Ainge Reshapes Roster as Celtics Chase Banner 17 with Allen, Garnett and Pierce
When in Rome, the Celtics were busy preparing for the season, but they managed to do a little sight-seeing and team bonding along the way.
If you want to stage a Renaissance with three masters of their craft, why not start in Rome?
With apologies to The Big Three of the High Renaissance, Michaelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, a new rebirth of sorts was underway in Italy this October as Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce assembled in the ancient city for training camp with eyes on restoring the Boston Celtics to glory.
While they weren't exactly commissioned by papal order, Garnett, Allen and Pierce certainly have restored the faith to a long-suffering fan base that endured two decades of tragedies, let-downs and plain old bad luck, even as recently as May's NBA Draft Lottery. And these three all have the same goal in mind: win their first NBA Championship and revive basketball in Boston along the way.
Twenty-one years after the franchise won its record 16th World Championship, the Boston Celtics emerged as an instant title contender after a historic offseason overhaul. Two blockbuster trades and a few free agent signings reshaped the Celtics in a matter of months, transforming a team of young pups dripping with potential into a roster of three megastars flanked by a mix of experienced veterans (Brian Scalabrine, James Posey, Scot Pollard) and highly-skilled role players (Tony Allen, Eddie House), as well as some key young talent for the future (Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins).
It would be difficult to overstate the transformation. Now you can't see an NBA promo without seeing the Green. Preseason prognostications have the C's figuring prominently in the championship hunt. Season tickets are sold out at the Garden, Celtics apparel is en vogue in the streets of Boston, and Rajon Rondo's development as a second-year point guard is viable topic for discussion on WEEI.
And even while essentially the entire roster was back in Waltham staging informal workouts a month before training camp officially began, the Renaissance really started to take hold when the Celtics boarded a jet at Logan Airport on Saturday, September 29. Card games, trash talk and chatter overwhelmed the players section of the team plane. By the time the team landed in Rome, bonding was already in progress. With nowhere to retire to aside from the hotel, players spent their free time exploring the city together, dining al fresco at the patio cafe or simply just getting to know each other on the bus.
Team in Transition
On the heels of a disheartening 24-win season, the franchise was at the crossroads. Superstar Paul Pierce suffered through multiple injuries and watched helplessly from the sidelines as his teammates lost 18 straight games during the dead of January and February. As young a squad as the NBA could offer, the Celtics found themselves overmatched on a nightly basis, and as the season wound down, fans were fixated on a pair of highly touted college players and openly wondering if the team would be better served by losing the rest of its games if it meant they would get a chance at drafting Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.
Meanwhile, Pierce was pondering his own future. Just a year after signing a contract extension with the Celtics, Pierce honestly didn't think he had the patience for another year of rebuilding, regardless of how quickly young stud Al Jefferson was developing, or whom the Celtics would acquire in that June's NBA Draft.
"I didn't know which direction my career was going to go in. It definitely felt like being left out on an island. It hit me really hard when I had to sit back and watch us, especially when I got hurt," Pierce admitted. "I didn't realize how much I meant to our ballclub and when I looked at it, it was way too much of a burden to keep playing for a number of years. There was going to be a decision made this summer."
Pierce wasn't the only thinking about the future. The Celtics front office had to consider its options, and dealing Pierce was certainly one of the possibilities it had to explore. But Pierce sat tight, assured by the team's brass that help was on the way. And as it turned out, even the worst possible outcome on Draft Lottery night, (despite the second-worst record in the NBA, the Celtics drew the #5 pick in the draft) one that appeared to be a knock-out blow from the basketball gods, could not derail the dramatic offseason that was about to unfold.
The Celtics were in the market to make a deal, and among the many options that were considered was a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves were looking to rebuild around youth and finally part with superstar Kevin Garnett, and the Celtics were one of the few teams in the league that had the required pieces to complete a deal. But when rumors surfaced that a deal could happen, reports came that Garnett would not accept a trade to Boston, and the team's focus returned to the draft.
Up until the morning of the draft, it appeared Boston was ready to select from among Chinese sensation Yi Jianlian (Chinese language advertisements welcoming Yi to Boston were ready to go), Joakim Noah, a two-time NCAA Champion, his teammate and defensive stopper Corey Brewer or Georgetown's Jeff Green at #5. But a fifth option remained in play and eventually materialized as the draft played out: a blockbuster deal with the Seattle Supersonics to acquire seven-time All-Star Ray Allen, one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA. The Celtics swapped their draft pick (Georgetown's Green) along with veteran forward Wally Szczerbiak and guard Delonte West in exchange for Allen and the draft rights to Glen Davis.
Upon his arrival in Boston, Allen was already excited about mentoring and playing with Pierce and the Celtics' young talent, mentioning Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson and Gerald Green all by name in his introductory press conference in Waltham. Pierce was equally excited to be playing with another veteran, but kept quiet as the Celtics prepared to make another move.
At the same press conference, Allen talked about not wanting to be a spare part on a team that was already contending, but instead helping a team reach contender status. "I don't want to go to a team that's already going to win if I'm not on it. I feel that I can help a team to get over the hump to win a championship," Allen said. "I signed a contract when I was in Milwaukee to stay in Milwaukee and I did the same thing in Seattle, and I always felt that I can help change the attitude of the people in the organization and the team, and we can be moving in that direction."
What Allen didn't realize was that the move in said direction would be accelerated, as in short order, rumors of another blockbuster deal were gaining steam. Despite how improbable it might have seemed just weeks before that Garnett would ever be wearing Celtics green, the talk just wouldn't die.
With Pierce and Allen in the fold, KG was coming to the Boston Celtics.
Landing The Big Ticket
How exactly does the arguably the biggest trade in NBA history go down?
The deal was under discussion for almost six weeks before materializing, and the details evolved as time went on, but when it was finally consummated, the trade sent shockwaves through the league and instantly realigned basketball's balance of power.
The final details: Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, a 2009 first round draft pick (top three protected), the return of Minnesota's conditional first round draft pick the Celtics had previously obtained in the Szczerbiak trade and cash considerations.
Sounds simple, right? Well, truth be told, Garnett was not immediately ready to be traded. Having spent his whole career in Minnesota, he was still struggling with the thought of playing elsewhere. And while the Celtics didn't exactly conceal their interest in acquiring Garnett, with the Celtics coming off a 24-win campaign, prior trade discussions between the clubs before the draft had hit a roadblock. Garnett did not want to be traded only to find himself in a situation similar to the one he'd be leaving behind.
But the Ray Allen acquisition forced Garnett to rethink his stance on the Celtics and his future in the NBA. Garnett, who likes to think through everything from a simple interview request to life-altering career change, sought out the opinions of his closest friends, but admitted later that he mostly spent time simply trying to envision himself as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Once Garnett warmed to the deal, it was up to a pair of old teammates to make it happen: Celtics Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge and Timberwolves Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale. The two had already made a pretty large deal during the '05-'06 season, a seven-player swap that brought Wally Szczerbiak and a first round pick to the Celtics, ironically laying some of the groundwork for the Garnett blockbuster a year and a half later.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett prepare for their tilt against the Toronto Raptors in Rome.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and today's revamped Celtics roster didn't just fall into place with one move, either.
This renaissance was the culmination of several years of shrewd drafting and long hours of player development, engineered by a man who was an integral part of the Celtics' last championship team. Ainge won a pair of titles with the Celtics in the 1980s, and when he took over control of the team during the 2003 Playoffs, he wasted little time in beginning to reshape an aging team that only a year before had just played in the Eastern Conference Finals. But Ainge could see the writing on the wall. The team he inherited had gone as far as it could.
Over the next two years, Ainge made a series of deals that designed to acquire younger, more athletic players and multiple draft picks -- all assets accumulated to improve the team in the short term and provide flexibility for the long term, allowing him to cash in some chips when the time was right. Many of the moves were relatively unpopular at the time, but in retrospect they point to a well-executed design that yielded results few observers anticipated. Among those picks were Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green and Al Jefferson, the last of which became the crown jewel who ultimately made the deal possible.
The 15th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft who declared straight out of high school, Jefferson is one of the brightest young stars in the league, a potential franchise player and one of the few legitimate low post threats who regularly commands a double-team. While Jefferson struggled with ankle injuries two years ago, he rebounded to post career numbers in 2006-07 and was the lone bright spot in the Celtics disappointing campaign. He'd evolved into the type of player every team in the league covets: a walking double-double, a future multiple-time All-Star and the type of guy you don't deal unless you can get a Garnett-type player in return.
Along with the expiring contract of Theo Ratliff, Jefferson was the key to the Garnett deal, a massive five-for-one swap that included a pair of draft picks, as well as a precedent-setting sign-and-trade extension component previously unseen in NBA transactions.
Meanwhile, the Celtics' future went into fast forward, and the roster overhaul was officially underway. Believe it or not, KG was heading to Boston.
Eying The Prize
When Garnett arrived in Boston for his introductory press conference at the TD Banknorth Garden, his two All-Star teammates were awaiting him in the green room just minutes before the three would appear together before a swarm of Boston media for the first time. Garnett, clad in jeans and a black pinstriped jacket and flashing a mile-wide grin, made eye contact with Pierce upon entering the room, and Pierce literally greeted him with open arms.
"Where you been all my life?" asked the Celtics captain, rejuvenated by a trade he later admitted that he thought to be impossible.
Pierce wasn't alone. Even in the days up until the deal was finalized and officially announced, and the days that followed phones ringing around the clock at the team's Causeway Street front office, it didn't seem real. A month later, when the three players convened in Waltham for a mini-Media Day of magazine cover shoots, everyone agreed that there was only one way to describe the sight of all three players clad in the home white uniforms together for the first time: surreal.
Behind the scenes, the guys were already bonding, and Garnett and Allen were busy adjusting to their new lives in Boston. Garnett and Allen wasted little time taking in a games at Fenway Park, and when they weren't making appearances or doing interviews they were busy nailing down logistics like buying new homes and learning how to get around the city. Before they knew it, September had rolled around, and the guys were all excited about getting the season underway. With a few phone calls from Pierce and Allen, the entire roster was voluntarily working out every day in Waltham a month before training camp started, engaging in some intense pick up games.
The intensity carried over to training camp in Europe. The scrimmages in Rome were hotly contested, and players were diving to the floor for loose balls, arguing calls with practice referees and even jawing at each other at times. But when practice ended, the players would gather for a team lunch downstairs in the team hotel, and when they weren't loading up on pasta they were telling stories, trash talking or ribbing each other. By the time the Celtics played their first exhibition game against the Toronto Raptors a week into camp, the kinship was clear. Bench players were cheering nearly every basket or encouraging teammates to get down on defense. Towels were waiving, guys were screaming from the bench, and the enthusiasm on the Celtics bench more closely resembled a playoff game than it did a meaningless overseas exhibition.
Intense on the court, Pierce, Allen and Garnett enjoy each other's company off of it.
Intensity may trickle down from Garnett, but Pierce and Allen bring it in their own ways. While Allen appears soft-spoken, he burns his energy with an inspired work ethic that's unmatched in the NBA. He's typically the first to arrive in at the practice facility in the morning and among the last to leave in the afternoon.
"[Garnett] is very outward with his [intensity], he'll fire up guys. But we all move in a lot of different ways, that's how we complement each other," Allen said of Garnett. Garnett, on the other hand, likened his fire to women who kick-box to release their boyfriend-induced stress. He regularly yells at teammates during games and practice to get their "gas up", something Pierce often echoes.
Pundits wonder if these three superstars can coexist on the same team with just one basketball, but Pierce is not concerned about competing with his teammates for attention and individual accolades. Asked if such an arrangement would have worked five years ago, Pierce grew quiet, then conceded that they all would have had conflicting goals.
"Man, thruthfully? Five years ago? That's hard to say. That's the problem with young players. They're still trying to make their name in the NBA. As bad as it sounds, some of them put winning second," Pierce said. "Even though they might talk about how much they want to win, everybody knows they want to make a name for themselves. So we probably would have been in that position."
Pierce, Allen and Garnett have all come close. Five years ago, Pierce and the Celtics made their improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The year before, Allen helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the Conference Finals, and in 2004, Garnett took home league MVP honors and led the Timberwolves to the Conference Finals.
As a result, all three are known as great players who all fell short and haven't come close since. Together, Allen, Garnett and Pierce need each other to reach the one goal that's eluded each of them on their own.
"At this point in our careers, we've already done a lot of name-making for ourselves," Pierce said. "Now it's time to win a championship."
Peter Stringer covers the team for Celtics.com and Parquet Magazine. You can send him .