The most exciting NBA playoffs in recent memory continue to plug on without the usual cast of anticipated characters, and based on the early returns…they may not be missed. The unceremonious ousters of the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers have not only spiced up the remaining playoff picture with an infusion of new blood, but may also have left those teams contemplating whether or not, as presently constituted, they are equipped to make another run or two at greatness before calling it an era. The Celtics though may have started down that road long before the end of their playoff run this season, and as a result left themselves shorthanded for this year’s version of the playoffs.
While Doc Rivers revelation that the Kendrick Perkins trade likely signaled the beginning of the end for this year’s Celtics was a refreshing and revealing insight into his perspective, it was also a blatant declaration of the obvious coming about 3 full months after the rest of the basketball world had already decided the same. What Rivers failed to address however, and the real issue seemingly at hand was that Perkins at the C’s had already come to an impasse in their negotiations to extend his contract and that he could have left the team at season’s end through free agency leaving them nothing in return.
Maybe the Perkins trade indicated what Danny Ainge was thinking without forcing him to say so out loud. We can likely surmise that either Ainge didn’t have much faith in this year’s version of the Celtics to finish the deal and win a title with or without Perkins or that no matter what his expectations for 2011 were, Ainge is in this for the long haul (Rivers too now) and decided that the team’s long term goals and the possibility of replacing some aging vets (down the line) on the fly while staying competitive was simply more important than any opportunity that they had at a title this season. The real thought process of Ainge probably lies somewhere in the middle with a heavy dose of “they played well without Perk early” sprinkled in for good measure.
Whatever his intentions, the ramifications of the trade will be much clearer as time tells what lies ahead for the Celtics and Thunder. After nearly everyone on Earth cast the Pau Gasol trade as one of the league’s worst ever, this year’s Grizzlies may have proven different. In that way, it’s kind of fitting that Gregg Popovich the trade’s most boisterous critic saw his team ousted (and perhaps their era drawn to a close) largely on the back of one of the return pieces in that trade in Pau’s brother Marc.
No matter how the coming years play out what does seem crystal clear already is that Oklahoma City is a building force, both on the court and in the front office. It’s nearly impossible after all to believe that a team that was so moribund just 4 years ago that they had to leave Seattle for the “greener” (pun intended) pastures of Oklahoma City can now count itself amongst the NBA’s model franchises.
Kevin Durant was clearly an asset for the Sonics, but he was pretty much the only one, and at that time no one could have really known the type of player that he’d evolve to by now. Otherwise though the Sonics packed up and changed their identity and jumped to an infant of an NBA city, one that had supported the Hornets whole-heartedly post Katrina, but hardly a sure thing as an NBA market.
In addition to realizing the ultimate upside in terms of value in Kevin Durant, and being summarily rewarded for their faith in Oklahoma City and their faith in Russell Westbrook – a highly criticized move at draft time – Oklahoma City have proven themselves to be shrewd and thoughtful from the financial side of things, and in so doing have created for themselves multiple opportunities to collect talent at the expense of teams looking to dump salary.
When the Jazz were looking to part company with Matt Harpring but couldn’t take the financial hit, they called the Thunder. For taking on that burden, Oklahoma City wrangled for themselves a capable young backup point guard in Eric Maynor. When the Heat were looking to dump Daequan Cook to create room for the “Riley’s Angels” triumvirate, they called the Thunder. For taking on Cook the Thunder also got Miami’s first round pick in last year’s draft (which they used on Cole Aldrich). So naturally when Danny Ainge and the Celtics conceded that they couldn’t or wouldn’t afford to retain Kendrick Perkins he too called Sam Presti and the Thunder.
While Presti might have pulled the trigger on the trade with visions of the Lakers gigantic frontcourt and Tim Duncan dancing in his head, he looked nonetheless like a prophet when the Thunder drew Memphis and their preclusive frontcourt in the second round. While his stats may not have been impressive, it’s hard to imagine Serge Ibaka and Nenad Kristic providing as much distraction for Gasol and Z-Bo, and therefore as many opportunities for Durant and Westbrook as they were able to get with the Perkins infused frontcourt that the Thunder now sport.
Like the Gasol trade, the Perkins trade too is having a big impact on the playoffs in the year that the deal was done, but before we take Ainge fully to task, let’s wait and see what happens down the line. Surely the Celtics didn’t think they were getting equal talent for Perkins, but equal value and equal talent aren’t always the same thing. Ainge has been taken to task before (see the Ray Allen trade) only to redeem himself quickly (see the Kevin Garnett trade). While retribution may not come as quickly in this case it may still come for Ainge.
And Presti? Regardless of the outcome of this year’s playoffs, once the summer and the off-season come around someone will be looking to (or needing to) make a deal; and you can bet that they’ll be calling Sam Presti and the Thunder when they do.