Danny Ainge spent the past three seasons plotting to have cap space in the summer of 2012, when the Boston Celtics would presumably begin moving on from the Big Three era. The Celtics declined to re-sign Tony Allen partly because they were unwilling to extend a third year within their offer, and they manufactured a way so that everybody’s contracts (with the exception of Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and a couple rookie deals) would expire after the 2012 season. The thought was that by then, which is now, the Big Three would have declined to the point where it was essential to move on. Cap space became Ainge’s holy grail, and he’s used that cap space this summer.
He’s used that cap space re-signing all the players to whom he was supposed to say goodbye.
Ainge is keeping the core together. He re-signed Kevin Garnett. He’s chasing after Ray Allen with a pack of bloodhounds. Pierce and Rondo are already in place and the Celtics are trying to “keep the band together,” while adding Jason Terry and probably Jeff Green to solidify a bench that couldn’t produce enough at the most important junctures of last season (prime example: the Celtics mustered just two bench points in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals). The thought is that the Celtics were 10 minutes from the NBA Finals last season, that the free agency class provided no clear answers, that moving forward with a similar roster is the best option.
It might be. If the Celtics can find a way to keep Allen, they will have kept all their main pieces from last season (except Greg Stiemsma, who might be a casualty of Boston’s cap situation) while adding Terry, Green and Jared Sullinger, who should make an immediate impact as long as his back doesn’t collapse at some point prior to the regular season opener. A lot of things went right for Boston to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season — Derrick Rose tore his ACL, Chris Bosh strained an ab muscle and Garnett reached deep within himself to pull out some of his best basketball in a Celtics uniform — but we must also remember: the Celtics were the NBA’s best team from the All-Star break forward, against a schedule that was burnt around the edges because of its birthplace in hell. The playoff run was less a fluke or gift than the culmination of a team finding its sea legs and getting stronger and stronger as the year progressed.
That doesn’t necessarily mean returning with the same roster makes Boston a top title contender next year, though. It doesn’t delete LeBron James from the Eastern Conference landscape, or the fully-loaded Los Angeles Lakers out west, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, which tasted bitter defeat but should grow because of its juices. It doesn’t mean that Garnett or Terry will be any good when their contracts end at ages 39 and 37, respectively, three seasons down the road. It doesn’t mean that the path Ainge has chosen is without gigantic obstacles and risks and dangers. It isn’t.
Ainge probably couldn’t have reloaded this summer due to the free agency class, but he could have begun the rebuilding process. He could have allowed Garnett and Allen to walk, traded Paul Pierce for draft picks or young talent, and jumped neck-deep into the “this is Rajon Rondo’s team now” swimming pool. He could have maintained cap flexibility to target free agents in the future. Maybe the Celtics would have become bad enough to get a lottery pick, and maybe the pick would have helped them, or been an asset Ainge could use to move for a star, as he did with Allen and Garnett five seasons ago. The Celtics wouldn’t have been good right away, but they would have stayed true to Ainge’s vision for the future.
Instead they’re trying to win now. As a fan, Garnett’s decision to un-retire — which signaled that Boston would make another run at competing for a title — led me to pop bottles of champagne and wear one of those dumb hats people rock on New Year’s Eve, with one of those accompanying, annoying noise-makers that extend from your mouth as you blow on them. I don’t know the names of those stupid things, but you probably know what I’m talking about. The Celtics might not be favorites next season, but they’re relevant. They might not be top dogs in the Eastern Conference, but they’re striving for an upset. They might not win their 18th banner, but they won’t be headed to the lottery either.
I spent the past few years praising Ainge for maintaining cap flexibility while giving the old heavyweights a couple more shots at regaining their championship belt. Now, he’s thrown caution to the wind and modified his future vision to read: “Let’s give three-year deals to all these old guys (Terry and KG) and reasonably solid starters (Bass), and let’s forget about all the ramifications those contracts will have on future cap flexibility, and let’s just say screw it and try to win next season, because damn it, we were close last year and I don’t know what else I could have done this summer to keep us reasonably competitive.”
If Garnett can keep stiff-arming Father Time and Terry can stem the slight tide of slippage he’s had the past couple seasons and the Celtics can re-sign Green and Allen, there’s a chance they win a title next season. Not a huge chance, but a small one. As a fan that will make things interesting, and potentially great. Playoff basketball will be played in Boston this upcoming season, we can be sure. More game-winning shots will be hit and more memories will be made, and it will all probably end in heartbreak, but we’ll be better off for it because man, do we love the way this team competes, even in defeat.
If the Celtics keep Allen, and maybe even if they don’t, I love their potential for next season. Yet when the memories are only that and the dream has faded away, those contracts will remain. Ask me three years from now, and I might look at this offseason in a decidedly different manner.