Friday, July 20, 2012

Ainge Trades for Courtney Lee to Complete Offseason Plans

You have to hand it to Danny Ainge. 

When the Celtics walked off the floor in Miami after a brutal Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed like the franchise was on the verge of entering a rebuilding stage with aging stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen looking towards free agency or possibly retirement and the reality that of the few marquee free agents available would actually choose to play in Boston.  After trading for Allen and Garnett in 2007 for what was supposed to be a three-year run, the Celtics got one championship and five excellent seasons out of the new "Big 3" era and it finally looked like Ainge, and coach Doc Rivers, would have to build a new team around Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce.

Ainge has instead remade the team through the draft and in first few weeks of free agency. 

On draft night he took power forward Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and center Fab Melo of Syracuse to help the team get both younger and bigger.  In the second round he grabbed Kris Joseph, Melo's teammate at Syracuse, who was an excellent college player and has turned heads so far in summer league.

The day before the free agency period started he finalized a new contract with Garnett that will keep the future Hall of Famer in Boston until he retires.  He also made deals to bring back Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox while signing free agent Jason Terry away from the Mavericks.

The one loss for the Celtics was Ray Allen, who left to play for the Heat, but the Celtics replaced him with Terry.  They will also likely lose center Greg Stiemsma, who played well for them last season but will probably get a contract offer that the C's can not match under the salary cap.

One area of need was depth at shooting guard and Ainge inquired about both Courtney Lee of the Rockets and OJ Mayo of the Grizzlies but the Celtics lacked the cap space to make either a competitive contract offer and the team lacked expendable assets to add either through a sign-and-trade scenario.  Mayo eventually signed with Dallas and Lee looked to be heading elsewhere for more money.  The Celtics seemed to be resigned to finding veterans willing to play for the minimum to fill out their guard rotation.

Yesterday, Ainge pulled off his last big move of the offseason by getting Lee to Boston in a sign-and-trade for JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, Sean Williams, Sasha Pavlovic, and a 2013 second round draft pick.  I'm not sure how he did it but Ainge took four players who were not likely to be major contributors for the Celtics this season - although I do like Moore's potential as someone who can play both guard positions off the bench - and turned them into a potential starter.

Lee will likely be the starting shooting guard when the season opens because Avery Bradley will probably miss the start of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery.  The 6-5 Lee might also be a better fit as a starter to add shooting (he's a career 38.6% shooter from 3-point land and has shot better than 40% from behind the arc in three of his four NBA seasons) which will help space the floor for Rondo, Pierce, and Garnett.

While the Celtics still possess the bi-annual exception (worth a little less than $2-million per season), they are most likely done adding significant pieces.  There has been some speculation that Ainge would bring in free agent center Darko Milicic with that exception but with a deep front line, there may not be the need for another center.  Ainge could also use that money to bring back Keyon Dooling, who was a valuable contributor a year ago, to fill in off the bench until Bradley returns and then as veteran insurance behind Rondo, Lee, Terry, and Bradley the rest of the season.  They could also keep that money and use it in the season to entice any contract buy-out victims to come to Boston.

Without projecting any other signings (other than Dionte Christmas, who has played well in summer league, earning a roster spot now that Moore has been traded), here is what the Celtics look like right now (Bradley is in italics because he will probably miss the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery):

5: Kevin Garnett, Chris Wilcox, Fab Melo
4: Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger
3: Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Kris Joseph
2: Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, Dionte Christmas
1: Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry

That is a deep, talented, and versatile roster more than capable, if healthy, of winning a championship.  There is an obvious lack of a true center other than the rookie Melo, who really is not being counted on too much this season, but the way the NBA is trending the need for a traditional center isn't the same as it was in the past.  The Finals proved this as Chris Bosh, a jump shooting power forward, and even LeBron James, the game's best small forward, played center for the champion Heat.

The nine-man rotation of Garnett, Bass, Pierce, Lee, Rondo, Terry, Bradley, Green, and Wilcox is more than good enough to make the Celtics a championship contender.  The rookies can then figure it out and learn as they go with Sullinger a good bet to fight his way into the rotation.  The versatility of Garnett (who can play center or power forward), Green (who can play either forward position), and Wilcox (who can play center or power forward) gives Rivers a lot of options in his rotations.  They also will have a lot of bench scoring with Terry being able to create his own shot and Green, Bradley, and even Sullinger capable of putting it in the basket off the bench.

The competition in the East will be tough with the Heat, Nets, Bulls, and Pacers and if the Celtics were to survive that gauntlet they would be looking at the Lakers, Thunder, or Clippers.  It will not be an easy road but just knowing that the Celtics will be right in the mix means that Ainge and Rivers have done their jobs this summer.

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