding Paul Pierce with a competent scorer (Szczerbiak) after the team dealt away Pierce’s longtime running buddy, Antoine Walker, for the second time in three years.
And maybe they meant it at the time. But they also had to know that this trade really amounted to dumping two awful long-term contracts in exchange for one. Ricky Davis was nearing the end of a six-year, $34 million deal (originally signed with the Cavaliers) that ran through the 2008 season. Mark Blount is still, to this day, living off the insane six-year, $42 million deal the C’s (and Danny Ainge) signed him to after the 2004 season. (That deal finally expires this year, to the benefit of the Miami Heat).
Olowokandi’s deal, meanwhile, expired after the 2006 season, and the C’s dealt Dwayne Jones away after he played just 14 games in the 2006 season.
In retrospect, getting out of the horrific Blount deal looks like the most important part of this trade. The flexibility they gained from ridding themselves of Blount’s contract—which is, again, still running right now—helped make the Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett trades (and KG’s subsequent extension) possible.
Five months after this deal, the C’s essentially filled Blount’s salary slot when they acquired another big man stiff with an inflated deal (Theo Ratliff) in the Raef Lafrentz/Randy Foye/Bassy Telfair deal. The difference? Ratliff’s awful deal expired after 2007 instead of 2010, making it a key trade chip in the KG deal and inspiring thousands of Theo Ratliff Expiring Contract jokes.
Ainge couldn’t have anticipated all of this when he made this deal. But he absolutely could have—and certainly did—understand the benefits of unloading two bad long-term deals in exchange for one.
#4: The Celtics acquire Ray Allen and the rights to Glen Davis for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, the rights to Jeff Green and a future second-round pick (#46 in 2008–Trent Plaisted) (June 28, 2007)
In retrospect, this is a shocking trade—and one that looks considerably better for the Sonics/Thunder now than the KG trade (we’ll get to it) looks for the T’Wolves. Green will be a quality player—and maybe an All-Star at some point—for a decade, and the Sonics dumped Wally and West for salary reasons the following season.
The Celtics, meanwhile, got an aging shooting guard with ankle problems who alone would not have been enough to propel Boston to a title without a third superstar on the roster. They got that third superstar a month later, of course, but try and imagine how this deal would look now had the Celtics not been able to add a Garnett-level player to the team.
It would not look very good.
But the Celtics did land Garnett, and when you read about how that trade happened, you get the feeling Danny Ainge would never have relented until KG agreed to the deal. Police may have had to charge him with stalking KG at some point.
And Glen Davis? Teams often win trades on the margins. There are NBA observers who believe—truly believe—that Ryan Anderson going to the Magic will go down as the most important part of the Vince Carter trade last summer.
Snagging the rights to Big Baby doesn’t quite rise to that level. But it will go down as a major coup for Ainge.
#3: The 2004 draft: The Celtics select Al Jefferson (#15), Delonte West (#24) and Tony Allen (#25)
Sure, the first among these picks could have gone to crap had Ainge’s pet prospect Robert Swift lasted until #15. But he didn’t, and Ainge made what turned out to be the right call by grabbing another big man with no college experience in Jefferson. The next eight picks include two All-Star-level players (Jameer Nelson at #20 and Josh Smith at #17), one supernova talent who is still figuring things out (J.R. Smith) and some epic busts (Viktor Khryapa and Pavel Podkolzine).
Snagging a quality combo guard such as West at #24 might be an even better get. The average pick at this spot has about an 85 percent chance of being an NBA non-entity and typically contributes about 1.4 “wins added” (a stat developed by ESPN.com’s John Hollinger) per season, according to this ESPN.com study.
West and Jefferson were productive youngsters for the Celtics and became two key pieces in the trades that remade the team into the 2008 champions.
As for Tony Allen at #25? No player has made more infuriating mistakes and teased us so cruelly with flashes of talent. But he’s still in the NBA, and he still has a chance to be a productive rotation player this year and beyond. That is all you can expect—and probably more—from the 25th in any draft.
In short: A home run for Ainge in second first go-round in Boston’s draft room.
#2: The Celtics acquire Rajon Rondo, Brian Grant from Suns in exchange for future first-round pick (Rudy Fernandez) (June 28, 2006)
I came very close to placing this in the top spot. Very close. This move, to me, is the first move you should mention when discussing Danny Ainge’s personal influence on the team. This is hismove. Dealing for Garnett and Ray Allen—that’s a no-brainer, and Doc Rivers may have been the louder internal voice touting the “deal for veterans” strategy over the “trade Pierce and rebuild with youth and a lottery pick” strategy in the spring of 2007.
But Rondo—this was Ainge’s move. His affection for Rondo is now well-known, and Ainge felt it despite Rajon’s lack of anything resembling a reliable jump shot, his public clashes with Tubby Smith at Kentucky and the persistent questions about his “attitude.”
Attitude aside, Rajon Rondo did not look like a classic NBA point guard in 2006. That is not debatable. But Ainge saw something, and he took advantage of Robert Sarver’s (owner of the Suns) need to save money by acquiring Rondo and Brian Grant’s contract for a future first-rounder.
You know the rest.
#1: The Celtics trade Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Ryan Gomes and two first-round picks (Jonny Flynn, Wayne Ellington) (July 2007)
If you’re reading this site, I trust you know the story behind this trade, so I won’t belabor it here. It remains the largest trade ever for a single player, and it’s on the short list of moves that had the largest positive impact on the C’s franchise (along with the drafting of Larry Bird and Bill Russell and the McHale-Parish theft from Golden State in 1980).
Look at those trade details again. If it’s possible, this trade looks even better now than it did when it happened. Only two of the players Boston dealt (Jefferson and Gomes) are relevant today, and one of them has suffered a sad string of major injuries since the deal. Sure, Flynn looks like a player, but the T’Wolves owned that pick originally and sent it to Boston in a 2006 deal that is also on this list. Ellington will never be a star in the NBA.
Garnett will almost surely be overpaid when he banks more than $21 million from Boston in 2012, especially given his increasingly uncertain health and the fact that he already ranks 24th all-time in minutes played (more than 40,000 total). And sure, his three-year extension (which the C’s inked simultaneously with the trade) guaranteed Boston would be well over the salary cap for years, making it extra hard to sign the right role players.
But this deal won Boston a championship. Case closed.