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Diary of a Boston Refugee, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Rebuilding

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Enduring a rebuild isn't easy. Trust me - I've done it before.

Two "rebuilders" go head to head.
Two "rebuilders" go head to head.
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Humans weren't built to follow rebuilding sports teams. It's unnatural and inhumane to expect us to do it. I really believe that.

We're emotional beings. We live for the here and now. We watch the games because they bring us immediate gratification - if our team wins, that is. If they lose, it's an immediate punch to the gut. We watch for that gamble. We watch because one way or another, the outcome will have an impact on us.

With a rebuild, you don't get that impact. At least not right away, you don't. You can't watch an individual game - especially not, say, a mundane Monday night contest in Minnesota with nothing on the line - and expect it to mean anything. When you're fighting for a top playoff seed, every win matters and every loss stings, but when you're lottery-bound, the process is different. You're in it for the long-term journey. You win some and you lose some, but what's really important is watching the players develop and the group evolve.

Which is cool and all, but again, it's unnatural. We have to be dragged into that process kicking and screaming, because let's be honest, it's not exactly the reason we signed up for this fandom thing in the first place.

That's the downside. The positive spin is that when a rebuild actually works, it's incredibly gratifying to have lived through it and gotten to the other side.

This is where I should reiterate, as I've mentioned a couple of times before in these weekly Friday features, that I'm originally a Celtics guy. I'm a relatively recent Portland transplant from Boston, where I spent a few years covering the C's for SB Nation on a regular basis. Which is to say, I know a little bit about how this whole thing works.

***

I still remember like yesterday when the Celtics' rebuild officially began. It was June 27, 2013 - draft night. There had been a great deal of speculation about C's president Danny Ainge making a move to ship Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett out of town, but to be honest I hadn't paid it much mind. The rumors had swirled for years, especially around Pierce, but I didn't think Ainge would actually pull the trigger. And besides, KG had a no-trade clause. But at 10:58 p.m. on that Thursday (that's the timestamp on the Adrian Wojnarowski report, at least), I realized I was wrong. This time, the buzz was real. Pierce, KG and Jason Terry were headed to Brooklyn. It was really happening.

I remember the first thing I did upon hearing the news. I put on a fresh pot of coffee. It was late and I had work in the morning, but this was the biggest story to come across my radar in years, and I needed to have a take, everything else be damned. So I brewed a strong dark roast, sat, stared at my laptop and thought for a bit. What did I have to say? What did this trade mean to me?

I eventually pieced together an essay about Pierce, who had spent 15 years in Celtic green and had a cache in Boston unmatched by anyone post-Larry Bird. Pierce was the team's captain, its spiritual leader, its big-time shotmaker. He was an icon to a generation of C's followers, myself included. I was 11 years old when he was drafted out of Kansas; Pierce was my guy. What I wrote that night, in essence, was that Pierce's legacy in green was priceless and that no stockpile of unprotected Brooklyn draft picks was worth seeing him in another uniform. "What did you really trade Paul Pierce for, Danny?" I wrote, puffing out my chest in a concluding paragraph I thought at the time was just perfectly high and mighty. "You may think you got back some value, but I question whether you know what 'value' really means."

Jeez. The things we say when we're impulsive, blinded by the heat of the moment. Danny Ainge doesn't know what value means? That's like telling Hendrix he doesn't know what a guitar is.

It took me two years to realize it, but I was totally and completely wrong about the Celtics moving Pierce and Garnett. The deal turned out to be a perfect win-win-win for everyone involved. Pierce got to leave Boston and play on two playoff teams, one in Brooklyn and another in D.C., before eventually landing with his old friend Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. Garnett got to return home to Minnesota and mentor an amazing collection of young talent. And as for the Celtics, they snowballed that one trade into a heck of a franchise overhaul.

That Brooklyn trade yielded a $10.3 million trade exception. That one measly slip of paper turned out to be huge. Ainge traded the exception in 2014 to the Cavaliers, who were desperate to clear out cap space for a free agent named LeBron James (maybe you've heard of him). For nothing but empty cap space, Ainge acquired Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a Cleveland pick. At the deadline in 2015, Ainge then flipped Thornton and the pick to Phoenix for Isaiah Thomas. Suddenly, he had two legitimate starters in Zeller and Thomas, who meshed with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and the rest of the Celtics' young pieces to form a remarkably coherent team. The Celtics went 20-11 after the Thomas trade in February, the second-best record in the East over that stretch. Suddenly, a team that was supposedly in for the long rebuild was in the playoffs instead. You wanna talk about value? That's value.

I may not have realized it on June 27, 2013, but the Celtics had a plan. They had an arsenal of trade chips, a long-term vision and an organization devoted to winning. They also had patience. That last part is tricky. Guys like Danny Ainge are paid quite handsomely to be patient; fans like us are not. We want success and we want it now. Truth be told, though, it helps to develop a little perspective. A couple of years down the road, it might pay off.

***

For two years, the Portland Trail Blazers were known for the remarkable continuity of their starting five. There were a couple of injury hiccups, to be sure, but the core group of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard was still wonderfully consistent during its short time together, guiding a once-struggling team to 105 wins in two seasons.

Now they're gone. They've scattered to San Antonio, Charlotte, Dallas and Manhattan. Only Lillard - the youngest and least adept defensive player of the five - remains in Portland. This is beginning to look like the situation I remember all too well from Boston. The Blazers have an interesting collection of talent, but it may take a while for that to coalesce into a complete team, capable of competing with the real powers in today's NBA.

These Blazers aren't helpless. There are far too many gifted players on the roster for me to dare use that descriptor. But what's frustrating is the uncertainty of the whole ordeal - this new Blazers team is raw, unformed, undefined. The old group was a fine sculpture, like Michelangelo's David; the new group is a lump of clay. It's good clay, but clay nonetheless.

The Blazers do have one obvious advantage over the 2013 Celtics, and that's the presence of an bona fide cornerstone player. In inking Lillard to a five-year extension for $120 million, Neil Olshey has established that his rebuild will have direction. Lillard is still only 24 and still hasn't quite developed into a complete all-around player, but he's immensely talented and absolutely worth the years and money. He's also, given his abilities as a shooter and playmaker, a wonderful starting point for a rebuild, as he can thrive next to just about anyone. What player wouldn't fit next to Damian Lillard?

Lillard will be the epicenter of the project moving forward. From here, the quest is to find out who fits around him. With everyone else on the roster - most notably Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh - the objective will be to throw them into the laboratory, see how they fit with Lillard and make adjustments as necessary.

This rebuild obviously won't be easy, but I do like where it's going. The other pieces are deceptively good. Leonard and McCollum showed flashes of brilliance in limited time in Portland last year. Leonard shot 50/40/90! Plumlee is 25 years old and a skilled big man on both ends; he played for USA Basketball and won a world championship a year ago. Vonleh was slotted as high as No. 3 or 4 on a lot of draft boards last summer, slipping only because he's a little bit young and raw. Give him time - he'll develop.

It's also important to note that all of the above players are high-character guys, readily coachable and easy to mold into whatever type of team Terry Stotts wants them to be. In a rebuild, that's the type of group you need. In Boston, Ainge gave Brad Stevens a wonderfully moldable roster; Stevens turned it into a team that succeeded with pacing, spacing, aggressive shooters on offense and ball-hawking pests on defense. It worked because everyone bought in together - Ainge built the roster, Stevens shaped it and the players carried out their coach's vision.

Can Portland do the same? All signs point to yes. The roster is a promising one, and Olshey and Stotts look poised to guide this process together. The only question is whether we, the fans, are ready for the journey that lies ahead.

***

When I first mentioned to my editors at Blazer's Edge earlier this week that I was writing a piece about the rebuilding process, the first question I got from Dave was an interesting one. "Does the piece empathize," he asked me, "or wallow?"

I guess the answer is a little bit of both. There's plenty of time between now and the moment this rebuild actually begins (meaning like, on a basketball court and not at a podium). We've got about 11 weeks until the start of training camp. That's enough time to cover the whole spectrum of emotions. We can go through every stage of grief and then some. We can sulk, we can question, we can get deep in thought and, eventually, we can start to get optimistic about the future.

I went through all of the above steps in Boston. It took a couple of years for the optimism part to become real - i.e., for me to transition from mere wishful thinking to a legitimate, objective belief that the Celtics were good. But that's OK. I learned to enjoy the journey. The process taught me to appreciate the losses as much as the wins. Every setback makes the eventual successes all the more gratifying.

LaMarcus Aldridge and company are gone. That part sucks. But the key to surviving this momentary heartbreak is to think of July 2015 as a beginning of something, not an end. One chapter in Trail Blazers history is over, but that only means we get to turn the page and begin writing a new one. That's not something we're built for, necessarily, but we can learn to love it if we try.