Celtics Should Wait Until 2014 to Reload
It was too emotional for head coach Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to discuss the Boston Celtics’ future immediately after being eliminated from the playoffs in six games by the New York Knicks, but everyone wants to know what’s next for these three icons.
“[We are] obviously digesting the current [situation] and Doc came to me and Paul off to the side and all three of us agreed to speak later,” Garnett said after the Game 6 loss.
The ties between these three Celtics are strong and if one of them goes, it should not come as a surprise if none of them are at training camp. However, that would not be in the team’s best interests. For all the complaints about Pierce’s declining skills, he was still the team’s leading scorer this past season. Garnett has hinted about retirement, but if Pierce and Rivers are back, they should be able to talk the team’s defensive anchor into going one more round. Even if Rivers might sound like he would like some time off on occasion, he’s just 51 years old and has become one of the league’s best coaches. It is pretty hard to imagine Rivers not coaching next season.
For those proposing this is the summer to rebuild, the Celtics would have some major hurdles to overcome. If the Celtics took advantage of the buyout in Pierce’s contract, they still would have $62.6 million in guaranteed player’s salaries and no room to play in the free agent market. Even if Garnett retired without insisting on a buyout – something that seems highly unlikely if Pierce was bought out – there still isn’t enough salary cap space to go after a big-name free agent. This does not preclude Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge from pursuing trade opportunities or attempting a tear down to grab lottery picks in 2014, however, next summer, Boston’s window to reload opens again.
Currently, the Celtics only have $46.2 million of guaranteed salaries on the books in July 2014 when Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut and Luol Deng headline an unrestricted free agent class that also includes numerous big names with player options, early termination options, team options and non-guaranteed deals such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Rudy Gay among others. Also, the Celtics currently have only two players with guaranteed contracts going beyond the 2014-15 season and will have three players on expiring deals to dangle in trade talks. Waiting for the summer of 2014 would give Ainge a lot of flexibility to pursue free agents directly or by sign and trade as well as putting him in a strong position to make financially uneven trades to acquire talent already under contract elsewhere.
Another big issue in any Celtics rebuilding plan relates to how well Rajon Rondo recovers from the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery he underwent in February. At 27 years old, Rondo could make a quick and complete recovery in time for training camp, but as the Derrick Rose situation illustrates, how soon Rondo returns isn’t certain. To rebuild effectively, the Celtics need to know if they will be getting a four-time All-Star point guard back or a player with diminished abilities and they will not have this information until sometime after the season starts.
By delaying any big changes until next summer, Ainge gives himself a chance to make better decisions with less risk that could dramatically shorten the rebuilding process while keeping the Celtics in the playoff picture. The Celtics fought through adversity all season and have enough talent as constructed, even without Rondo, to get back to the postseason next year.
“[The series with the Knicks] was a microcosm of the year,” Rivers said. “That stretch, I think we have been counted out four or five times this year, when Rondo went down, then when Jared [Sullinger] went down and each time, we fought back.”
That fight the Celtics displayed during the season and in the playoffs after they had been counted out comes from the team’s veteran leadership. Veteran leadership that is not always easy to acquire and the Celtics should be hesitant to lose. Pierce and Garnett would help maintain the culture and identity of the Celtics next season and, potentially, assume different roles with a rebuilt team down the road.
Ainge will have opportunities to blow things up this summer and start the Celtics rebuilding process immediately, but it wouldn’t be easy and it could lead to some particularly unsatisfying results. If he was bought out, Pierce would undoubtedly end up helping some other team’s playoff aspirations and Garnett is likely to retire if Pierce is gone. Even without Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics will probably still be too good to be really bad, and missing the playoffs for a late lottery pick wouldn’t be worth it. Also, by starting to rebuild now, Ainge could end up acquiring players designed to fit around Rondo without really knowing what Rondo will be able to contribute in the future.
Next summer Ainge can take advantage of salary cap space, expiring contracts, an impressive free agent class and a solid picture of the talent he will have to build around. One more trip to the playoffs with Pierce and Garnett is not a very high price to pay so a rebuilding program can be as short and effective as possible.