Editor's note: ESPN Insider's series this week examines what would happen if five teams decided to start over by making seismic personnel shifts before the 2012-13 season; because of varying factors including age, salaries or expiring contracts, these five teams decide to begin anew. But such an exercise comes with some rules: (1) the owners get the hard salary cap they desire; and (2) exclude the 2012 NBA draft. Today we look at the Celtics.
When the Boston Celtics got within a win of a championship in June 2010, team president Danny Ainge had no choice but to bring back the team's core for another run at a title. Still, Ainge gave himself an out to rebuild quickly if things did not work. He timed new contracts for Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal to end after the 2011-12 season, when Kevin Garnett's deal is also up.
So, should the Celtics fall short in next year's postseason and decide to blow things up, they'll have the opportunity to start virtually from scratch. Just three Boston players are currently under contract for the 2012-13 season: All-Stars Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, and second-year guard Avery Bradley. With that in mind, here's a look at how the Celtics might be able to get younger next summer.
Step 1: Hold the line this offseason
The biggest challenge for Ainge will be filling out a roster for 2011-12, assuming there is a season, without compromising flexibility the following summer. Ideally, Boston would bring back its own free agents, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Jeff Green, on one-year contracts--even if it means paying a little more for this season. That allows the Celtics to be competitive while staying with their 2012 plan.
Step 2: Deal for Al Jefferson
What more fitting replacement for Garnett could there be than the centerpiece of the package Boston sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves to get KG? In the Summer of 2012, Jefferson will enter the final year of a contract that pays him $15 million. With the Utah Jazz adding young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, Jefferson's salary could make him expendable. The Celtics could take Jefferson into their cap space while offering the Jazz some trinkets in return. Jefferson would give Boston a post scorer capable of drawing double-teams, and the Celtics would be able to give him more help defensively than he got in Utah.
Step 3: Attack restricted free agency
Last summer, the Chicago Bulls successfully emulated Boston by hiring Tom Thibodeau to build a Celtics-style defense in the Windy City. Now Boston ought to use the Bulls as a model. After spending big on an offensive-minded power forward, Chicago split up the rest of its money in free agency to build enviable depth. The Celtics could do the same while targeting restricted free agents young enough to be in development mode.
In particular, three players would make sense: Darrell Arthur (four years, $20 million) and O.J. Mayo (three years, $20 million) from the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Bulls' Omer Asik (four years, $30 million). All three players are currently reserves, which might keep their current teams from matching lavish offers to them, but have shown the potential to take on larger roles.
Asik would become Boston's defensive anchor. The Chicago defense, the league's best, allowed 9.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Asik on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. Asik's ability to defend the pick-and-roll and help in the paint makes him ideal for the Celtics. Though nobody can replace Garnett defensively, Asik is one of the best possible facsimiles.
Arthur would give a different look up front playing alongside either Asik or Jefferson. He can match up with smaller power forwards and stretch the defense with his midrange jumper. Arthur, too, had one of the league's best net ratings on the defensive end; the Grizzlies' defensive rating was 6.3 points better when he played, according to 82games.com.
Mayo could step into the void left by Allen's departure. In a more disciplined system, he has the chance to thrive. Mayo has shown potential as a scorer during his first three seasons, and even demonstrated during the playoffs that he can be a plus defender when properly motivated. Adding Mayo would be a risk, but one with the potential to pay off handsomely.
Step 4: Fill out the roster
Those moves give Boston a strong six-player core with a little more money left to fill out the roster. Bradley might be ready to step into a rotation role by the 2012-13 season, and ideally, he would serve as a neo-Tony Allen, backing up both guard spots and providing lockdown defense off the bench. That leaves the Celtics in need of a wing with size and some more depth in the post. They could fill those spots by signing Matt Barnes (one year, $2 million) and Robin Lopez (two years, $6.3 million) as free agents. Those additions give Boston a nine-player rotation with solid depth at almost every spot.
With these moves, the Celtics should be capable of maintaining one of the NBA's best defenses with an offense somewhere near league average. It would be reasonable to expect 45 to 50 wins for this lineup during the 2012-13 season. Although that might not sound impressive in the wake of years of contending for championships with the Allen-Garnett-Pierce core, it represents a soft landing instead of a long, painful rebuild.
The upside of taking this path for Boston is the opportunity to keep most of the team together for years to come. The Celtics will have to find a replacement for Paul Pierce at some point, but the other top six players on the roster would be just entering or still approaching their primes. At 27, Jefferson would be the oldest of the group. If Ainge could strike gold with some of the late draft picks he used to acquire the young talent that turned into Allen and Garnett, Boston would have the chance to reemerge quickly as serious contenders in the Eastern Conference.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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