By Brett Koremenos
Nearly a dozen deals going down before the NBA's busiest trade deadline in recent memory came to a close. As point guards and draft picks circulated throughout the league, we saw essentially the same thing we've come to expect every February; contending teams sacrificing either future assets and/or salary flexibility in order to pillage the dregs of the league for whatever valuable assets they are willing to part with. In such a market, you'd expect the Boston Celtics, at just 21-30, to have continued their fire sale of nonessential personnel in an attempt to add to their impressive stockpile of future assets.
Entering yesterday, the Celtics had 11 potential first-round draft picks (that figure includes their own), coming to them over course of the next few offseasons. The conventional wisdom in this league suggests that a team in Boston's position should embrace a trip or two to the lottery and use their bevy of picks to infuse an enviable amount of young, cost-controlled talent into a developing roster. But instead of falling victim to groupthink, GM Danny Ainge took a page out of one of sport's most innovative executives and accelerated the Celtics' return to relevance by acquiring veteran Suns guard Isaiah Thomas for draft picks. In doing so, they exploited one of the NBA's biggest market inefficiencies: the overvaluation of potential.
Similar to basketball, the typical approach for small market baseball team has been to rely heavily on their farm system to churn out the cheap talent (that hopefully blossoms into stars) those clubs need in order to stay competitive with the big market clubs capable of buying more wins. Doing so means these small market teams must invest heavily in young players whose potential contributions at the Major League level are a complete unknown. The Oakland A's Billy Beane has developed a reputation over the years of exploiting soft spots in Major League Baseball's market in order to keep his resource-deficient organization near the top of the standings on an annual basis. By attacking this conventional wisdom, Beane has found a new way to do so in recent years.
Beane's latest trend calls for bypassing the whims of developing young talent in favor of securing proven veteran contributors, even if they're not stars. And though roster dynamics, salary mechanics and the impact of individuals is far different in the NBA than MLB, the premise of potential being overvalued is the same in both sports.
Banking on young talent, and by proxy, the first round picks that give you the best chance of acquiring it, carries with it inherent risks. As numerous people and studies have pointed out, the NBA draft is a total crapshoot. For Ainge and the Celtics, there's as a much better chance that their collection of draft picks turns them into a redux of the Magic than the Thunder -- the team that has inspired bad NBA franchises to hoard draft picks and making multiple trips to the lottery in an attempt to become perennial contenders. But the fact is, the ROI (return on investment) for late first-round picks is very low, with maybe a handful players taken in the latter third of that round even panning out into rotation players, much less starters or stars.
Yet year after year, teams treat these valuable draft picks as a scarce resource, mostly with good reason. Contenders are reluctant to part with them because the idea of landing a contributor on a rookie deal is a huge relief to the salary cap constraints most face. And on the flip side, rebuilding clubs crave them because they represent the lone avenue (unless they are a big market team) for acquiring the top-end talent deemed necessary to compete for titles.
Part of the reason why most deals fail to materialize is that teams looking to acquire available veterans are unwilling or unable to part with a high value pick (or picks) in order to do so. Any team with the valuable currency in Boston's possession can essentially control the marketplace. But the reason teams like the Celtics don't enter it is because players like Thomas -- who are productive but not elite -- don't hold appeal to a rebuilding team that is holding out hope those assets, through the draft or trade for a disgruntled star, can turn into a roster centerpiece.
But in today's NBA, it's becoming increasingly possible to compete for titles without elite players. Just look at last year's Spurs. Or this year's Hawks. Even the Pacer squads of the past two seasons offer hope for star-less franchises. Those teams have/are experiencing their success with very good players, depth and excellent coaching. Rule changes and offensive evolutions have made the one-on-one brilliance of stars far less essential. That's not saying it's a sure bet teams nowadays can craft a title contender without an elite player, but it's probably just as possible given where the league is now as a mid-lottery pick turning into the next Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Steph Curry.
These factors in combination with Boston's promising head coach are precisely why Ainge -- starting with the acquisition of Thomas at the deadline -- has a unique opportunity in his latest attempt to craft a winner in Boston. Any team looking to win without transcendent talents like James, Durant or Curry needs a coach capable of accentuating the strengths of everyone on the roster with his approach. Looking at the Celtics' current roster and results, and you can see outlines that Stevens might be nearing that level.
For starters, looking at the Celtics as a regular run-of-the-mill bad team is a bit misleading. Though their record is poor, Boston's point differential of -1.5 is actually better than the two teams -- Charlotte and Miami -- currently occupying the East's final two playoff spots. In a year with normal luck, that point differential would project the Celtics to be a 37-win team, just a hair below .500. Given their odd mix of flawed veterans and eclectic young talent, such competency can be directly traced to the fact the team's head coach, Brad Stevens, is emerging as a real asset on the sidelines.
Though their offensive numbers don't show it, Boston's spacing and offensive ingenuity is among the best in the league. And the shifty Thomas, who also happens to be an excellent jump shooter, is going to thrive in such an environment. Offensive efficiency is always helped by guys making shots, something the Celtics have struggled to do before landing Thomas (and ditching Jeff Green, one of their most brick-happy players at 30.5 percent from three on nearly five attempts per game). The team's middling ranking -- they're 23rd per ESPN data -- was more indicative of their lack of talent rather than approach and should see a huge boost with the addition of the diminutive Suns guard who probably isn't even a top 10 player at his position.
And the real reflection of Stevens' growing comfort to solving the NBA game can be found in the Celtics defensive rankings. They currently sit 15th in efficiency, per ESPN data, despite Stevens being forced to utilize frontcourts with fearsome (sarcasm alert) rim protectors like Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. By already doing so much with so many unsound and ill-fitting pieces, it's easy to wonder what Stevens could manage with a roster of steady, proven veterans in the mold of players like Thomas, who could be a Tony Parker-like force for the club immediately upon his arrival.
Like Beane, Ainge could avoid the possibility of years of losing while hoping a 19-year-old prodigy pans out or someone like Demarcus Cousins becomes available for a James Harden-esque trade by turning their Boston's unrealized assets into proven commodities like Thomas. By doing so, Ainge would perhaps deny the pipe dream of becoming a Thunder-esque type force but also eliminate the inherent risk that comes with banking on potential.
By going against the traditional, insular thinking that inhabits the NBA, Danny Ainge could transform the Celtics from a middling team in the East to a real threat in a wide-open conference by the end of this summer. And with the acquisition of Thomas, he's already off to a good start.
* * *
Brett Koremenos (@BKoremenos) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Grantland, Deadspin and other outlets. He coaches and trains basketball players from the high school to the professional level.