This season has long felt like the swan song for the 21st century version of Boston's Big Three. Way back in January, I wrote that Danny Ainge should be open to a tear-down of the Celtics, if the right opportunities came along. Really, not much has changed in that regard. When your team's three most-accomplished players have a combined 47 years of NBA experience under their aging belts, you are kind of forced to look to the future.
Ainge has managed his roster wisely over the years, giving him the flexibility to go a number ways this coming summer:
- He could bring back the same core at a hopefully discounted rate. Kevin Garnett is still an outstanding player, but he's not at max-contract level any longer. He's not going to cost $21 million next season. The hope here would be that young players like Avery Bradley, E'Twaun Moore, Greg Stiemsma and JaJuan Johnson develop into legitimate rotation players. Bradley is already there. You're also hoping that Jeff Green returns healthy from his heart problems and re-signs and that Brandon Bass exercises his player option.
- He can concede the East to Miami for the next two years, after which Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James all have player options that could free them up to move around the league. They might not go to Boston, but at least Miami's stranglehold on the conference would be relinquished. In this scenario, Ainge lets Garnett, Bass and Ray Allen walk and perhaps even trades Paul Pierce to a team with cap space. He's got the Nos. 21 and 22 picks in the upcoming draft, so maybe he packages Pierce or Rajon Rondo with his picks and tries to move into the lottery. The Celtics tank the next two years and collect two more lottery talents along the way. By 2014-15, Ainge has a new young core and flexibility to go after an impact free agent.
- The most likely scenario: Ainge straddles the fence between these two approaches.
It's far from certain the Celtics will survive the dogfight they've found themselves in against the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston is one key play from going back to Philadelphia in a 0-2 hole and even before the series began, it projected as an exceptionally close matchup. Nevertheless, with Chris Bosh out indefinitely for Miami, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Celtics win an Eastern Conference bracket that has been wrecked by injuries.
If that happens, the outcry of Celtics fans calling for another year of the Big Three could reach a fever pitch. Ainge has shown a healthy disregard for public opinion during most of his adult life, so it's unlikely his long-term plan is going to be affected by this season's outcome. He's talked openly of his desire to keep the contention window open for the long term, even if it means breaking up the roster that's meant so much Boston faithful over the last five years.
It seems unlikely Ainge will go the complete tear-down route, especially at a time when so many other teams around the league are doing the same thing. He's not going to want to return to the pre-Big Three Celtics, who were close to unwatchable. At the same time, he's doesn't want to become mired in the middle class, so he'll try to make some changes. There was a reason he structured his roster to create so much flexibility. As it's turned out, however, the free-agent class is headlined by exactly one player who is a true impact talent, at least among those who might actually change teams: Deron Williams. But Williams might well pick up his option to remain with the Nets, and anyway point guard is the one position Ainge has set for the next few years.
So given that free agent climate, how might a fence-straddling approach look?
The first thing that we have to remember is that while Ainge has freed up some cap space, this is not like, for example, the 2010 Miami Heat who had virtually no committed salary that summer. Boston has Pierce ($16.8 million) and Rondo ($11 million) on the books for next season, so the Celtics wouldn't be starting from scratch. Basically, Ainge is starting with the same foundation he had in the summer of 2007, only five years older.
Ainge has two players operating on first-round rookie contracts in Bradley and Johnson, who are locks to return. He's got Moore and Stiemsma on non-guaranteed deals but they provide quite bit of production (or potential production) for very little remuneration, so pencil them in as well. Then you've got the two first-rounders and a second-rounder, the No. 51 pick of the draft. The second-rounder could be traded or used to speculate on an overseas talent. Leaving that out, we're already accounting for eight roster spots.
The wild card in Ainge's plans is Bass, who is coming off a solid season. Statistically, he's had better, but the Celtics took off when he moved into the starting lineup and Garnett began playing center. Bass has a player option for $4 million, that will also likely include an extra $250,000 in easily-reached contract bonuses. What is Bass worth on the open market? At $4.25 million, he's a solid value. In terms of perceived value around the league, it seems likely he could get more than that. From Bass' standpoint, there is little financial downside in becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Leaving Bass out, then, we've got this eight-man roster, which includes Chad Ford's latest draft projections:
CENTER: Greg Stiemsma, Fab Melo
GUARDS: Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, E'Twaun Moore
FORWARDS: Paul Pierce, JaJuan Johnson, Royce White
This octect plus five minimum-salary roster holds would cost about $38.6 million, leaving Ainge with around $22 million in cap space given a 2012-13 salary cap of $60.5 million. (We won't know the exact figure until July 1.)
The first thing this group screams for is a starting center. Who is on the free-agent market? You've got Roy Hibbert, JaVale McGee and Brook Lopez hitting the market as restricted free agents. Chris Kaman and Spencer Hawes top the unrestricted market. To get one of the restricted guys, you're going to have to offer a poor-value deal. McGee is too undependable for that while Lopez and Hibbert are probably going to be retained by the Nets and Pacers, respectively, who also have plenty of flexibility. Hawes is an intriguing possibility and will have a lot of suitors this summer, including his current team, the Sixers.
However, the best option might be simply to bring back Garnett. It worked awfully well this year, and playing center could prove to be the key to K.G. lasting another 2-3 years. He's well known as a loyal player unlikely to chase rings, and Rivers of course would love to have him back. While Garnett is not going to get max dollars, you still have to think that eight figures per season is likely.
If Allen got two-years, $20 million from Ainge in 2010, Garnett could probably get something like two years, $30 million plus a player option on the open market if every team had cap space to spend. Garnett may have 17 years of NBA mileage behind him and may not be the player he once was, but the late-career plateau he's established over the last three years still mark him as a very valuable player.
However, every team doesn't have cash to spend. It's inconceivable that Garnett would go to a non-contender, so the list of teams that might want to pursue him would be the likes of Chicago, the L.A. Lakers, Miami -- teams that aren't going to be able to offer more than the MLE. If Garnett wants to max out on dollars, he would have to go to somewhere where he'd rather not play. Chances are, he'd rather retire. No, the Celtics still make the most sense for Garnett and vice versa, especially being that Ainge can draft a young center like Melo to groom. If Garnett is willing to sign a two-year, $25 million deal plus a player option, then Ainge would still have around $10 million to spend.
Most of that money might then be used to retain Bass because of his fit alongside Rondo and Garnett. The ideal scenario for Boston would be for Bass to exercise his player option, but if he doesn't, it would likely cost the Celtics somewhere around $6-$7 million next season to keep him around.
After that, you have scraps left for the shooter our projected roster screams for. And guess who's the best fit there? Allen, of course. Allen probably wouldn't be able to land more than a full midlevel exception on the open market, not with a title contender anyway, so Ainge might only have to spend another $5-$6 million. When you consider the possible free-agent options -- O.J. Mayo, Nick Young, Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, it's tough to see a better fit at that salary level than Allen, especially now that he's shown the ability to come off the bench. However, Ainge will surely hope to spread his resources around to retain Green, so Allen could prove to be the most expendable of the Big Three.
In the end, we're may well be looking at basically the same roster for the Celtics, with two rookies, a different cast of minimum-salaried veterans to fill out the depth chart and some wannabe version of Allen, if not Allen himself. If Ainge is forced to hit the free agent market to build his team for next year, he's going to find that this route makes the most sense. It's not ideal by any stretch, because the gap between Miami and Boston is only going to keep growing. You're basically hoping for a repeat of this year's injury epidemic in order to escape the East in the next two years.
Ainge could elect to shake things up via the trade route. Pierce could be dealt to, for example, his hometown Lakers for Pau Gasol. Rondo has been the subject of many trade rumors over the years and has a lot of value in a league short of pure playmakers. Garnett could be included in a sign-and-trade. But is Ainge going to be able to construct a new core that can compete with Miami over the next two years, given what's going to be available? It's asking a lot. If Ainge can't find suitable trade partners and doesn't want to do a complete tear-down, then treading water via the status quo is really the only option he has left.
Two years isn't such a long time, though, and Ainge's fan base would be pacified with more of the Big Three plus Rondo, especially if it seems like there is a promising group of young players developing behind them. By the summer of 2014, the landscape in the Eastern Conference could dramatically change, and Ainge would still be in position to strike, while Pierce, Garnett and Allen ride off together into the sunset. That's the thing about flexibility -- it gives you the option not to act.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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