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Defending Danny

In wake of trades, Boston's rebuilding plan looks right on track

Posted: Tuesday December 21, 2004 11:43AM; Updated: Tuesday December 21, 2004 12:35PM
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Then and now
Current and former Celtics' per-40-minute averages
Allen 15.2 8.9 2.0 39.8
Davis 17.9 3.7 3.3 45.1
LaFrentz 15.3 12.3 1.5 48.7
Payton 15.4 3.2 7.8 47.7
Welsch 15.7 5.2 3.3 44.7
Battie 8.0 10.9 1.0 41.0
James 13.8 3.2 5.8 38.5
Walker 20.2 8.9 3.2 41.6
Williams 14.3 5.1 2.3 47.0

Sometimes us know-it-alls in the press don't know anything. Take Danny Ainge, for instance, who has endured Laydenesque levels of criticism over the past year for a series of moves in his short tenure at the helm of the Boston Celtics.

The reasoning seems clear. The Celtics ripped apart a playoff team last season with a series of trades by Ainge, alienating coach Jim O'Brien in the process, eventually prompting him to quit. The moves had Boston headed for the draft lottery, but the Celtics surprised and crawled into the playoffs, an accomplishment that seemed to disappoint Ainge, considering the better draft pick that was lost. All of which would be grounds for his firing except for one pesky little detail -- the Celtics are looking pretty good right now.

Given the pounding that he's taken in the press, it seems like it's about time that somebody threw some credit Ainge's way. He's made five first-round picks and they all look like players. He's completely changed the Celtics' style to make them an attractive destination for future free agents. And despite all his moves, one would be hard pressed to point out a single important misfire he's made on personnel.

Take a look at those trades that had Celtics fans so upset. The first sent out Antoine Walker for Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch. Now that LaFrentz's knee is in working order, he's doing just as much as Walker and is a much better fit -- he's a superior rebounder and shot-blocker and shoots a higher percentage. Meanwhile, supposed throw-in Welsch has evolved into a glue guy that defends, sees the court and hits the open jumper.

Next came the deal that got O'Brien really toasted: sending out veterans Tony Battie and Eric Williams for Ricky Davis and Chris Mihm. It's getting clearer by the day that Ainge got the two best players in that deal, especially since Battie and Williams aren't getting any younger. Davis was also a key in getting the team to play an up-tempo, offensive-minded game, something beyond Williams' capabilities.

Finally, Ainge wormed his way into the Pistons' deadline deal for Rasheed Wallace by sending Mike James to the Pistons for a first-round pick and Chucky Atkins. The draft choice became Tony Allen, an incredibly athletic wing who is already one of the team's best defenders (not to mention the team's unofficial leader in Tommy Points), while Atkins and Mihm were shipped to the Lakers for Gary Payton.

The Payton deal seems weird at first, but despite the oddity of employing a 36-year-old point guard for a team that's rebuilding, there's no question Payton has been a key catalyst because he's always looking to push the ball upcourt. Regardless of who else Ainge acquired, his system wouldn't work without an up-tempo point guard. With second-year player Marcus Banks still developing, getting Payton was crucial even if it's only a one-year rental.

Overall, then, Ainge converted Walker, Williams, Battie and James -- four of the five starters when he arrived -- into Allen, Payton, LaFrentz, Davis and Welsch. He got five players to four, and it looks like his five are better in quality as well (see chart). Of the guys he replaced, three are low-percentage shooters and three have below-average scoring rates. Of the five he brought in, only Allen is a poor shooter and all five average at least 15 points per 40 minutes.

Ainge's biggest coup, though, came in this season's draft with the selection of man-child Al Jefferson with the 15th overall pick. Despite coming straight out of high school, Jefferson has put up monster numbers off the bench, with per-40-minute averages of 16.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and a 52.1 field-goal percentage. He already has a refined post game and as soon as he gets the hang of NBA defense he'll be starting.

The results of Ainge's wheeling and dealing are starting to show up on the court. After a slow start, Boston's won four out of five, including impressive road wins at Seattle and Cleveland. Even the one defeat required a last-second shot by Denver's Carmelo Anthony. Boston still needs another big man and will be in the market for a point guard this summer when Payton leaves, but the rebuilding project is well under way.

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It could take another leap forward if they can get their best player untracked. Ironically, the only player who doesn't look comfortable in Boston's fast-breaking attack is the lone key holdover, Paul Pierce. But with four teammates pushing the ball upcourt and a coach in Doc Rivers who is committed to playing that style, it should only be a matter of time before he gets on board.

Overall, the most impressive part of Boston's extreme makeover isn't that the moves worked, but that Ainge had a cohesive plan. When he came in, he said exactly what he was going to do: Get younger, get guys who could shoot and pass and play a running, end-to-end style that would be conducive to free agents, which Boston needed since it didn't have the other advantages (lower taxes, warmer weather, etc.) that Sun Belt teams enjoy.

Think about this: Name one other GM who came into his job and articulated any kind of plan for improving the team. I'm not talking about the, "We want guys who compete," mularkey that everyone says when they get hired, but an actual vision of what kind of team it would be and how he would go about building it. While I'll grant that most of his peers keep a lower profile, I can't think of a single one.

So rip Ainge if you want -- there's still time, since the Celtics are 11-12 and the schedule the next few weeks is unkind. But in the midst of all the consternation in Beantown over Ainge's plan, his detractors also need to observe one undeniable and uncomfortable fact:

So far, it's working.

Odds and Ends

• In other news, the Suns waived merchandising mascot Yuta Tabuse this weekend. Oh, his business card said "point guard", but you didn't think he was on the team for basketball reasons, did you? I'm sorry, but this was about the most cynical attempt to sell jerseys I've ever seen (click this link if you don't believe me), ranking about half a notch below "Manute Bol playing hockey" in the catalog of obvious marketing ploys.

I suppose it was brilliant in an evil genius kind of way -- bring in the league's first Japanese player, make big bucks selling Suns gear with his number in Japan (Tabuse is a big, big deal over there, as I learned on a visit this summer -- he's even got his own Coke commercial) and then let him go before contracts are guaranteed. They must have made millions on this. If next week they announce they've signed the NBA's first player from Liechtenstein, I smell a rat.

•  The hands-down winner of this week's "We're oblivious to the players on our own roster" award goes to the Nuggets. With Carmelo Anthony on the shelf, they somehow still found a way to avoid playing Rodney White, who took a DNP-CD Monday night. White is a scoring machine who averages nearly a point every two minutes -- and was even better a year ago -- but he's only averaging 14 minutes a night. That's understandable if 'Melo's ahead of him (they play the same position) but indefensible if the Nuggets are giving his minutes to mediocre retreads like Bryon Russell and DerMarr Johnson, as they've done this week.

•  Talented big men rarely are on the market at this time of year, but Toronto's dismissal of Jerome Moiso presents an opportunity for a team willing to take a chance on a guy whose head isn't always in the game. Paul Silas got a career year out of Moiso in New Orleans and Cavs backup center Robert Traylor is injured, so don't be surprised if Cleveland is first in line with a contract.