Today is the third part of this trilogy on the team building "Process," based upon a panel that I saw at this year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) entitled "Trust the Process? Team building and rebuilding in the NBA." The panel featured former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, LA Clippers GM Lawrence Frank, former Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Chris Bosh, with Howard Beck as the moderator.
In this series, I first wrote about The Process of the 76ers, and then we discussed the Clippers.
Today, let's dig into the Celtics, their approach to getting where they are and the fantasy prospects for this team moving forward.
There was a clear disagreement among the panelists as to what "The Process" actually is and the best way to rebuild. The 76ers were known for hitting rock-bottom, putting out a sequence of poor teams and building through the lottery and the draft. The Clippers, on the other hand, are trying to make their team over by trading their best players for useful NBA starters to thus "reload" without being bad, instead of rebuilding from the ground up. And then there's what the Celtics did.
Pagliuca was very outspoken that he believed tanking for draft picks was not the way to go, that "it was poor risk-reward." However, his team had the luxury of rebuilding with something that no other team in the league has: Danny Ainge as GM.
Ainge has been doing a very good job as the decision-maker in Boston for a while now, as the architect who brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to lead the Celtics back to the promised land after a 20-plus-year absence after Larry Bird's heyday. But it's what Ainge did when Garnett and Paul Pierce were on their last legs that earned him such lofty respect on the panel.
Ainge traded Garnett and Pierce, both of whom were well into their mid-to-late 30s but were still "the men" in Boston, to the Brooklyn Nets for a treasure trove of valuable No. 1 picks that, in hindsight, was a cartoonishly lopsided deal in the Celtics' favor. Those picks completely skipped the need for a 76ers-like Process in Boston because the Celtics got the top draft picks of a Nets team that would be arguably the worst in the league over a multi-year stretch ... essentially, the Celtics traded their soon-to-be-retiring veteran stars for the Nets' Process. Hinkie did a good job putting words to it:
Hinkie: Let's talk about Boston. Talks about Pierce's jersey retirement, and how KG & Rondo there. Says current Celtics GM Danny Ainge is building on the great performance of previous GM Danny Ainge. That KG, Pierce & Rondo live on through Kyrie and current Celtics #SSAC18
- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) Feb. 24, 2018
That crystallizes the thought. The rebuilding Celtics GM Ainge had all types of pieces to draft young talent (such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum with consecutive No. 3 overall picks, courtesy of the Nets), bring in an up-and-coming young veteran star as a free agent (signing Gordon Hayward using the cache of the Celtics, the recent championship and having Hayward's former coach, Brad Stevens, at the helm) and trade for another young superstar in Kyrie Irving -- all because Ainge had the foresight to trade his veterans at maximum value before the rest of the league realized they were finished.
Then Bosh turned the conference into a laugh-fest with his feelings on the magnitude of the deals Ainge has been able to pull off:
Bosh chimes in: What on earth does Ainge say in trade talks? How can Celtics still have another high draft pick left after all the talent he's already brought in. Bosh: "I want to talk to the guys he traded with." Later, "I need to talk to Danny Ainge!" Facts #SSAC18
- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) Feb. 24, 2018
The entire panel agreed that if they were a GM and Ainge called, they would be tempted to just hang up the phone.
With all of that said, let's take a closer look at what Ainge's Process has brought to the Celtics and talk about their fantasy prospects for this year and the future.
Current fantasy status of focal points of "The Celtics Process"
The plan this season was for the three best Celtics players to be newly acquired Irving and Hayward to go with former intelligent signing Al Horford. However, Hayward suffered a horrific injury in the first game of the season that left the team with major holes on the wing. In stepped second-year Brown and rookie Tatum, fresh off a summer of success in Las Vegas. They both showed that they were ready to produce in a major way, perhaps even earlier than most expected. For the season, here is the fantasy output of the top four Celtics, according to the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater, by average:
Irving: +11.69 (15th in NBA)
Horford: +7.33 (46th)
Tatum: +5.05 (75th)
Brown: +1.91 (169th)
Irving made the most of his chance to finally be "The Man" on his own team and solidified himself as a legitimate franchise player. Horford has continued to be an unsung glue guy, though he did make the All-Star Game again this year. Tatum would be a Rookie of the Year candidate most seasons and has shown a game with both surprising polish and clear upside. Brown has shown himself to be a scorer, but his free throw shooting was a real weakness, and he didn't have the all-around game to make up for that this season.
The bad news is that Irving had to have minor knee surgery this past weekend and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season. The Celtics are well-slotted as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and thus are likely to go into the playoffs as a high seed, but what are they to do for the rest of this season? What about fantasy owners who were relying upon Irving?
Fantasy status for the rest of the Celtics this season
While Irving is finished, he has been ably replaced on the court in recent weeks by another smart Celtics draft pick: Terry Rozier. Rozier is a third-year player, drafted No. 16 by the Celtics in 2015, and he came into the year nominally behind both Irving and 2014 No. 6 overall pick Marcus Smart. Even still, he has shown all season that he can be a strong producer off the bench while playing with Smart. Now, with both Irving and Smart (hand) out, Rozier is carrying the load and leading the team. Over the past 15 days, Rozier's Player Rater score of +6.81 is 39th in the NBA. Rozier is somehow still available in 41.7 percent of leagues, so on the outside chance that yours is one of those, you might consider picking him up to close the season.
The other most fantasy-worthy Celtic down the stretch is Marcus Morris (questionable due to an ankle injury, 68.3 percent available), who stepped in for Brown while he was injured and racked up averages of 21.6 points (48.1 FG%, 82.6 FT%), 6.4 rebounds, 3.0 3-pointers and 1.0 steals in the last five games that he played before his ankle gave out. He might be back soon, but with Brown back, Morris' role could be more limited.
Fantasy status for Celtics in dynasty leagues
With all of the injuries and coming-of-age stories on the Celtics this season, next season's team could look a lot different than this one. Presumably, Irving and Hayward will be the cornerstones for next season's team. However, Brown and Tatum have earned their stripes and likely will retain their starting jobs moving forward. Tack on Horford, and the Celtics look to have a young, dynamic starting five with a point guard, three big wings and a small-ball center who would be strong in perimeter offense and potentially stingy with a switching, athletic defensive unit. They could potentially have five players in the top-100 of the Player Rater, with Irving and Hayward in the top-30 and Horford and Tatum possibly in the top-50.
The question mark remains the bench and how big a role those players will have. Morris and Smart are both under reasonable contracts for next season and likely have roles similar in size to what they had this year. Smart will be on the last year of his deal, though, and has enough upside that he could be tradable if they don't come up with an extension this offseason. Rozier is under contract for two more seasons but has not hidden his desire to start. With this season as a résumé, he could be another prime tradable for GM Ainge to work with.
The Celtics also have at least one first-round draft pick, their own, in the upcoming draft, with the outside possibility of adding the Los Angeles Lakers' draft pick if it falls between 2 and 5 in the draft order. The Celtics have need for more size up front, via the draft, free agency or trade. With Ainge in charge, there's no telling what will happen, but the likelihood is that it will improve the team.
In NBA terms, the Celtics didn't really have to rebuild after the end of their most recent Ubuntu contending team. Instead, GM Danny Ainge's Process was to make shrewd trades, free-agency signings and draft picks to shoot directly back up to the top of the league. As rebuilds go, that certainly seems like the absolute best way that it can be done.