It will be a fascinating summer in Boston, and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge offered no hint to his plans after Saturday night’s 101-88 Game 7 loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Ainge said he wanted to take a few days to reflect on the season, and on the future. He has several monumental decisions to make in the coming weeks, and while the likely end of the Big Three era made for a heart-wrenching story to end the series, it is not a cinch that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen are broken up.
There will be careful consideration given to when and how to rebuild the Celtics, and exactly how they can overcome the Heat after losing to them in consecutive years in the postseason largely because of age and fatigue.
There appear to be two schools of thought. Blow up the Big Three, use the available salary-cap space to pursue younger players, and start fresh with a Rajon Rondo-led roster filled with talented youngsters. The Celtics have three of the first 51 picks in the draft, in addition to Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore returning next season.
The second scenario could include Ainge bringing back Garnett with a two-year contract at a reduced rate (the extra year could encourage Garnett to take less money) and re-signing Allen following ankle surgery but in a reduced role. Ainge could use the team’s available cap space to bring back Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox, and then pursue a free agent such as Jamal Crawford, giving the Celtics something they have lacked the entire Big Three era, a volume scorer off the bench.
The free agent market is so lacking in franchise-changing players that it may almost be fruitless for Ainge to dump Garnett and Allen to chase players who won’t make an equal impact for long-term deals.
Ainge has no plans to waste the team’s money, spend for the sake of spending, so he will do so wisely.
One former NBA coach said that if the Celtics were simply going to be an eighth seed next season, they should rebuild. But they pushed the conference’s best team to a seventh game with a depleted roster. And next season, the Eastern Conference could be similar, with the Bulls possibly without former MVP Derrick Rose for most of the season after he tore his left ACL during the first playoff game.
With reinforcements, the Celtics could make another serious playoff run, if they avoid the rash of injuries of the last few years.
“It would be great to end my career with Kevin,’’ Pierce said Saturday night. “I have a couple of years left. Who knows what his future is going to bring? Maybe management can do something to bring him back. I think you add some pieces to this team to get over the top. If not, it’s been a tremendous run.’’
Garnett left after Game 7 without speaking to the media, and has given no indication about his plans for next season, although retirement could be a possibility. Allen said he will undergo surgery, leaving his effectiveness in question.
Pierce, who has two years left on his contract, is the only one certain to return, meaning Ainge and coach Doc Rivers possibly would have to recruit Garnett and Allen to come back.
“I think a lot of people forget how we started the season,’’ Allen said when asked if the Celtics could make one more run with the Big Three and Rondo. “It was so helter-skelter trying to put together a team. We went through a lot of adversity, losing Wilcox, losing Jeff Green. Under the circumstances, we’re proud of what we accomplished. I don’t know what Kevin’s situation is. There’s still a lot of basketball left in my legs, I know that for sure. So it’s hard to say what can happen. But the four of us know how to play basketball. We know how to win games.’’
The key may not be enticing Allen and Garnett to return, but rather signing capable bench players that can produce offensively. The Celtics’ bench scored 2 points in Game 7 against the Heat. A similar fate would likely befall the Celtics if Ainge did not build a better bench.
So, it appears the Big Three can break up if they want, but there is a decent possibility that Ainge waits until the summer of 2013 to completely rebuild because the possibility of being a legitimate contender is too attractive.
It’s not likely the Celtics will be able to acquire an All-Star-caliber player unless Ainge is willing to deal draft picks and perhaps include Bradley or Rondo in the deal. So Ainge’s best alternative may be to improve those surrounding the Big Three, reducing or adjusting their roles while introducing two first-round picks.
“I think we’re going to wait and see what happens with free agency and all that stuff,’’ Rivers said. “Danny has talked to me a couple of times recently. I probably didn’t hear much. I just want to stick with this group if it’s a couple more days, a couple more weeks or whatever. I just want to stick with them.’’