Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Perfect May Be the Enemy of the Good, but the Good Is the Enemy of NBA Championships

The things Celtics fans need to remember about Danny Ainge is that he has high standards, and those standards were created through intense personal experience.

The Celtics' basketball chief created a little stir over the weekend by giving an interview to my old Herald colleague Steve Bulpett in which Ainge admitted the obvious, that the current Boston team is nowhere near talented enough to be a serious NBA title contender. Just as candid but perhaps less obvious, Ainge also strongly implied improving that situation would be difficult verging on impossible.

Quite a burst of pessimism for the can-do Ainge, an activist of the first order. He's got a team that went to the conference finals, and the number one pick in the 2017 draft. Why the note, make that symphony, of caution?

The vital sentence in the interview tells the story. "We have plenty of good players," Ainge said. "We need great players."

We're all prisoners of our past, and the more glorious said past, the stouter its prison walls. When Ainge thinks of NBA championship teams, he has to be reminded of the Celtics team he started for in the '80s that went to four straight Finals and won two of them. The other four starters are all in the Hall of Fame. Then his mind may go to the 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns. Ainge was sixth man on that team. It went to the Finals and lost. It had Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.

Of course, Ainge need not dwell on the distant past. The recent will do. He is the architect of the Celtics team that won the 2008 championship and made the 2010 Finals. That team contained three surefire Hall members in Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It also had Rajon Rondo, who could've made Springfield if Rajon Rondo hadn't kept getting in his way.

Those memories are why when Ainge looks at the Celtics of this season, he doesn't see 53 wins, a conference finals, and a bright future. He sees that most dreaded of entities "a real nice team," the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks the '80s Celtics would dispatch from the playoffs with varying degrees of difficulty, but a constant sense of predestination. Talent was going to win out. Talent always wins out.

That's an oversimplification. Every NBA player, even the league leaders in DNP-Coach's Decision, has talent. Tens of millions of human males play the damn game, and only 400 or so make the league. That's the tiny top of a very big pyramid. By talent, I should say, "historic talent." The kind of talent fans remember all their lives. The kind of talent that sells tickets. The kind of talent every NBA champion ever has possessed.

If the draft class of 2017 contained the equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even the equivalent of Garnett or Barkley, Ainge wouldn't have sounded so glum. In his judgment, better than mine I'm sure, it doesn't. Nor are there any Kevin Durant's in the free agent class. In terms of his overall merit, Gordon Hayward is basically the white Al Horford. Any team would be glad to have either and rightly so. No team would do advance Finals planning because they got 'em.

If the 2017-18 Celtics are to meet Ainge's standards, he has only one option. Luckily, it's one that worked before. Find a team with even dimmer prospects and a disaffected superstar desperate to move to a winner. Who might that be? No clue here, but I remember that very few people thought Garnett would become a Celtic before Ainge swindled old pal Kevin McHale to get him. If Ainge has such a target in mind, I'd be surprised if he's told anyone yet, not even Brad Stevens.

But if the draft and its immediate aftermath go by, and all Ainge has to show for his troubles is the use of his number one on yet another teenage guard, don't be surprised if his good cheer seems a little forced. He (and I) will not be fibbing when Ainge states Markelle Fultz makes the Celts a better team.

But Ainge (and I) know that "better" means the Celts might beat the Wizards in six games next spring instead of seven.


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