This summer may be Danny Ainge’s most critical as president of basketball operations for the Celtics.
In previous years, the decision to move forward with veteran players was easier, more financially feasible, and made sense. Now, not so much. The injury-plagued Celtics were eliminated in the first round, their earliest playoff exit since Paul Pierce was joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007.
Pierce looked like a fading star in the playoffs. Garnett is fighting Father Time valiantly but is no longer a go-to player. Rajon Rondo is coming off knee surgery. And Jeff Green can’t be expected to develop into the team’s No. 1 scoring option.
So, Ainge has the arduous task of determining when to end this era, how to end this era, and how to move forward without reliving those painful lottery years. He is anticipating the opportunity to rebuild the Celtics, but knows avoiding the doldrums while reloading will be difficult with today’s collective bargaining agreement encouraging parity.
First comes recruiting coach Doc Rivers to return for a 10th season, which may not be a difficult sell after he decompresses.
“I talk to Doc every day, so my impression is that Doc is coming back,” Ainge said last week. “And I think he’s trying to figure all that out, all his staff and everything else.”
The next piece is Garnett, who after hinting at retirement after each of the last two season, appeared more positive about returning when this season concluded.
“I’ll touch base with Kevin shortly, we’ll be in touch,” Ainge said. “I don’t know what’s going on in Kevin’s mind. Kevin may be waiting to see what happens with the team and waiting for other things before making any decisions. But I’ll be in touch with Kevin.”
Garnett said after the Game 6 loss to the Knicks that his decision could be closely tied with Pierce, who has a $5 million buyout of his contract that has to be executed before June 30. He has one year left on his deal at $15.33 million that could be dangled for a sign-and-trade deal. Or the Celtics could keep Pierce next season.
Pierce struggled in the playoffs, exposed by Iman Shumpert’s defense and looking a few steps slow. After 15 years in Boston, Pierce’s departure, unless on his own terms, would be difficult.
“I feel like we needed Paul to be something that was unfair,” Ainge said. “We had unfair expectations for him to be a player that he was a couple of years ago and to carry us offensively. So, I think that Paul has a lot of basketball left in him. He’s not the player that can carry a team all the way to the NBA championship, but he’s a player that can play a big role in a team getting to a championship if he doesn’t have to be the No. 1 option.
“Losing Rajon put more pressure on Paul. Paul is a terrific player, and like I’ve said before, he still has basketball left in the tank. Paul and KG both. Those guys are just at the point in their careers where if they’re your best two players, it’s a challenge. If they’re your second- and third- or third- and fourth-best players, then you’re really, really special. Both of those guys have gone from being top-10 players in the NBA to top-30 players in the NBA, which is incredible at this stage of their lives.”
So, Ainge said some form of rebuilding is necessary for next season, but the Celtics have salary cap constraints, and their draft position (16th overall) likely means they will get a player with potential but not likely to help next season.
“It’s a tough, long process sometimes,” said Ainge. “With the collective bargaining agreement and the severity of the luxury tax, I think it just has made it more complex and more of a challenge. It’s tough to build through free agency more than it used to be, but it’s still possible.
“I believe we have a challenge ahead of us and I am geared up for that challenge. I am ready for it. It’s a very complex, challenging circumstance that we find ourselves in, and it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take making the right decisions in order for us to get back.”
And moving forward means moving away from the 2012-13 core of Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Green, if they plan to push the Heat and Knicks in the Eastern Conference.
“I think that’s a long shot with Rondo, Paul, KG, and Jeff, and [Jared Sullinger] and Avery [Bradley] as a core group of guys. I think that is a very respectable, relevant team, but I’m not sure that’s a championship team,” Ainge said. “So, those are things we are trying to figure out and decide right now. We have to look at all the different alternatives to get back to that [championship] level. Obviously, if Paul and KG don’t come back, then we’re losing our two best offensive players and that challenge is much greater.”
McDonough gets his shot
The Celtics were dealt a loss when assistant general manager Ryan McDonough was hired by the Phoenix Suns last week to be their GM. The 33-year-old son of late Globe columnist Will McDonough had been groomed for the position for several years and the move was expected.
McDonough was a behind-the-scenes executive who traveled to remote college towns and all over the world to find talent. He has some heavy lifting to do to resurrect the Suns, who have plenty of cap space and draft picks in the next few years, giving McDonough clay to mold.
“Boston is my home and I wasn’t going to leave unless I had a spectacular opportunity somewhere else, and I feel like this is that opportunity,” McDonough said Thursday. “There are some good young pieces here, some good talent on the roster. They have done a good a job of acquiring draft picks and young players and positioning this team for sustainable success.”
The Suns are going to hand McDonough the keys to the franchise, allowing him to have a major influence on the new coach. Former NBA guard Lindsey Hunter finished out the season as coach, but it appears highly unlikely he will be asked to return.
“We’ve received a good amount of interest from people from all over the basketball world, from people who want to be the coach of this storied franchise,” said McDonough. “We will meet with Lindsey. I don’t know him that well personally, but I have heard good things about his toughness and work ethic. He’s a candidate for us. The most important thing is someone who is a leader, commands the respect of the players, also someone who is a teacher. I’m confident that we’re going to get someone really good.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge gave the Suns his blessing to hire McDonough and said losing talent to promotion is part of the natural process. Daryl Morey is another former Celtics executive who has gone on to success as GM of the Rockets.
“Danny Ainge is my professional mentor,” McDonough said. “I think my philosophy will be the same. In Boston, one of the things that Danny did so well was that he was very aggressive in acquiring draft picks and trying to get the best players through whatever means necessary.
“One of the things I learned from Danny Ainge is to be unafraid. Not every move is going to be perfect. You’re probably going to make some mistakes, but if you’re willing to work at it and correct some of those mistakes and if you’re unafraid, then that can lead to some great results.”
As for the roster, the Suns’ highest-paid player is Marcin Gortat, who makes just $7.7 million entering the final year of his contract. Point guard Goran Dragic, whom McDonough cited as a potential cornerstone, makes $7.5 million per season with three years left. The Suns are probably relieved that the now New Orleans Pelicans matched their $58 million, four-year offer to Eric Gordon last year, which could have been a cap-drainer.
McDonough said the Suns will focus on defense first.
“When we did win big in Boston, when we won the championship, the Celtics were good on both ends. The defense was historically good, anchored by Kevin Garnett, and the offense was pretty good as well,” he said. “I think you need a balance. If you’re exceptional in one area, you don’t need to be as good in others.”
Top coach Karl a true survivor
George Karl was named Coach of the Year for the first time last week after leading the Nuggets, a team without an All-Star, to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
It’s a regular-season award, and the timing of the announcement came just after the Nuggets lost to the sixth-seeded Warriors in the playoffs. Karl is also a cancer survivor who has withstood tremendous pain in order to continue coaching. The Nuggets are a deep club, but were hurt by the torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered by Danilo Gallinari.
Denver has two free agents — Corey Brewer, who may get a nice raise after resurrecting his career as a defensive ace and 3-point shooter, and Timofey Mozgov, who should get a decent contract if for no other reason than his size (7 feet 1 inch).
Karl was criticized for some of his moves against the Warriors, but the award likely eliminates any faint chance he would not return next season.
“We are now at a stage where a lot of coaches are going to get fired, and some of you want me fired,” Karl told the media.
“But the truth of the matter is there is not very much bad coaching in the NBA. There’s some bad situations that don’t work. Unfortunately, half of us lose every night and expectations can be wildly out of control.”
The Coach of the Year receives the Red Auerbach Trophy. Karl recalled a chance to meet Auerbach several years ago.
“Somehow, I blew it and I didn’t go,” Karl said. “I’ve read his books. I’ve studied him a little bit. I think he was one of the more creative coaches from the standpoint of making a team play together.”
Karl was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer in 2010, but has successfully fought the disease and coached every game for the last three seasons.
“The battle after cancer and coming back and coaching the way I’ve coached since then has been very invigorating for me,” he said. “Maybe there’s a need to be different from my standpoint. Before cancer, I was much more dominant, and now I’m much more democratic. When I came back from cancer I didn’t know if I would last a year or six months.
“Everybody has their life-changing experiences. Unfortunately, I was so stubborn and stupid. I had to have cancer twice before I woke up a little bit.”
Hovering over the emotional award ceremony was the fact the Nuggets were upset by the Warriors in six games.
They won the first game, lost the next three, won a physical Game 5, but then fell behind by 18 points before a late rally fell short in Game 6.
The defeat was especially disappointing considering some observers believed Denver would challenge San Antonio in the second round.
“We have a great young basketball team that is growing, that improved at such a fast rate that maybe we just got too cocky and too ahead of ourselves,” Karl said. “None of us are happy with the result, but I think we are also motivated by the challenge.”
Denver’s Masai Ujiri was named Executive of the Year, a reward for hard work after having to part with Carmelo Anthony two years ago and getting a slew of players in return, in addition to acquiring the troubled JaVale McGee from Washington, adding Brewer, and drafting Kenneth Faried. Bob Myers of the Warriors was seventh in the voting, but he should have finished higher considering all of his offseason acquisitions, such as Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, have been hits . . . Sixty-one draft prospects were invited to the NBA’s Pre-Draft Camp this week in Chicago. The most notable absence is UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, who will undergo shoulder surgery. Bennett is a consensus top-five pick but his status may be affected by the surgery. The camp should provide some clarity for what is expected to be an unpredictable draft because of the uncertainty of the prospects. Local product Nerlens Noel, coming off ACL surgery, is the projected No. 1 overall pick. The draft lottery is May 21 and may determine where Noel lands . . . Atlanta coach Larry Drew is awaiting his fate, but with the Hawks having eight free agents, expect GM Danny Ferry to make wholesale changes. And the Hawks likely won’t allow Josh Smith to walk without compensation. To attract more suitors, the club likely will offer Smith on sign-and-trade deals. However, Smith is seeking the maximum, and interested teams may decrease . . . The effect of retired players on the salary cap — which could come into play with Kevin Garnett — is not uniform in the new collective bargaining agreement, meaning how it impacts a team’s cap is undetermined until a buyout or settlement is negotiated. The Celtics had a similar situation with Rasheed Wallace, who retired with two years remaining on his contract. He and the Celtics agreed to a buyout so the final two years of his contract would not impact the salary cap. The buyout amount, however, does affect the cap . . . A salute to Dr. Jack Ramsay, who will step down from ESPN to undergo a medical procedure. Ramsay, one of the classiest men in the NBA and an astute analyst, is 88.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.