June 22, 2007
Ainge in dangerous rush to make team relevant
I walked into the press conference like I was walking onto a used car lot. I knew they were going to try to sell me, but I wasn't buying. Not me, pal, not this time. I was too cautious, too cynical and too smart.
Well, I was too cynical.
The Celtics were not going to fool me. I was just going to take a look around the lot and kick some tires. Then I'd probably kick the whole sorry organization about the head and face when I sat down at the keyboard later that day.
The Celtics were coming off a season in which they had won 32 games and finished 25 out of first place, and now they were desperately trying to regain their stature in this town. They needed to do something to generate a buzz, to get on the back page and at least create the illusion that banner No. 17 was coming soon.
It was July 25, 1994, and they wanted to be relevant again.
So they invited us to a downtown hotel where they served cold cuts, potato salad, and a large pile of manure. M.L. Carr unveiled his newest signing, the one and only Dominique Wilkins, as if he were a low-mileage Caddy that had been driven to church by an old lady.
At first, I rolled my eyes and laughed. You can't be serious? Dominique? He was 34. He was damaged goods. And even when he was young and healthy, he was more interested in scoring titles than NBA titles. This is your savior? More like a '73 AMC Gremlin with a fresh paint job.
Oh, but then came the hard sell from M.L. and the Celts. Dominique is healthy again, they said. He's motivated. He will show the young guys how to win. He was coming off a season in which he averaged 26 points a game. He was a nine-time All-Star, a former scoring champ, and a really, really exciting guy to watch.
M.L. did everything but put his arm around me and say, ``Let me talk to my manager and see what I can do.'' He sold me. To this day, I feel like a rube who fell off a turnip truck and then bought a cell phone in the mall with a five-year plan.
I walked away believing a rejuvenated Dominique could help the Celtics contend in the wide-open Eastern Conference. And if nothing else, I said, they would be - and here's where I would like you to shoot me in the head - RELEVANT AGAIN!
How relevant? They went from 32 wins to 35, from 25 out to 22, from fifth place to third. They went from not making the playoffs to getting bounced out of the first round by Orlando. Dominique averaged 17.8 points a game to lead the team. He left for Greece at the end of the season. They went back to 33 wins.
It was a pointless, shortsighted acquisition designed to arouse casual fans who were killing time between ``Die Hard'' movies. It did not help the young players, and it sure didn't move the franchise closer to its 17th title. And let's not forget: Dominique was an unrestricted free agent. He cost the Celtics nothing.
By contrast, Kevin Garnett will cost them EVERYTHING.
Naturally, one of the reasons so many people are excited about this potential trade is - you guessed it - it will make the Celtics relevant again. They won 24 games last year. This move could get them into the 30s, maybe all the way to 40. Maybe KG could even get them into the playoffs, where they would get eliminated quicker than Pacman Jones on ``Jeopardy!''
After two or three years of early playoff exits, the Celtics will have an over-the-hill Garnett, an aging Paul Pierce, and no hope for the future. So did everyone have fun? Great. Now back to 24 wins.
No one is saying that Garnett is as far past his prime as Wilkins was, but he is clearly on the back nine. He's 31, and it's a hard 31, almost like an NFL running back. Wilkins had played 12 years when he signed with the Celtics. Garnett, who joined the NBA at 19, has played 12 years.
He's going to grow old and ineffective on somebody's dime, or should I say somebody's $46 million. That's the obscene amount Garnett has coming to him for the next two years. And what did the Timberwolves get for their money last season? They got 32 wins and no playoffs. In his career, Garnett has gone to the playoffs eight times. He's won two series.
Ainge has made many moves in his four years at the Celtics' helm, some good, some bad, some well-thought out and some involving Sebastian Telfair. On balance, his drafts have been excellent, his trades not so much. But one thing he has never done is look over his roster and wonder: How can we get sexier, trendier, more hip, more happenin'? That is why the Mets signed Pedro, ``The View'' signed Rosie, and M.L. signed an empty shell of Dominique. It's a mistake every time.
If Ainge trades 10 years of Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer or Al Horford for three years of Kevin Garnett, he'll be making a huge mistake. I'll say that even if I get cold cuts.