Just a few days ago, Danny Ainge noted, “We’re as good as the teams playing in the Finals right now.” He added that the Celtics have a great chance next season if they keep their roster intact, saying, “Continuity breeds stability and success. We’ll make subtle changes (to the roster).” Rather than react with the obligatory “If continuity breeds success, why did you turn over half the roster at midseason?” argument, I’ll just say the Celtics’ current frame of mind worries me. If Ainge plans to rope one more contending year out of The Big Three, he should spend wisely this summer and balance the desire to win with a worthwhile rebuilding or reloading plan. One mistake this summer could set Boston’s future back for years.
I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiment of reaching for another title. Like Ainge alluded to, the Celtics’ series against Miami was closer than the final tally. Even in losing 4-1, the Celtics could blame at least a half-dozen mitigating factors: Rajon Rondo’s injury, Paul Pierce’s bogus ejection, Glen Davis’s impersonation of a drunken parade float, Jeff Green’s unwillingness to assert himself, Shaq’s Achilles heel and Jermaine O’Neal’s wrist, to name a few. Even with everything conspiring against Boston, every game the Celtics lost against the Heat was a toss-up at some point in the fourth quarter. There wasn’t a moat in between the two teams, just a small stream. And that was with Rondo dragging his lifeless arm by his side. With a little luck (and a little health), the Celtics might have represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. However, that thought should not blur Ainge’s vision this summer.
Trying to contend one more time with The Big Three presents two main issues.
As presently constructed, the Celtics are perfectly set to rebuild on the fly next summer. After this season, only Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo remain under contract. That leaves Boston with flexibility and cap space galore; Ainge would have the option of rebuilding with young players or recruiting superior free agents in hopes of building the next so-called Super Team.
One or two bad moves could ruin all that flexibility. Let’s say the Celtics re-sign Jeff Green to a long-term contract, then sign Samuel Dalembert (or Halfway-Decent Free Agent Center X) for the mid-level exception. Poof. There goes $14-15 million of that valuable cap space Boston has built, all for two players who may or may not help the Celtics very much. But if they want to contend next season, the Celtics may have to bite the bullet and use some of the cap space they intended to save. Oh, the concept of trading Boston’s future for a few years of Jeff Green and/or Samuel Dalembert does not appeal to you? Take a number and get in line.
There are certain ways to navigate around choosing between the future and the present, though the alternatives would take creativity from Ainge. The most likely option would seem to be a sign-and-trade deal (or multiple sign-and-trade deals, likely including Glen Davis and Jeff Green). Let’s say the Celtics don’t want to spend $6-8 million on Green. They could sign-and-trade him to a team with limited cap space, allowing the team to sign Green in return for one of the team’s assets. In a perfect world, the Celtics would trade Green for a worthwhile veteran with one year remaining on his contract. Then, the Celtics could advance their prospects for next season while also maintaining their cap space and flexibility. Meanwhile, the other team involved in the trade would receive Green, a decent player with a reservoir of untapped potential, someone who can play now and possibly (with a lot of improvement) become a franchise cornerstone in the future. An example of such a trade? Green for O.J. Mayo. Would the Grizzlies pull the trigger? Maybe. Would the Celtics? I would hope so. Let Mayo run a one-year test drive, see how he fits in Boston’s plans, maintain cap space, preserve the present, and prepare for the future, all at once.
The second issue?
Any team can crow about wanting to contend for a title instantly. But not every team can actually put a contender onto the court. In all likelihood, the Celtics already missed out on their last chance for a title last season. They will get one year older by next playoffs, while the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat will presumably become one year more cohesive, one year more experienced and, yes, one year better.
So much has to go right for Boston to contend next season: The Big Three have to stay healthy. The Celtics need to use zero cap space to sign at least one (and probably two) reliable centers alongside Jermaine O’Neal. Rajon Rondo needs to become more consistent and stay healthy. The bench needs a makeover (again, with zero cap space). If Green and/or Davis return, their play needs to do a 180. Even if all that unfolds in Boston’s favor, the Heat and/or Bulls STILL might put a better team on the floor. And that’s just in the East, before we even talk about Dallas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and whoever else might contend in the West.
Which is why mortgaging the future (even slightly) for one more championship run makes very little sense. Even a perfect storm of health and offseason additions might not be enough for Boston to win another title. It’s probably better to put the foot on the brakes for next year and concentrate more efforts toward the future. Yes, I hate myself for saying that. I know Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett deserve an organization hell-bent on winning a championship in their final years. Sadly, the win-or-bust mentality makes little sense.