Doc Rivers Threatens Moves, But History Shows Midseason NBA Trades Seldom Have Major Impact

Doc RiversBy now you have probably heard that Doc Rivers agreed with our assessment of the Celtics’ play on Sunday, when an uninspired effort in Detroit produced a third consecutive loss. The Boston coach went on the attack after the game, threatening major changes if the players do not bring a winning attitude more consistently.

“We’re taking the wrong approach,” Rivers told reporters. “I’ve got to either find the right combination, the right guys, or we’re going to get some guys out of here. It’s the bottom line, because this group, right now, they’re not playing right. It’s in them to play right, but right now they haven’t been, either because I’m not getting to them or they aren’t getting to each other. At the end of the day, either we’ve got to do that or we’ve got to make changes.”

Any talk of “changes” stirs up the trade rumor-mongers, who probably dashed to the ESPN Trade Machine to whip up another proposal that could bring DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol to Boston for a handful of draft picks and D-Leaguers. The Celtics’ three-game losing streak has reignited trade talk that ran rampant prior to their six-game win streak, when their rebounding and interior defense improved to such a degree that some were lulled into believing those issues were solved.

Maybe a trade — or series of trades — is all that can cure these Celtics. Perhaps, as Rivers suggested, somebody needs to be shipped out to give the remaining guys a jolt of reality. Jeff Green and several other free agents signed last summer recently became eligible for trades, leaving very few restrictions on who Boston can deal before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.

The thing with breaking up a less-than-perfect team, though, is that only less-than-perfect pieces are usually available in return. Rare is the midseason trade that sparks a team to a championship later that season, a la Clyde Drexler‘s move to Houston in 1995. More often, it takes years for teams to see their midseason moves to bear fruit, and in many cases the result is far below what was expected. The best-case scenario is often for the team to succeed despite of, and not because of, changing course in midstream.

Granted, there are ample instances of teams improving long-term thanks to midseason trades. The Knicks gave up a kingdom for Carmelo Anthony in 2011, and two seasons later they have finally surrounded him with the right parts to succeed. The Celtics do not have that kind of time, though. Even if they add an impact player like Anthony — which is highly unlikely given the current environment — Kevin Garnett will be 38 years old and in the final year of his contract if the Celtics follow a similar timeline as the Knicks. Paul Pierce could be retired or playing elsewhere. Rajon Rondo would be in the final season of his five-year extension. The Celtics are in win-now mode, not win-in-2015 mode.

Any fan with a long memory could point to a handful of trades over the years that drastically altered a team’s fortunes for the better. The Lakers would not have made it to the 2008 NBA Finals without the February deal for Gasol. The Sixers needed Dikembe Mutombo‘s interior presence to help Allen Iverson lead them to the Finals in 2001. Ben Wallace would never have been able to limit Shaquille O’Neal in the 2004 Finals if the Pistons had not picked up Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline.

These few cases are the exceptions that prove the rule, however. Take a look at this list of the top midseason trades in NBA history, compiled by NBA.com in 2008. Three of the trades in this paragraph, plus the aforementioned Drexler deal, appear on the list (Here is another pro tip: Any list that includes Stephon Marbury‘s name twice is probably not the type of list that yields positive results most of the time).

Good teams do tend to make moves near the trade deadline before long postseason runs, but those are seldom total retooling jobs. More typical is the Thunder picking up veteran guard Derek Fisher, who was traded for and then quickly waived by the Rockets, or the Spurs re-acquiring old friend Stephen Jackson last season. These are minor tweaks to an already high-quality core. Fisher brought experience and professionalism to a youthful Thunder squad and Jackson added an edge to the vanilla Spurs, but neither changed the identity in either locker room.

As fun as it may be to imagine ways for the Celtics to get that imposing big man and slashing two-guard they so desperately need, Rivers’ less-publicized comments in Detroit might be more instructive.

“I’m clearly not doing my job with this team, and I’m serious,” Rivers said. “I’m not trying to take a bullet for the team, and I told them that. We’ve got to find something where, every night, all 12 guys play the same way. We did it for a three-game stretch. I told them that games four and five in that winning streak were garbage. We just won the games. I’ve got to figure that out. I told the guys that I’ve got to figure it out, because I don’t think the guys are honest with each other. I just don’t think we have been committed to being a good basketball team.”

Regardless of how listless the Celtics have looked lately, their best shot at improving may still be simply “figuring it out” with the existing personnel. It is actually more realistic to expect Jason Terry to rediscover his shooting touch or Green to find his place in the team hierarchy than it is to believe some troubled retread with a bad contract could bring some championship-caliber panache.

Now that Rivers has gotten honest with his players, it should be easy for the Celtics to get “committed,” in his words. Either they start to turn things around themselves, or some of them may be getting their mail at new addresses come spring.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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