For forty-eight weeks a year playing armchair general manager is fun and exciting (although ultimately frustrating). The other four weeks, however, the criticality of decisions and sheer volume of choices make the job an absolute nightmare. You know the types: the bolt upright at night in a cold sweat; or find an unrecognizable face with red-rimmed eyes, white lips, and 1000-yard stare blearing out at you from the mirror; or slump in a corner hugging yourself and whimpering at the overwhelming complexity. Danny Ainge may prefer the behind the scenes GM work to the every day frenzy of coaching but his heart attack took place during his tour at the helm of the front office rather than in the daily rigor of directing the bench.
One of the two-week periods is the week of the draft and the following week of free agent limbo. The magnitude of the effects of spending that precious first-round pick can make or break a decade for a franchise. Think Bias, or Darko vs. Carmelo, or Bowie vs. Jordan, or Durant vs. Oden, or Moiso vs. well, almost anybody else. Hard on the heels of the draft there are contract options to picked up (or turned down), MLE decisions that tint the entire next season, cap-room teams unable to lure a talented free-agent, teams outbid for a mercenary talent eking out one more year from another more-desperate bidder. Think House/Tony rather than Posey; or cap-flush, post-Mikie Chicago unable to lure anyone with game to the shambles of the disbanded Bulls team. These are the times that try men's' souls.
We are at the doorstep of the other two-week period of white knuckles. The trade deadline where shattered dreams abandon the last shreds of hope and dismantle their teams for a lottery run. Where wanna-be's play the game of chicken waiting for a better option, more-desperate seller, or useful buyout while peering fearfully over their shoulders at their competitors growing stronger. What would be that move that will thrust them over the top? Can they incorporate the addition(s) fast and well enough to make full (partial, enough) use of the asset; or will it be a mismatched piece, or one that never catches on? Will the egos, or games, clash? Will the acquired piece be reborn and reenergized, or was the vein truly played out? On the resolution of such conundrums are championships won, or lost.
These are dicey times in the most stable of years, of which this year is anything but. The cream at the top are all flawed and are most decidedly serious buyers. The flotsam at the bottom are bleeding red ink, playing to dwindling crowds and empty luxury boxes. Also many of the owners find a professional basketball franchise is just one of many of their assets that is worth only a fraction of what it was two years ago--sellers, fire-sellers, and occasionally close-out sale holders. Even those in the middle (and that middle class is just as much an endangered species as John Q. Public) shudder at the thought that their once seemingly reasonable contracts will leave them, under a new CBA and hard cap, with all their money doled out for half a team of players. The much-ballyhooed free-agent class of 2010 looks more and more like a few rich players getting much richer and mostly the rest getting left with the dregs.
Enter Danny Ainge with major decisions, many of which are mutually exclusive, necessarily based on incomplete information. Add to that the fact that there is only one acceptable outcome because make no mistake, if he blows it up (even if it is the best way to go) he may not survive the coulda/woulda/shoulda blowback from the frustrated and unwashed masses.
Consider first the questions, mostly unanswerable, upon which this decision matrix hinges. 1) Kevin Garnett? When will, if ever, the Big Ticket be right? Will almost right be enough? 2) Paul Pierce? Is this season star-crossed? First a knee, then multiple additional blows to and tweaks of that same knee. Next a foot. Many are taking comfort in that it appears to be a strain rather than a break--but most should recall that a sprain can be a liability long after a break would be healed and a non-issue. When will the Truth be right? Will almost right be enough? 3) Ray Allen (and this completes the Big Three who were expected to be the core and strength of this championship contender)? Career low numbers and continuing to drop. Slump or beginning of the end? And that's on offense, on defense he has become the swinging gate leaving the big men behind him to constantly clean up the driver who eluded Ray. Wasn't that what Rondo was so roundly criticized for in the past? We may never know if he could become the 20-minute per game assassin that marked Reggie's declining years because Allen has been the only healthy member of the Big Three and has logged nearly 40 minutes a game. Would he be better if playing only enough to keep his rhythm, always on fresh legs? 4) Big Baby, and I stay with that appellate because of the apt description, if he wants to be known otherwise, earn it! The Pudgy Papoose has made like one jump shot this season. This was a year when he needed to work on his flaws, develop new dimensions, and show consistency. He has instead missed a third of the season due to a drunken brawl with his homie, struggled to contribute even though handed minutes that others have to earn, and found a seemingly endless series of antics to deny himself and his team focus for the task at hand. With Tony's recent surge, Davis has become the player I would most like to upgrade. With his awkward base-year-player status even moving him for value has become problematic. 5) Sheed. Initially he shown brightly in a limited role, providing the height and individual on-ball defense previously lacking in the Celtics' backup big men. Pressed into extended service by Garnett's and Davis' absence, his flaws (age, conditioning, rotation defense, and steadily declining distance-shooting) have been magnified. Can he recover his productive role, or more to the point, will the Celtics' health allow him to resume that reduced role? 6) Eddie House. Always a streaky shooter, he is now on a half-season cold spell. Will he bounce back with the return of Marquis Daniels and the ensuing relief from ball-handling and more timely passes when he frees himself up (or is freed up by collapsing defenses?) 7) Daniels. Never a box-score dandy, while healthy Marquis brought the exact qualities expected--solid defense at three positions; steady ball-handling and perceptive, timely passing; and good decision making with just enough offense to demand coverage and create opportunities for teammates. Bad thumbs are never a good idea for a ball handler. Will Marquis come back at/to full effectiveness? Will that allow the ripple of positive effects for which the C's originally hoped--rest and relief for Pierce and Rondo, freedom for House, and a quarterback and steadying influence for the second unit? 8) Rondo. I think we can put to rest the worries about Rajon's confidence being threatened by a quality backup. Would The Blur benefit from an occasional minute or two on the bench to contemplate the value of ball-possession and playing under control? Will Daniels' return provide the needed support?
I purposely left Rondo until last because this year this is HIS team. More than any other factor Rondo has been the most consistent spark igniting energetic, impassioned play. When Rajon has a poor game these Celtics have little chance of prevailing. One might notice that I have raised questions about 8 of the top 9 players. Only Perkins does not ravage Danny's thoughts when he contemplates possible moves. Now I do believe that Doc and Clifford Ray are losing hair over Perk's insistence on "improving" picks (and the ensuing offensive fouls) and petulance (and the ensuing technicals). I suspect they are both hoarse from repeating entreaties to quell both these proclivities, but I lack faith in the effectiveness of anything short of a shock-collar (and I guess the Players Association might get testy over that approach).
Back to Danny singing the blues. Psychologists tell us the most stressful thing is putting humans in intolerable situations over which they have no control. The unavailability of answers to most of the looming-over-Ainge's-head questions I have raised is the very definition of such stress. And yet such is his task. The trade deadline will come. The season will come to a climax. The postseason will see the Celtics in, out, short-lived, or through to the end--and Danny's moves, or non-moves, over the next two weeks will play a critical role. Probably doesn't seem so imposing to most of us arm-chair GM's, we can always slink back to selling shoes, jockeying computers, or manning that middle management desk--Danny, not so much.