LEAVE IT to the league's most decorated franchise to discover a new path to the top: Last spring the Celtics became the first team to earn a title immediately after overhauling its roster. One law of hoops history held that teams had to take their lumps before ascending the podium; think of Isiah Thomas's Pistons, who endured five years of playoff frustration before winning rings in 1989 and '90. But Boston leapfrogged from the back of the Eastern Conference line all the way to the front of the league, becoming the first champion with two newcomers (power forward Kevin Garnett and shooting guard Ray Allen) among its top three scorers—while also incorporating an untested point guard in 22-year-old Rajon Rondo, a revamped bench and a new defensive system.
The Celtics' 17th banner stands as dramatic proof that in this era of the luxury tax and immature lottery picks, the poor can get rich quick, provided they're shrewd in remaking their rosters. Newly emboldened teams have already begun to follow Boston's example, though thus far in less extreme fashion. Here is what they learned from the reigning champs.
Use draft picks as bargaining chips, not cornerstones.
Championship cores used to be built through the draft. (See: the Pistons of Thomas and Joe Dumars, the Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Spurs of David Robinson and Tim Duncan.) But that approach has grown harder to re-create because today's lottery picks, increasingly younger, can take years to turn the corner—as the modern-day Bulls have learned while waiting for the maturation of everyone from Tyson Chandler to Tyrus Thomas. Rather than hoping for incremental improvements, the Celtics sold some of their young talent high to acquire Allen and Garnett, keeping just the right parts, such as Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins, to fill out coach Doc Rivers's rotation.
The Lakers (in acquiring 7-foot Pau Gasol) and the Mavericks (point guard Jason Kidd) employed this tactic midway through last season, with varying degrees of success. During the summer the Bucks' new general manager, John Hammond, did likewise in picking up Richard Jefferson from the Nets.
Don't bet the house on free agents.
Giving stars big money is the NBA's most misguided method of building a contender: In two decades of unrestricted free agency, the only major signee to eventually lead his new team to a title was Shaquille O'Neal with the Lakers, and that took four seasons (and the maturation of Kobe Bryant). LeBron James may have a similar impact should he leave Cleveland in 2010, but otherwise franchises are best served developing and dealing young talent as Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge did, rather than clearing salary-cap space for a difference-maker who most likely will never come.
This off-season only three significant free agents changed teams: Power forward Elton Brand signed with the Sixers (who still aren't a top three team in the East), point guard Baron Davis with the Clippers and swingman Corey Maggette with the Warriors. Several other players either re-signed with their clubs or didn't bother to exercise opt-out clauses, perhaps sensing that the market had tightened in this luxury-tax era.
Look for bargains from franchises looking to start over.
Allen and Garnett were on the block because they had become too expensive for their teams, which were going nowhere. Boston didn't invent this trend of raiding the needy—the Pistons won the 2004 championship after acquiring Rasheed Wallace in midseason from the Hawks for four backups and two first-round picks—but Ainge was bold enough to double-dip. For a pair of future Hall of Famers, Ainge gave up one potential All-Star in power forward Al Jefferson, three first-round picks and six role players (four of whom were subsequently moved again). Bargains, indeed.
Financial reasons have compelled other deals, including the trade of Gasol last year. Last summer the Rockets took Ron Artest off the hands of the rebuilding Kings for rookie forward Donté Greene, backup guard Bobby Jackson, a first-round pick and $1 million. And the Clippers stole 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby from the Nuggets for the right to swap second-round picks, a luxury-tax move that a rival G.M. calls "the quintessential dump of all time."
More contenders will no doubt benefit from such discount shopping this season: The expiring salaries of Nuggets guard Allen Iverson ($20.9 million) and Hawks guard Mike Bibby ($15 million) may be available at the February trade deadline, as could the heftier contract of Nets guard Vince Carter ($67 million over four years).
Don't be afraid of players supposedly on the downside of their careers.
The Celtics became the first champion in league history with its three leading scorers 30 or older. The Mavericks (Kidd) and the Suns (Shaquille O'Neal) bet the house on thirtysomethings in trades last season, and the Raptors did the same over the summer in acquiring big man Jermaine O'Neal, who turned 30 on Oct. 13. The urgency to win a championship infused new energy in Boston's old stars. "What they did tells you that if you get everybody committed and on the same page, you can focus on the team things," says Phoenix coach Terry Porter, who in Shaq, Grant Hill and Steve Nash has three players 34 or older. "Doc did a tremendous job, but more important, the players took some ownership and policed themselves. They stayed on each other and stayed focused on the task at hand."
Instill a defensive attitude.
Who thought Allen and Pierce could become high-effort defenders overnight? Apart from Garnett and since-departed sixth man James Posey (whom the Hornets signed this summer with an eye toward shoring up their D), there wasn't one member of Rivers's early-season rotation who was known as a stopper—yet together they constituted the league's top defensive team. "The biggest trick, which the Celtics did, is to get their best players to buy in," says Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who plans to invoke Boston's example to change the culture of his offense-first franchise. "That's going to be one of the challenges from the beginning, to convince some of the guys that if we really want to do something, we've got to build off our defense. And I think we will." The old saw that defense wins championships is still true.
Find players who are willing to put their egos aside.
Star-powered teams don't necessarily mesh well, and often coaches don't find that out until after the pieces are put in place. The Rockets, with Artest joining All-Stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, will be an early case study. "Ron has had some volatility in the past," says Houston G.M. Daryl Morey, "but given the rest of our team [being] in their prime, we felt it was a good risk."
In this respect, the Celtics were exceedingly fortunate. "I had a group of guys who were very willing to be coached and weren't stuck on who they were," says Rivers. "I hear guys say they want to win it, but I think what they're really saying is, I want to win it as long as I can keep doing what I do. I had three stars who said they wanted to win and they would change to do it. I don't think you get that a lot."
Indeed you don't. But that hasn't stopped teams from looking.
BRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
BANNER 17 Along with Pierce (right), newcomers Garnett (left) and Allen gave Boston its first Finals win in 22 years.
RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
IN PROGRESS O'Neal (left) and Brand were big off-season pickups, though neither has made his team a title threat yet.