The NBA draft has come and gone, and the Celtics drafted a power forward with the 21st pick who may have a chronic back injury, and a 7-foot Project — capital P because of his little O, as in offense — with the 22d selection whose career paths appear to be serviceable NBA center or trivia answer in the Kendrick Perkins trade.
That doesn’t exactly have LeBron James quaking in his Nikes in Miami.
That’s not the Celtics’ fault. It’s the reality of picking in the 20s. Beating the world champion Miami Heat (still tough to spit out) is the prism through which this offseason must be evaluated for the Celtics. The question about every move is does it increase the Celtics’ chances of overtaking the talents of South Beach?
That task is only going to be harder now that Miami has acquired what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called “championship DNA.”
That’s why the most influential pick of the 2012 offseason for the Celtics isn’t Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, he of the questionable back, or Syracuse’s Fab Melo, he of the questionable offensive aptitude, it’s going to be Kevin Garnett choosing retirement or returning for an 18th NBA season.
Like he was after Celtics coach Doc Rivers moved him to the five-spot, the 36-year-old Garnett is the centerpiece for the Celtics this offseason. If KG extends his run as a Celtic, the team can extend its championship window and challenge Miami. If the Big Ticket punches out, then you can put Banner No. 18 in storage for a while.
NBA free agency starts Sunday. The Celtics have a $21 million cap hold on KG and an offseason plan in a holding pattern until he commits to another season of basket support-banging, chest-thumping basketball or riding into the Santa Monica, Calif., sunset.
It’s been 22 days since the Celtics’ season ended in South Florida June 9 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and still everyone is waiting for KG to make like the US Supreme Court and render a much-anticipated decision. Until then, the Celtics are hoop hostages.
“I’ve been talking to Kevin and his people. I don’t really have any conclusions yet,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge following the draft Thursday night. “That’s a big part of [our offseason plan], absolutely. That’s our No. 1 option. One reason is that Kevin is such a valuable option. The other is that Kevin is the only guy we can talk to until Sunday.”
Let’s hope that Ainge, as he’s wont to do, is simply being coy when it comes to KG.
If Garnett walks away, the Celtics’ team-building plan goes from banner raising to razing. Garnett, who is jockeying with David Ortiz for the title of most age-defying superstar in Boston sports, averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds per game after the All-Star break and upped those numbers to 19.2 and 10.3 in the playoffs.
If Ainge thought KG was done he would have been more aggressive in exploring a trade up in the draft to get a player who could help reboot the franchise, instead of settling for Sullinger and Melo. The rumored Rivers family reunion — Doc coaching his son, Austin — would have been interesting.
Moving up was going to cost the Celtics their first-rounders and Avery Bradley. Instead, they stayed put, left the light on for Garnett, and tried to get some reinforcements on the inside, taking the 6-foot-9-inch, 280-pound Sullinger and the 7-foot Melo.
Ainge offered all the usual platitudes about his draft picks, but acknowledged that the Celtics aren’t looking to beat the Heat with rookies.
“I think that a team that is trying to win, it’s tough to count too much on three rookies coming in,” acknowledged Ainge. “Maybe, one of them will be ready to go. Maybe, two of them will be able to come in and play a certain role. I’m not sure, but we’ll try to fill in with veterans from here on out.”
Translation: Sullinger and Melo aren’t putting us over the top, but Jamal Crawford or O.J. Mayo added to Rajon Rondo, Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Bradley could.
Mayo is Ainge’s Moby Dick. He has pursued the shooting guard for a few years and almost traded for him at this past season’s trade deadline. Ainge got some good news Friday when the Memphis Grizzlies decided not to tender a $7.4 million qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
The retention and return to health of Jeff Green and the signing of Mayo would go a long way to boost the athleticism of the Celtics.
Unfortunately, that’s not something Sullinger will do.
It wasn’t just the back that teams questioned with Sullinger, who scored 1,282 points at Ohio State, a two-year total only bested by Jerry Lucas and Michael Redd in Buckeyes history. At the draft combine, Sullinger finished last in the lane agility drill and last in the three-quarter-court sprint.
That’s disconcerting when considering the Finals between the Heat and Thunder resembled an Olympic 4 x 100 relay race at times.
The hope is that Sullinger is closer to Pierce, another athletically questioned All-American who landed in the Celtics’ laps in 1998, than he is to Acie Earl, who slipped to No. 19 in 1993. We soon learned the reason was the two cinder blocks Earl employed for feet.
The hope is that the raw Melo, who was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and set a school record last season with 10 blocks in a game, can translate that skill to the NBA and develop an offensive repertoire down the road.
But any hope of unseating the Heat is tied to Garnett’s return.
The Celtics have made their choices in the draft. Now, it’s Garnett’s turn.