BOSTON -- Originally viewed as an afterthought in a three-team trade that sent Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko to the Celtics, Luigi Datome has become the unlikeliest of phenoms. With a bearded look that's somewhere between Biblical and Back Bay barista, Gigi's entrances in games have become a Garden event.
While he was buried in Detroit for the last year and a half, Datome is not some end-of-the-bench scrub getting garbage time run. Rather, he's a 27-year-old sharpshooting veteran of the EuroLeague and former Italian League MVP who is making the most of his NBA chance. During his 12 minutes of court time, Datome manages to get up almost five shots per game, which he makes at a better than 50 percent clip.
Is is sustainable? Who cares. With players like Datome, Jerebko and Jae Crowder playing key roles, the Celtics have emerged in the second half of the season as one of the league's weirdest success stories, winning five straight games and 10 of their last 13 to put them into a three-way tie for the seventh seed with Indiana and Miami.
For those who have tuned out the Celtics for the last year and a half, players like Datome tell a much larger tale of a team finding itself amid a massive rebuilding project. Last season was about stripping down the roster while keeping a wary eye on the luxury tax line. This year has been partly about building up draft assets with trades of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, but the C's have also added a handful of players they felt were undervalued by their teams, the trade market or both.
Make no mistake, the Celtics are rebuilding. Yet, they've managed to field a competitive team, while also building up a war chest of assets in draft picks, cap space and trade exceptions. This is not an end point or even a middle. It's merely a stage, albeit an entertaining one.
"We're always building toward something," team president Danny Ainge said earlier this month during a phone interview. "There's different phases. I feel like every day is a building day until we get there. There's all kinds of different phases along the way. It's not like there's Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3. Sometimes you can go from Phase 1 to Phase 2 to Phase 10 and you're there. Sometimes it takes a lot longer. We have a lot of good players, but we don't have any superstars."
What they have are players who have been given a chance to get meaningful playing time. It began last summer when they acquired Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a first-round pick from the Cavaliers for a heavily-protected second. It was a cap space deal that included part of a trade exception created from the Paul Pierce trade to Brooklyn the previous summer. (The Cavaliers used that space to help bring LeBron James back home, so this was not an insignificant deal in any respect.)
Thornton and the pick were later used to acquire Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix in a three-team trade that also saw the C's acquire Datome and Jerebko from the Pistons for Tayshaun Prince. The veteran Prince was acquired as part of the Jeff Green trade that sent Green to Memphis and also brought back a first-round pick. Crowder was part of the Rajon Rondo deal that brought back a first-round pick and Brandan Wright, who was spun off to Phoenix for more draft picks.*
*The first-round pick acquired from Phoenix (via Minnesota) in the Wright deal will likely turn into a pair of second-round choices.
The CliffsNotes version: Ainge acquired Zeller, Thomas, Crowder, Jerebko, Datome and at least two first-round picks for Rondo, Green and three players who were just passing through.
The paper trail will only get more intricate in the coming years as Ainge tries to rebuild a championship-level team out of the ashes of the Pierce/KG/Rondo era. Including his own choices, Ainge has amassed at least nine first-round picks over the next four drafts, as well as a stash of second rounders.
"The thing I value about draft picks is they're always tradeable," Ainge said. "You can always trade a draft pick. At the same time, you don't give draft picks away. And if you don't get things you want to package players and draft picks to get unique, special players, then you have to take a lot of chances through the draft and hope that some of them turn out great."
If there has been a downside to this season, it's been injuries to Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. Sullinger is out for the season with a stress fracture in his left foot and Ainge publicly chastised the forward's conditioning. Olynyk has returned from a severe ankle sprain to continue an uneven season with solid games balanced against lesser outings. More than wins and losses, development remains Ainge's top priority.
"When we win a game and we're not playing well, we're taking steps backward, it's not satisfying," he said. "When we lose a game and we play great and I see a lot of progress, then I'm happy. I'm not like a coach and players who live and die with each game. I really am into a development, draft, free agent mode. I've been really satisfied with how our guys come to work, how our coaches prepare. Part of the development of our young core is the fact that they do prepare, they watch a ton of film, they work on their weaknesses. All of those things are important."
In other words, this is not even close to the end point of Ainge's rebuilding effort. He has those picks and he has cap space, both of which are valuable trade assets. He also intends to be active in free agency. But while Ainge is sitting on a potential jackpot, he's in no rush to cash in his chips.
"We will make an attempt in free agency for sure but we have to be careful that we spend it correctly and on the right players and not just spend it because it's available," Ainge said. "We have to maintain that flexibility to get the right players."
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While the rebuilding process continues, the current Celtics roster is full of young players in various stages of development making a frantic push for the playoffs. That has enabled players like rookie Marcus Smart to gain valuable experience playing meaningful games. In that sense their trades have already been a success.
Zeller has averaged 10 points and six rebounds on 55 percent shooting and functioned as the starting center for most of the season. Crowder, Jerebko and Datome form the core of a second unit that has been responsible for many of their most productive lineups. Thomas has merely been a rock star, averaging 21 points in 27 minutes off the bench and making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year.
The Thomas deal in particular was an eye-opener in that the Celtics were seemingly well on their way to missing the playoffs and grabbing a spot in the middle of the lottery. Adding Thomas ensured that they would at least make a playoff push and depress their lottery odds. That dynamic was discussed and debated internally. In the end, they felt that it was worth it to get a good player on a good contract, which, after all, is the whole point of loading up on all those assets.
While Thomas has been brilliant, this is not a one-man show. The Celtics have continued to win while he recovers from a nasty fall against Miami last week, and they had put together a nice run before the All-Star break, winning four of five. Even before his arrival, they thrived on small lineups, aggressive defense and a fast pace.
Crowder has been especially adept at blending into various lineups. His numbers (eight points and five rebounds) matter less than his ability to guard multiple frontcourt positions. That in turn, allows coach Brad Stevens to spread the floor, which happens to be perfect for Thomas. A scoring guard in every sense of the phrase, Thomas' game has been embraced in Boston because his skills were exactly what the team lacked.
"He is a great pick and roll player," Ainge said. "He can get in the paint and create havoc. He's a terrific player. His only challenge to overcome is just his size. He's a nightmare for other teams to try and cover. He's also the kind of player that we didn't have on our team."
None of this is entirely by design. Along with the constant roster churn that's seen a franchise-high 22 players come through Boston this season, the injuries to Sullinger and Olynyk have also taken a chunk out of Stevens' frontcourt rotations.
"We've been forced into that a little bit," Stevens said. "Jae's had to play multiple positions because we lost bigs for a while. Kelly was out and we only had three bigs. One of the things I place a high, high value on are basketball players, not positions. You can win with good basketball players all together."
In only his second year on the job, Stevens has proven to be a creative coach who gets the most out of his roster. It's important to note that this is not necessarily part of their long-term approach and the Celtics are not trying to corner the market on undersized guards and wings. They do, however, have enormous trust in Stevens and his coaching staff.
"Our team is well-coached," Ainge said. "Our team is not trying to adopt any kind of style of play other than use the advantages that we have. We're playing with less size now because we've been forced to with Sully out, spreading the court opening it up for Isaiah. Brad has done a really good job utilizing that and it has been entertaining. But I think the entertainment is not coming from a fast pace I think the entertainment from my standpoint is the intensity with which our guys plays with. I think that fans they like to watch players with play with passion and passion is contagious. People are drawn to that kind of passion."
And that's how you get a folk hero like Gigi Datome and a team like the Celtics. They may fall short of the postseason. They may get there and lose in five games. They may do all that and still look completely different next season. Only one thing is certain: This is a hell of a lot more fun than counting ping pong balls.
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