Flirting with the seventh or eighth seed for much of the season, the Celtics put together a good enough second half to finish fifth in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. With mounting injuries, including four of the season-ending variety, they didn’t dominate the Atlanta Hawks or Philadelphia 76ers, but had enough talent and veteran guile to make yet another appearance in the Conference Finals.
After falling behind 2-0 to the Heat, the Celtics were declared dead yet again but still had enough gas to push Miami to the brink. Three straight wins gave them two chances to close out the favored Heat.
LeBron James turned in a spectacular performance in Game 6, with 45 points and 15 rebounds at the TD Garden, a venue that has haunted him in the past. Two nights later, he wasn’t as dominant but put his stamp on the deciding game with 31 points and 12 rebounds as Miami pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Boston had the NBA’s most expensive roster this season, $88 million, with $56.5 million committed to the ‘Big Four’ of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
With the contracts of Garnett, Allen and a majority of the supporting cast coming off the books, the Celtics have just $34.5 million committed to the 12-13 roster heading into the NBA Draft and free agency. That total could drop to just over $30 million if Brandon Bass opts out of the $4 million option in his contract for next season, something that seems likely at this point.
Danny Ainge paved the way for his front office legacy by acquiring Allen and Garnett in the summer of 2007, but what he does over the next two months will be nearly as important.
He has three options as he formulates a plan of attack, but in reality only two should be considered:
No .1 -- Keep the Big Four together by re-signing Garnett and Allen, while fortifying the bench.
No. 2 -- Watch Garnett and Allen sign elsewhere and shop Pierce to build around Rondo for the future.
No. 3 -- Let Allen walk in free agency, try to re-sign Garnett without overpaying and use cap space to add a young, lower-tier star.
Option 2: The Smartest
If Ainge wants to compete over the long-term, he’ll choose the second option and begin a new era centered on his point guard. That would be the smart and rational move, but there are emotional ties involved.
Garnett has embodied the team’s spirit over the last half-decade and Allen has been their consummate professional. In other words, Garnett brings the fire and Allen has always made time for the media.
Replacing the pair won’t be easy, but there are a number of options available on the free agent market alone. The options will only increase once the trade market is established shortly after the draft.
Boston can sign Bass to a long-term deal and add another a big man like Chris Kaman, or even nontraditional big men like Ersan Ilyasova/Ryan Anderson (restricted). Bass has the ability to hit the midrange jumper off the pick-and-pop with Rondo, while Anderson could hit boatloads of three-pointers created off the point guard’s transition or supreme passing.
There is also the matter of “replacing” Allen. Avery Bradley blossomed this season, especially when Allen injured his ankle, but doesn’t bring the same reliable perimeter shot. I’m not entirely confident that Bradley can be an 82-game starter, but if he does moves into the starting lineup permanently the Celtics will have to target a scoring guard to come off the bench and lift a unit that disappeared in the postseason.
Jamal Crawford (player option) would be a nice option if he becomes available, while Jason Kapono would be a great addition on the cheap. The ceiling in this respect would be someone like Jason Terry, who might prove too expensive and is reportedly leaning towards remaining with the Dallas Mavericks.
The cap space the Celtics could create this summer gives Ainge incredible flexibility to add talent in multiple ways and Doc Rivers is tremendous at adapting personalities, consistently getting his team to buy into whatever he preaches. The only issue with essentially “starting over” is the Garnett Effect. How much of his intensity and drive has rubbed off on the team? Is it enough to remain if he leaves?
Option 1: Extreme Risk
Keeping the core of the team intact and shuffling the role players around Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Allen would likely buy the Celtics another season of fringe title contention, but there are serious risks involved.
Injuries are always a possibility with the aging trio as is the amount of gas left in their respective tanks. They are too proud to admit any weakness, but Allen was playing at about 25 percent and Garnett/Pierce looked drained in the final two games against Miami.
If the onus is on Garnett to light a fire in the Celtics for another season, it will only add more miles onto his balding tires. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix predicted that Garnett would retire, but I think he’s too competitive to quit with productive seasons remaining.
The key for him going forward is to find and agree to a lesser role than he had with the Celtics this season after they lost Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox, forcing him to play center. He resisted the change at first, but then excelled.
It’s hard to imagine the current incarnation of this team getting further than they did this season, when they were two quarters from another Eastern Conference title and a chance at a second NBA Title together.
What makes this offseason so interesting is that they could do worse than to re-sign Garnett and use money Allen would have gotten to add a younger piece. The danger is that Ainge would be playing with fire once again. A lot could go wrong and the ceiling would not be much higher than signing up for another run with Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
The only dynamic that makes Option 3 more likely than Option 1 is that Allen and Rondo reportedly had a strained relationship this past season.
At this point, Rondo is the only player you can consider untouchable.
Rondo can be mercurial, but there is no doubt that guys around the league would love to play with him. He would be absolutely unstoppable if he continues to polish his jumper and often goes through periods in which he’ll pass the ball before taking a wide-open look of his own.
In a me-first league, he’s a scorer’s best friend.
Ainge has what a lot of transitioning teams lack; a true star worth building a team around.