A championship four years in the making

Wyc Grousbeck, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, made a franchise-altering splash when he acquired Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. But unlike many trades, including the one for Ray Allen that immediately preceded it, the KG deal was the culmination of four full years of calculation.

Boston had been after Garnett for that long.

“The whole reason to buy the team was Celtic pride,” said Grousbeck at a panel on sports ownership at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday. “What if a bunch of Boston guys got together and won a championship?”

After hiring Danny Ainge to run the basketball side of the operations in 2003, the Celtics’ braintrust went about determining what they would have to do to extricate the team from the mediocrity in which it had been mired since the dissolution of the original big three of Bird, McHale and Parish in the early 90s.

That began with a standard business move: analyzing high-performing organizations to determine how the Celtics might build its own.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

“We looked at the last 25 NBA champions,” said Grousbeck. “Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept - three all-stars. [That big three included] a top-50 all-time player and two supporting all-stars.”

Ostensibly, the Celtics were in good shape on that front. The team had made a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002 and had two star players in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. However, the Celtics decided they didn’t have a true number one player, the kind necessary to push a team over the top to a championship.

Grousbeck: “Paul and Antoine were all-stars but they’re not top-50 guys.”

It’s more than a little remarkable that a new owner would commit $360 million to a team two wins away from the NBA Finals, and determine that the best course of action was to tear it apart. How many teams have done the opposite, changing and rearranging pieces around a player ultimately incapable of spearheading a title run?

Boston’s move looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight but there was an enormous amount of risk – financial and otherwise – to commit to suffering through the process necessary to find a top-50 talent. Especially because smarts alone weren’t going to get the Celtics the player they needed. Luck would play a large part.

Once the decision was made to remake the roster, Walker was jettisoned, and Pierce and new Coach Doc Rivers were left to crawl around in the wreckage. Pierce seemed increasingly miserable with the losing and on the verge of being an ex-Celtic more than once during the 2003-07 period, but according to Grousbeck, Rivers was always there for the long term.

“Doc said ‘I will coach kids and play them as long as I get to coach the championship team when it happens.’”

Ainge and Rivers’ reputations have been rehabilitated by the 2008 title and post-championship play of the Celtics, but it would be revisionist history to suggest they were universally well-regarded during the run-up to 07-08. Ainge was regularly killed in the media for fielding a team of underperforming young players with insufficient upside to make the playoffs, much less win a title. And Rivers’ now sterling coaching reputation was tarnished by an 18-game losing streak in 2007.

Although an outlier - few rebuilding processes are so successful - the Celtics’ foresight to map out a path to a title and stick with it in the face of withering criticism may be used as a model for future teams.

Jeff Green noted in his first appearance in Boston this week that while he was in Oklahoma City, the Celtics were the franchise the Thunder attempted to model.

It’s particularly interesting to observe the Thunder in the context of the Celtics three all-star model. Kevin Durant could conceivably be a top-50 player all-time. Russell Westbrook is an all-star. Given the findings of the Celtics' study, are the Thunder now only a single player away?