You've heard of 'The Process' - now meet the Boston's Celtics' 'The Reload'

Boston Celtics Introduce Brad Stevens

In our strategic assessment of the Philadelphia 76ers that will run tomorrow here at GiveMeSport, we will explore in part what has become to be known as 'The Process'.

The Process is the well-marketed term for the period of deliberate transition that the 76ers entered into, involving what was essentially asset stripping. Upon taking over the helm of the team in 2013, then-General Manager Sam Hinkie quickly determined that, fresh off of a 34-48 season and the strikingly unsuccessful Andrew Bynum trade, there was no point treading water. Every piece of veteran playing talent that could be sold would be sold, cap space would be used only to take on bad contracts drizzled in draft picks, and myriad young players would be auditioned in the hope that at least some would stick.

Rebuilding in this way is not unprecedented. One team taking on another team's unwanted contract and getting draft picks or decent players as sweeteners is common practice, as is mediocre-to-poor teams trading away their best veteran players for 'flexibility'. What set the Sixers' Process apart was not the concept, but the sheer emphaticness of its execution.

In contrast, Philadelphia's rival in Thursday night’s NBA London Game, the Boston Celtics, have done basically the opposite. They have built a competitive team that currently ranks atop the Eastern Conference with a 33-10 record, and they did it without this fire-selling nature.

And they, too, have done it about as well as anyone.

The differences between a ‘rebuild’ and a ‘reload’ are perhaps tough to define. There is no signalled start or end to a team-building process - it is a permanently fluid process, one that never starts or ends but constantly evolves, changing as the personnel behind it do, and being often undercut by circumstances outside of team control (serious injury, trade demands, et cetera). Team executives will rarely say publicly or privately "OK, we're rebuilding now". All moves that teams make and do not make are done both in isolation and in the context of the wider strategy, and the wider strategy is normally extremely flexible based on the quality of the available move in isolation.

A reload in particular is a fraught prospect that is difficult to nuance. There is a fine line between a good reload and the worst-case quagmire of mediocrity, especially when said mediocrity includes significant expenditure and mostly veteran players. Philadelphia embarked on The Process only after a previous attempt to reload via the ultimately disastrous Andrew Bynum trade – in which they gave up all of Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and a first round pick for essentially nothing – had gone wrong.

Further muddying the water is the fact that The Reload had some Processian moments of its own. In his resignation letter, outgoing 76ers team President Sam Hinkie lamented a missed opportunity to get yet another couple of second round picks when Ainge beat him to the punch on a Joel Anthony salary dump - even when embarking down very different roads, The Process and The Reload had the same understanding of assets and their values. Whatever their intent for them down the road, both teams came from a place where asset acquisition (hereby used to mean “getting future draft picks” and “keeping maximum cap space viability open in whichever season we deem it best to use it”) were of paramount importance.

The full-scale blow-it-up rebuild only ever happens by mistake, after a different strategy went wrong. The single biggest virtue of what we are here terming 'The Reload' by the Celtics is that it simply never went through this phase.

Boston Celtics Media Day

To be sure, the Celtics did sell their talent. And it also is very true that the Celtics had more to work with than Philadelphia. Whereas Hinkie sought to dismantle a 34-48 team that had Dorell Wright, Lavoy Allen, Nick Young and Damien Wilkins as its fourth-through-eighth largest minute recipients, the Celtics broke up a championship team. The choicest moves during The Reload involved one move in, and one move out, the biggest of which involved moving the same pieces that won the title.

The Celtics and Ainge have had as many assets as they have on account of one transaction in particular, when Paul Pierce's decade-plus with the team finally came to an end. Ainge traded Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks, a signed-and-traded Keith Bogans, and Billy King's Wonderful World Of Picks.

The salary relief and, in particular, the picks were the purpose of the deal - all of the contracts were mere filler. And the intake from that trade was so significant that it is not even fully paid yet. All told thus far, Boston has received a 2014 first round pick (#17, James Young), a 2016 first round pick (#3, Jaylen Brown), the right to swap 2017 first round picks (exercised; Boston moved from #27 and Kyle Kuzma to #1 and Markelle Fultz), and has an unprotected 2018 first round pick still to come. In subsequently trading the Fultz pick to (fittingly) the 76ers in exchange for the #3 pick promptly used on Jayson Tatum, Ainge was able to add yet another quality future asset in the form of a first round pick from the L.A. Lakers, while still getting the player he wanted anyway via a trade asset he had also previously received in trade.

That is the concept at the core of The Reload. The Celtics never tanked their own draft pick. They just used everyone else's.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics

There comes a point, of course, that asset accumulation has to be realised in the form of progress, of actually building a new team rather than just taking an old one apart. It is a fair criticism of Hinkie and The Process that he did only one half of the job accurately, and similarly, it has been one of Ainge in the past to say that he too has not taken chances when they have been presented to him. At the past trade deadline, when quality veteran stars were said to be available, Ainge stood pat, and sat on his assets until the summer

This offseason, however, Ainge finally struck. He first made a splash in free agency when the Celtics were able to convince Gordon Hayward to sign with them from the Utah Jazz. Every bit the player that Paul George is, Hayward is an NBA star acquired for no outgoing assets by a team that had long been acquiring assets with the implicit view to later move them on for a star.

More pertinently, Ainge made his bigger move when trading for Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers. Trading Isaiah Thomas fresh off of a 28.9 point per game season in which he came back days after the death of his sister in order to help the team in the playoffs was a particularly strong statement of intent; pairing him with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Nets's aforementioned 2018 first round pick and a 2020 second round pick was the very embodiment of the consolidation trade that the angsty Celtics fanbase had long desired. And then, of course, there was the Tatum trade.

Ainge had deliberately kept his options open via all three methodologies, and then used them all in the same summer. In doing so, he landed three more stars.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving

The three moves signified the assumed conclusion of The Reload, and of moving up a gear to true competitiveness. However, the pieces involved in both trades and the luxury of the maximum cap room only existed in the first place because of the efficacy of The Reload. And it was The Reload instead of A Process that allowed for such a quick turnaround to being at a point whereby a move to true competitiveness could be made.

Even as the Celtics were down in the lottery and a couple of years short of making their move, they acquired Thomas from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for a solitary first round pick. In previously trading Rajon Rondo, Ainge received not only a first round pick, but also Crowder, a quality young veteran who subsequently became an even better one. Crowder went on to be a key part of the Isaiah deal, while the first round pick was the same one that was later moved to acquire Thomas from Sacramento in the first place.

In tandem, then, Ainge sold high when the timing was right and bought low when the timing was even better. That is only possible when the assets are in the chamber. And although Hayward's injury has ruined his first season with the team, it is the depth acquired through The Reload that has seen Boston not only survive without Hayward, but thrive.

In a sense, the Fultz/Tatum trade is a useful microcosm of the entire Celtics mantra over the last few years. At the same time as looking to better the on-court product, the franchise seeks to get value from its assets and bolster both the medium and long-term prognosis of the team.

The long-coveted unprotected Nets 2018 first round pick went out in the Irving deal, yet in the trade for Fultz and Tatum's draft rights, a 2018 first rounder from the Lakers (protected #1 and #6-30) moved the other way. The time for competitiveness is now, but never it seems fully at the expense of the future.

Team building, remember, never truly starts or ends. And it would appear that The Reload is still going on. 

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