Posted by Romy Nehme
Warning: the lack of worthy NBA-news during the NBA fans’ “purgatory” stretch of the off-season has provoked an unhealthy degree of over scrutinizing that is not usually afforded by the cultural latency of the rapid-fire news cycle.
In what was undoubtedly the most anticlimactic event of the off-season, Jeff Green announced to the twittersphere (on Aug. 22) in a low whisper that he was “finally” and “officially” a Celtic. While rumors of a deal in the $8-9mil/yr neighborhood surfaced early in the off-season (much to everyone’s amazement), every pundit under the sun spun their wheels just trying to collate a plausible explanation for the baffling scenario that saw the following events happen in linear-chain-reaction succession: in a classic addition by subtraction move, OKC got better offensively and defensively post Green’s departure (sometimes, the best way to help your coach is by making it impossible for them to field a starting frontcourt of Green and Kristic) -> on the other side of the fence, Perkins departure devastated Rondo, left KG and the Celtics without its enforcer and key defensive cog and exposed an apathetic Jeff Green, whose lack of productivity became especially glaring now that his numbers were adjusted for his diminished playing time.
Let’s use a hypothetical situation to help us shed light, or in my case, make peace with the stupefying Jeff Green signing: Let’s say you make a mistake. You get chastised for it before people have any kind of empirical validation on whether or not your so-called blunder was an astute coup masquerading as a brainfart, or, what first met the eye: a big fat blunder. The mistake then plays itself out for all to see, and, unfortunately, the latter is confirmed via hard cold numerical and anecdotal evidence. What do you do?
A) cut your losses and admit to your mistake; there’s no sense in trying to justify something that’s been revealed to be abjectly moronic (why that would make me the moron!)
B) you don’t publicly admit to your mistake, per se, but privately distance yourself from your previously held position and turn the page.
C) triumphantly ride your mistake to your coffin by investing even more resources in it! If you appear to wholeheartedly believe in it, maybe others will be inspired to jump on the idiot carousel with you!
If there’s anything that we know about Ainge now a decade into his tenure with the Celtics, it’s that he is as sneaky and mischievous in the front office as he was as a player. But praising Green for one of his many shortcomings makes me think that Ainge once again has fallen in love with a player’s potentialrather than resume (this has happened before, see: Chris Mihm, JR Giddens and a slew of proven scrubs that were quickly dispatched from Boston), and that he is stubborn enough to tempt history and tout a player’s bogus merits in the press in an act of willful defiance:
“Jeff’s versatility on offense and ability to guard players out on the perimeter is something that we are looking forward to having on the court this season.”
Behavioral economics tell us that humans prefer to base their decisions on projections rather than facts because of our penchant for uncertainty. It’s also not at all uncommon and part of the premise and allure of the Moneyball doctrine, i.e. unearthing a player’s hidden dimension (or, one that’s alluded conventional player evaluation metrics) and extricating this “latent talent” by employing the player in the right kind of situations. The key element here is “hidden in plan sight”, or, plucking a hidden talent right from under 29 other GMs’ noses. Can Merlin the Wizard Statistician, Mike Zarren, rationalize this without breaking his hippocratic oath  (even though everyone knows that statistics are the favorite weaponry of those who hold truth as a malleable position. Once upon a time, Daryl Morey, rubbing his hands in delight, saw something in Dan Dickau that the rest of the league had missed …. translation: this sciencey stuff is hit or miss). Projects are projects, but potential, just like everything else, has a statute of limitations.
Placed in economic context, the next edition of this handy how-to book might as well be renamed: “How To Turn a Toxic Asset Into a Lucrative Long Term Contract!”.
And so we’ve tracked the unsavory trajectory that culminated in Green’s signing. Why is this so bad, you ask? Why would a fan bother caring about how much their faithful owner has spent assembling the perfect roster plus or minus a few frivolous million dollars?
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Green with the Hoyas, something about his smarts, old school poise and feel for the game. Coach Thompson III boasted: “Jeff Green is the smartest player I’ve ever coached.” The shrewd as anyone and obnoxiously verbose during this entire process, David Falk, also genuinely respects Jeff Green’s character; Green was the first “new generation” player Falk signed as part of his exclusive stable of 10 or so clients after going seven years without signing a rookie (most likely due to the horrific experience of having to deal with Darius Miles).
[Quick aside: is Jeff Green a textbook case of paralysis by analysis or affable-guy-lacking-a killer-instinct? Perhaps.]
Falk, like Ainge, is a professional smoke blower, coming to Green’s defense multiple times this summer, even going as far as to claim the following: 1) as many as 14 teams were courting Green, 2) Green was taking a “hometown” discount by accepting the Celtics offer and, to complete this fantastical tale, 3) the Celtics would be vindicated after Green proved to the league that the contract was in fact, not a joke, but a steal.
My disgruntlement is grounded both in principle and details of the new CBA that make these signings less forgiving than in years past. On principle, it’s like watching your friend build the perfect Jenga tower: deftly and masterfully placing every block in not only a calculated, but even masterful way, only to clumsily knock down the entire tower with his elbow as he was preparing to lay down his last block. In the same way, Ainge could do no wrong this summer … until he plopped the heavy Green cherry on top that collapsed the 5-layer cake. Less capricously, multimillion dollar contracts that were once handed out almost gratuitously now promise to quickly become albatrosses: once a team uses its Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (which the Celtics spent on Terry), the apron effectively becomes a hard cap for the remainder of that season (74mil). Translation: you cannot exceed the cap which leaves you with little more than fairy dust to round out your roster. In this case, which was incredibly and rarely the case in the NBA in years past, every million matters. Given the Celtics current salary cap situation and few unguaranteed contracts heading into training camp, the point is moot simply because the players most likely to secure the tailored suit/cheerleader/end-of-bench positions are Dionte Christmas and Kris Joseph (who, needless to say, won’t be driving a hard bargain).
After extolling the virtues of the new CBA and its effect on newly inked contracts (not-less-egregious-in-their-sum-effect, but appreciably different in terms of correcting the overall distribution of wealth curve in favor of the deserving), here’s the one thing we can hope for as we seek creative post hoc rationalizations to attenuate the blow provoked by Green’s in comparison, bafflingly vestigial, contract:
“Home is Where the (Repaired) Heart Is”
Can we reasonably expect an uptick in “fire in the belly” urgency in Green’s game? This is something that Green has been referring to in his interviews along with every “new outlook” cliche in the book. To his credit, the one thing that Green did really well from the get-go was run with a purpose as soon as someone corralled a rebound. Rondo seldom made an attempt to connect with Green despite him consistently gunning down the court like a gazelle (contempt? lack of team dedication to the fastbreak?) but that should change this year with a little rebounding by committee (still a legitimate concern) and infusion of youth (a nice change of pace).
Going from being a top lottery pick to recovering from a life threatening heart disease serves as the perfect metaphorical voltage gradient to shock Green out of his slumber and help him once and for all sort his mild case of identity and positional crisis.
Mr. Ainge, god bless your feisty mormon heart; I really hope your gamble pays off. I would personally still feel more comfortable about the prospect of Green finally coming into his own if the faultiness lay in his post, rather than his pre aortic aneurysm heart.
: hippocratic oath for statisticians: thou shalt not bastardize your god given gift to support predetermined gut decisions with bogus and convenient calculations.