While the Celtics’ season could wind down in disappointing fashion because of injuries and perhaps age creeping into the once-energetic bodies of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, there will be intrigue this summer. The organization must decide whether to reload for one more championship run or cut ties with its most popular player.
Pierce has a team option on his contract for 2013-14 at $15.3 million, with a $5 million buyout before June 30. Meanwhile, Chris Wilcox’s minimum salary is the only guaranteed money that will come off the books next season, ensuring the Celtics will again be a luxury-tax team. Even jettisoning Pierce’s contract would offer no financial flexibility because they would still be over the salary cap.
Unless the Celtics can find takers for players such as Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and even Brandon Bass, they will be mostly the same club next season. Being over the salary cap, the Celtics will have their mini mid-level exception available, which is the contract that attracted Ray Allen to Miami.
Other than that, the Celtics will struggle to find impact free agents because of their high payroll. But don’t fear. Tom Penn, former assistant general manager for the Trail Blazers and Grizzlies, and current ESPN salary cap guru, said the Celtics’ situation is not hopeless. What’s more, he said they will have some options in terms of making roster moves.
“The good news for the Celtics is all these contracts they signed in the last few years have been good-valued deals,” Penn said last week. “And if they wanted to, they could likely find homes for these contracts.
“And if they’re talking about buying out or moving Paul Pierce, the franchise cornerstone, and trying to offload all those other assets, it’s highly unlikely they do that because that’s not rebuilding anything. It’s unbuilding what they’ve already built. The [Rajon] Rondo injury plays a huge factor here because he’s the core of what the team was about, and you can’t forget he’s been gone and all these other players perform differently with him out there.”
Pierce said last week that he understands this could be his final postseason as a Celtic.
“I’ve been thinking that the last three years,” said Pierce, who has played his entire career in Boston. “Nothing’s changed. I’ve had a sense of urgency [to win] since my first year in the league.”
Buying out Pierce does not mean the Celtics could fill his salary slot with an equal-salaried player because they are over the cap. It would simply move them closer to the salary cap, which will be in the $58-59 million range next season.
“The good news is the assets that they’ve signed should have value out there,” Penn said. “And we’re headed to a year where as many as 15 teams in the NBA will have significant double-digit [million] cap room. And there aren’t enough free agents to go around to satisfy that need.”
Penn said that many teams would rather acquire a known quantity through trade — for example Terry or Lee at $5.25 million next season — than get into a bidding war for an unrestricted free agent.
“There should be the opportunity to create trades where you can move a current contract that’s certain and known, so that these two-year deals they have left should potentially have a good strong market out there,” he said. “And you can get other assets that are different and better back.”
The weakness of the June draft and the lack of splash in this year’s free agent market may also aid the Celtics’ quest to make moves.
Penn added that the length of the contract is just as critical to other interested clubs as the money. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge signed Garnett, Terry, and Bass to three-year deals to create a financial windfall for the 2015-16 season. The Celtics have only $19 million in committed salaries — most of that filled by Jeff Green and Lee – for that season.
Still, Penn said the Celtics would gain nothing by buying out Pierce. “They’d be much better off paying him his full salary and having the use of his services,” Penn said. “He’s a terrific player. The best way for the Celtics to make changes is player-for-player trades. They’re among the best in the league at doing that. There’s plenty of room for optimism.”
Davis seeking Magic formula
Former Celtic Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who missed most of the season with a broken foot and sprained left shoulder, said he has dropped weight and will be healthy for training camp. But the question is whether he and Arron Afflalo fit into the Orlando Magic’s long-term plans.
The Magic are guaranteed a top-five draft pick to join their young core of players that includes Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, and Andrew Nicholson. With another lottery pick in 2014, the Magic may have a chance to take Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker and form the next Oklahoma City Thunder.
Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is a disciple of Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti, who tore down the Seattle SuperSonics — trading Ray Allen and allowing Rashard Lewis to sign with Orlando — and drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and JamesHarden.
Davis, 27, was asked about the Magic’s potential approach the next few years, and whether he’s part of that picture.
“He has a decision to make,” Davis said of Hennigan. “I think the main thing is they want to win. Whatever it’s going to take them to win. Whatever decision he makes, that’s a hard decision. It could go both ways with a lot of things.”
Because he won a championship with the Celtics during his rookie season and also reached the NBA Finals during his third season, Davis said he is willing to participate in Orlando’s rebuilding plan.
“I won a championship and now it’s time to go through the growth of [a franchise] like the [Kevin Garnetts] and Paul Pierces, it’s time to see that side,” he said. “I accept that side. It’s sweeter when you get back there and you win and you go through those ups and downs. This is my first time not being in the playoffs, ever. You’ve got to use that fuel to help these guys understand.
“I got a chance to experience [a championship] and I’ve seen it, but being the guy, the main part of a team that’s successful, is also a great feeling.”
LEAGUE OF LONG SHOTS
Three-point craze rolls on
The league has never been so 3-point crazy, with the New York Knicks leading the NBA with 29 attempts per game, and commissioner David Stern said there may be a review of the rules relating to 3-pointers and their impact on the game.
In 2012-13, teams averaged 19.95 3-point attempts per game compared with 14.68 in 2002-03.Twenty years ago, teams attempted just 8.95 3-pointers per game. In the early years of the long-range shot, the 3-pointer was limited to specialized shooters. Nowadays, even lumbering centers are trying their luck from 23 feet, 9 inches.
“For better or worse, enjoy your own impression because we don’t have an impression, but when our teams are hot it’s a thing of beauty. And when they’re not they can go 3 for 41,” Stern said last week. “And it’s an interesting discussion, and it’s also interesting to note the way certain teams are now defending the three, giving up the midrange shot, and the statistical variances that come into play. That’s relevant because many of our teams, and soon to be all, are so focused on analytics and the percentages that go with taking shots and various formations that we just think it’s interesting. It wasn’t a presentation for purposes of a result, just as an observation to let our teams know where the game is going.”
The 3-point shot has become the primary weapon for NBA offenses. The Miami Heat added Ray Allen to Shane Battier, James Jones, and Mike Miller to spread the floor for open 3-point shots when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade drive into the paint. What’s more, eight of the nine teams with the most 3-point attempts reached the playoffs.
“I think the report was we have a dozen teams that take 20 or more threes a game each year. When you go back to 2000, there were none,” Stern said. “So, it’s been a complete progression, and understandably based upon the proficiency of our players and the statistical result of being able to hit threes at something approaching 35 percent. So, it’s an interesting note.”
ESPN analyst Tim Legler, a proficient 3-point shooter in his 10 NBA seasons during the 1990s, said the 3-point shot will continue to remain a major offensive factor.
“When I played, teams typically on a given night might shoot 15 to 20,” he said. “Look at NBA 3-point attempts, everybody is over 20. Just the nature of the game, that quick three off one pass is a much more accepted shot than it used to be. It used to be you would get screamed at after taking that shot because you could take that shot any time, and now the first pass up the floor, anybody who wants to take a three, go ahead. There are more guys that are not great 3-point shooters that are allowed to shoot them whenever they want. That never existed before. As a result, the 3-point shot is so much a part of the way the game is played, that for Stephen Curry to take 10 a night, nobody blinks at that.”
While traditional post play is as dated as Betamaxes, cassette tapes, and pump sneakers, Legler says the increased 3-point attempts add excitement to the game.
“I think it’s fine, I think it’s an entertaining brand of basketball,” he said. “When you look at the way the game is coached, played, and taught, even at a young age, there’s fewer and fewer guys that are very good inside players, back-to-the-basket players. They are few and far between. It’s five men on the floor that can all face up and that’s the way it’s played at the youth level, all through high school, college.”
George’s rise not a surprise
Paul George won the Most Improved Player Award last week, and it’s apparent the league needs to clarify exactly what “most improved” means. Does it mean having a breakout season or is it making the biggest leap statistically and impact-wise from one year to the next.
It has turned into a “most emerging” award because there is no way George was the most improved player. Anyone who watched Indiana play in 2011-12 could detect that George was a player on the rise. George is a potential All-Star and a former 10th overall pick, and the Pacers expected him to be their best player with Danny Granger missing most of the season because of a knee injury.
Playing eight more minutes per game than last season, George averaged 5.3 more points, 2 more rebounds, and 1.7 more assists than the previous season. George is a top-notch defender and a franchise cornerstone, but he wasn’t the most improved player in the league this season. Not in comparison to New Orleans’s Greivis Vasquez, who averaged 5 more points, 3.6 more assists, and 1.7 more rebounds over 2011-12, and also emerged as the Hornets’ starting point guard.
Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders nearly tripled his scoring and rebounding averages and developed into a potential star for the Bucks after two lost seasons. The NBA would do voters and candidates a service by specifically describing what “most improved” means or create another award for “most emerging” because that’s what this award has become.
The Charlotte Bobcats are again looking for a coach after firing Mike Dunlap last week after one season, an example of the ever-present issues within the organization. When the Bobcats parted ways with Paul Silas after last season, they claimed they were going to chase an astute basketball man who could command the respect of the players, and with the patience to coach a young roster. While the Bobcats were horrible after a 7-5 start, how much blame can really be placed on Dunlap with such an inferior roster? There is a dearth of quality, experienced NBA coaches, and the ones who are on the market, including Stan Van Gundy and Nate McMillan, will probably want to wait for the right position rather than be the next one canned in Charlotte . . . A coaching search remains in Philadelphia after Doug Collins stepped down, and the 76ers are seeking a dynamic young replacement who could help upgrade a flawed roster. While Brian Shaw’s name has been mentioned, someone to watch is former assistant, and former 76er, Aaron McKie, who is familiar with the roster and is a Philadelphia native . . . While the Phoenix Suns agreed to an extension with team president Lon Babby, they parted ways with general manager Lance Blanks, perhaps giving a new GM a chance to hire a coach. While the club has not announced a decision on interim coach Lindsey Hunter, Blanks’s departure would seem to signal the end for Hunter also. Alvin Gentry’s assistants, Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, wanted to replace Gentry when he stepped down, and both were rebuffed. The Suns have significant salary cap space this summer, making the coaching decision even more crucial. For the first time in several years, the Suns get an opportunity to reshape their image away from the run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni style or the laid-back approach of Gentry. In other words, they can hire a championship-caliber coach who can attract first-rate free agents to the desert . . . J.R. Smith is looking for a long-term deal. His postseason performance may clinch his exit from New York as he has a player option on his contract for $2.9 million. The Knicks, who are well over the salary cap, would only be able to offer Smith their mini mid-level contract because they have no significant contracts coming off the books and will still be in luxury-tax territory.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.