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What’s Next For The Boston Celtics?
Posted By Stephen Brotherston On May 4, 2013 @ 12:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
It has been six consecutive seasons in the playoffs since Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge created his Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and, with Allen moving on last season, this was the first time the Celtics failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. With one NBA championship, another NBA Finals appearance and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, it has been a good run.
Ainge could have blown up what’s left of his Big Three last season, but in hindsight the move to reload was justified by yet another trip to the playoffs. However, Ainge is largely right back where he was a year ago, but with a lot less flexibility. So, what’s next for the Celtics?
Should the Celtics try to make moves with their aging stars to create some room for new blood? Is blowing it all up the best option? Could a few tweaks to the roster extend the playoff run for another season? Nothing seems particularly clear or inviting at the moment.
Pierce is 35 years old and Ainge can buy him out for just $5 million of the $15.3 million owed to him next season. The problem with that move is Pierce was the Celtics’ leading scorer with 18.6 points per game during the regular season and Pierce averaged 19.1 points in the playoffs. Boston’s best offensive weapon isn’t washed up yet and it seems very clear that if the Celtics don’t want him, Pierce will sign elsewhere, which would be very hard to stomach in Boston.
Ainge could try to trade Pierce and there will be opportunities to do so, from teams who could use Pierce’s contract to solve their own luxury tax issues buying him out to team’s looking for a proven veteran to enhance their own playoff run next season. In recent years, however, expiring deals and salary cap related trades haven’t often returned much and expectations in any deal for Pierce should be set fairly low. After 15 seasons in Boston, Pierce bleeds green and has openly expressed his desire to retire a Celtic. Any trade would be viewed as a one-year rental at best.
Soon to be 37 years old, Garnett has shown few signs of slowing down outside of injury and the big man is still the heart and soul of the Celtics’ defense. While the team was able to cobble together reasonably effective guard play without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics went 5-8 down the stretch with a playoff spot hanging in the balance without their center. Garnett was second in scoring to Pierce during the regular season with 14.8 points per game and averaged a double-double in the playoffs of 12.7 points and 13.7 rebounds. However, the most valuable trade asset on the Celtics will be the most difficult for Ainge to take advantage of.
Garnett has two years remaining on his current deal, but he was dropping huge hints during All-Star weekend that this could be his last appearance at the event and there have been plenty of other indications that Garnett has no interest in playing anywhere but Boston, if at all. These past comments plus a no-trade clause in Garnett’s contract severely limits Ainge’s options. It seemed like Garnett and head coach Doc Rivers were saying their good-byes after the Game 6 loss to New York and the best option with Garnett has become to persuade him to just keep playing.
When Ainge reloaded last summer, he created a logjam heading into this offseason. The Celtics have about $74 million committed to 12 players and $62.6 million of this is guaranteed. Unless Garnett retires, the Celtics will have no salary cap room to pursue free agents this summer and it would be a huge stretch to think the team could get a free agent who would be better than Garnett with the cap room his retirement would free up.
One of the stranger moves of last summer was Ainge’s acquisition of several shooting guards, but no real backup point guard to support Rondo. Courtney Lee at four years and $21.35 million, Jason Terry at three years and $15.7 million and Leandro Barbosa who was traded for Jordan Crawford with another year left on his rookie deal created a logjam with Avery Bradley that was only partially alleviated by Rondo’s injury. While Bradley credited Lee with helping him adjust to his point guard duties and Rivers finally figured out how to use Terry during the playoffs, this logjam underutilized all of the Celtics’ guards at the expense of salary cap space and a dearth of quality big men.
Both Lee and Terry saw big drops in their production from prior years that can be directly attributed to fewer minutes and even fewer shots. If Ainge can convince another team that one of these guards is still the player they were when Ainge signed them, he has an opportunity to tweak his roster and add some needed depth at point guard, forward or center. The cost of not playing them enough minutes last season, however, will likely be including a young player or draft pick in order to get a deal done.
However, there are some building blocks for the future on the Celtics. Jeff Green emerged toward the end of the regular season and during the playoffs as the forward Ainge envisioned when he traded Kendrick Perkins for him in 2011. Green was Boston’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 20.3 points per game. At 22 years old, Bradley is emerging as an elite defensive stopper and a combo-guard who should have a long and productive NBA career, injuries notwithstanding. He is even still young enough to fix his jump shot and eventually become a more effective offensive threat as well. Jared Sullinger was having a decent rookie season until he was sidelined by season-ending back surgery.
The biggest building block the Celtics have, however, is Rondo, even with the uncertainty following anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery in February. The three-time All-Star is just 27 years old, has two more seasons on his current modest contract and is rumored to be traded every summer and at every trade deadline. How Ainge could extract fair value for Rondo isn’t clear and aside from the young point guard’s prickly nature, why the Celtics would entertain trading him is even less so. One thing should be fairly clear, however. Teams rarely get better by trading their best building blocks, but if Ainge decides to blow up this team and trade his, there will be a line of potential suitors.
Ainge has somewhat predictably found himself back at a crossroads this summer, but where last year blowing things up was a viable alternative, this time, that option doesn’t look so promising. The best move has become to persuade Garnett to return for one more run at the playoffs with Pierce. Wait for Rondo to get back, which could be as early as training camp and almost certainly before the All-Star break. Then count on Green, Bradley and possibly Sullinger and Crawford to continue to get better with Ainge looking to pull off a couple of moves this summer that shore up the backup point guard spot and add some depth behind Garnett. The possibility of a seventh consecutive trip to the postseason by tweaking the roster and staying the course sounds a lot better than trying to blow things up for a trip to the lottery or fantasizing about major trades that are unlikely to happen.
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