This is the second in a series on the parallels between Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge‘s last team to miss the NBA playoffs and this year’s lottery-bound squad. A deeper look at the C’s player personnel, potential trade packages and financial flexibility should offer insight into whether or not Ainge can recreate the 2007 magic of acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen seven years later in 2014. (Hence, Double ’07.)
Part 1: Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Celtics captaincy
In order to justify holding Pierce on ice as a keeper, Ainge needed to land a big fish who could restore a winning culture to the Bay State’s once proud basketball franchise. Garnett did that and then some. Now, seven years later, the C’s president must reel in another catch, and the solution may reside in the Land of 10,000 Lakes once again.
For all the bellyaching about whether or not Kevin McHale helped steer Garnett to his former team, the Celtics offered the best package at the time. In the end, the deal centered around a double-double machine in Al Jefferson, and it’s not Ainge’s fault the Timberwolves drafted Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry.
Come to think of it, Minnesota’s failure to capitalize on that Garnett trade may ultimately force the T-Wolves to deal Kevin Love. If David Kahn had played his cards right in the draft since 2007, he could have revealed a starting lineup of Curry, Love, Jefferson, Paul George and DeMar DeRozan within three years.
But, alas, the Timberwolves aren’t an uber-exciting All-Star squadron. They’re a .500 team. In the Western Conference, that gets you a lottery pick, and it doesn’t sit well with a perennial NBA All-Star. Just ask Garnett. Like KG in 2007, Love is nearing the end of his contract (Garnett had two years left, Love has one) and would require some convincing to sign an extension in Boston beyond his current deal.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, Ainge must ask himself two questions: 1) Is Kevin Love the kind of franchise-altering player who can help return the Celtics to their former glory, and 2) Do they have enough to get him?
As good as Love has been — ranking among the league’s top five in scoring and rebounding in his last two healthy seasons — any comparison to Garnett is premature. A perennial All-NBA and All-Defensive selection, KG in 2007 was already well on his way to one of the greatest power forward careers in basketball history.
The current Timberwolves power forward, however, is only 25 years old and has almost 25,000 fewer minutes on his legs than Garnett did at the time the Celtics traded for him. Needless to say, he will be in high demand.
Statistics aside, it’s impossible to measure Garnett’s heart. From hurling medicine balls against a wall at practice to smashing his head into a stanchion before games and pumping out knuckle pushups during them, he accepted nothing less than maximum from anyone who shared the floor with him. Keyon Dooling once called him “the greatest teammate in the history of the NBA,” and it’s hard to imagine Doc Rivers disagreeing with that sentiment.
Still, all of Garnett’s desire didn’t translate into much team success in Minnesota. His Wolves sandwiched seven straight first-round playoff exits and three consecutive lottery seasons around a trip to the conference finals. At the time, he seemed destined to join Charles Barkley and Karl Malone among the greats never to win a title.
While Love hasn’t quite entered that conversation yet, he’s the subject of a similar discussion. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, he currently counts himself among the game’s best players never to appear in the playoffs. If that doesn’t make a basketball player hungry for victories, then it’s time to change professions.
Come July, it will have been two years since Love declared, “Something has to happen in Minnesota,” and little has changed. As one of the few elite 2015 NBA free agents in his prime (Rondo is another), Love could force Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders‘ hand by internally stating his desire to sign elsewhere next season. As was the case with KG, The T-Wolves won’t want to be left with nothing in return.
Whether Love would want to sign an extension with the Celtics is an entirely different matter. Pierce and Garnett shared a bond that went back to junior high, and Rivers helped discredit KG’s perception of Boston, ultimately convincing him to wear the green he came to love. It remains to be seen if Rondo and Brad Stevens can have the same influence on superstar talents, but first Ainge must outbid the competition for Love’s services.
Last season, Jefferson recalled the fledgling 2006-07 Celtics fondly. ”In the time we were here, when we were losing, we hardly ever got blown out,” he said. “It was always close games, but we were just such a young team, we didn’t know how to finish those games. I knew if we could’ve stayed together, things could’ve got better for us.”
The same can be said about this year’s edition. These young C’s rarely leave the locker room without discussing plans to get together, and they’re record of 7-34 when trailing by five or less in the final five minutes is the stuff of legend. But that didn’t stop Ainge from trading Jefferson, and it shouldn’t stop him from dealing Jared Sullinger.
Heck, Jefferson has now twice declared, ”If I were Danny Ainge, I would’ve traded me for Kevin Garnett, too.”
The similarities between Jefferson and Sullinger go beyond their jersey number. Both late-round draft picks and 22 years old at the time, Big Al and Sully respectively averaged near identical numbers per 36 minutes in 2006-07 and 2013-14 (Jefferson: 17.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 1.4 apg; Sullinger: 17.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.1 apg).
Keep in mind, too, that Jefferson had just one year left on his rookie deal, and Sullinger is under control for two more seasons at short money. Other than Rondo, he is easily the C’s most attractive player on the trade market.
With Kris Humphries‘ $12 million salary coming off the books this summer, the Celtics don’t have the equivalent of Theo Ratliff‘s expiring contract to sweeten a Love deal, but they have plenty of young pieces a la Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and Ryan Gomes and four times as many first-round picks to package around Sullinger.
If Sullinger, Jeff Green or Brandon Bass, Joel Anthony‘s expiring deal and two (or even three) first-round picks sounds too steep, remember that the hardest part of rebuilding in Boston is landing that next big fish, and Love is a heckuva catch. In the end, as Ainge says, it’s always better to be the team trading four quarters for a dollar.
Love, like those cold Minnesota winters, isn’t as much fun all alone. Partners help the seasons pass a little easier, especially one as unselfish as Rondo. Heck, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck already promised the fireworks. It’s now up to Ainge and Saunders — who like McHale spent some time in Boston — to make the Love connection.