Just two months ago, the question for Danny Ainge was how would he tear down and try to rebuild with a roster full of aging veterans with big-money contracts and no salary cap space to work with. Now the question is whether he can keep the team together and continue this run.
If the Celtics' playoff success proved anything, it validated Ainge’s belief in his team that he maintained throughout the uncertain winter. He resisted the urge to trade Ray Allen at the deadline, which signaled his intention that he wasn’t ready to give up on them yet.
The Celtics rewarded his faith with a stirring run that wasn’t so much luck and good fortune as it was a return to their defensive roots and swagger. They really were closer to the team that started the season going 23-5 than the one that finished 27-27.
This is good for Ainge and the Celtics because they are looking at two more years with Kevin Garnett as the highest-paid player, and it would be far easier to add to the core then to immediately kickstart the Rajon Rondo era without the benefit of cap space.
The indications are that Ainge will try to keep this team together. That will mean re-signing Ray Allen, having Paul Pierce exercise his player option or working out some kind of a long-term arrangement and having Doc Rivers return as coach.
Beyond that, the Celtics have six other free agents to deal with on the roster. Some of them seem likely to stay — Tony Allen and Nate Robinson, primarily — while others face uncertain futures.
Rasheed Wallace threw the first curveball of the offseason when Rivers said after Game 7 that he was thinking about retiring. But that doesn’t mean that the Celtics would be done with their financial commitment to Wallace or that they would get back the cap space.
The Celtics are not likely to be big players in free agency, barring sign-and-trades, but they do have the mid-level exception to play with as well as their customary pitch to veterans: Sign here if you want to contend for a championship. They couldn’t make that pitch as strongly in April.
There is also Thursday’s draft and they have two picks, including No. 19 in the first round, which could net a rotational player or a big man to develop long-term.
Before all that, they have to deal with their own roster. And before that, we should start with the coach.
WHAT’S UP DOC?
This is what we know about Doc Rivers. He has another year left on his contract to coach the Celtics. The players want him back and he showed during the playoffs that he is more than just a players-coach who gets them to play hard.
He also showed in the regular season that he knew what he was doing with his veteran roster and that he wasn’t afraid of making tough long-term decisions at the expense of short-term success.
Rivers is also a master tactician who is the rare combination of communicator, strategist and respected figure that is in short supply in the NBA. If he does return he won’t have Tom Thibodeau by his side, and it will be interesting to see if the defense suffers for it.
But Rivers is the right coach for this team, especially if they stand pat and his decision may be the most important one of the offseason.
We also know this. He wants to spend more time with his family and his kids who are entering their senior years of high school and college.
Rivers said he would take a week or so to decide his future and he’s earned the time for reflection. He is far more grounded that most coaches and it is prudent to sit back and evaluate the situation.
At times after Game 7 he talked in the past tense and he also mentioned the upcoming draft and the summer league in his native Orlando. In short, he sounded very much like a man who wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
THE SIGNED PLAYERS
Rajon Rondo: The Celtics signed Rondo to a five-year extension which begins in 2010-11 rather than let him get to restricted free agency and that move is the key to their franchise.
Rondo made his first All-Star team this season and he should be a fixture for years to come. More importantly, he showed in the playoffs that he can be the best player on a championship-level team. He still has work to do, however.
Rondo’s jumpshot can improve obviously, but he simply has to become a better free throw shooter. Rondo only got to the line 3.4 times a game per 36 minutes, which is a lower rate than Kendrick Perkins and he made only 62 percent of his shots.
Rivers pointed to his inability to make free throws in the finals as reason why he lost some of his aggressiveness going to the basket against the Lakers. That has to change. For his career Rondo is a 63 percent free throw shooter and in order to take the next step he has to get over 75 percent.
Beyond that is the very real question of whether the veterans are ready to have Rondo lead them for an entire season on the court. That was one of the things that keyed the playoff run and it should be clear to everyone that it’s Rondo’s time. That doesn’t mean it will go smoothly.
The long-term success of the franchise is in his hands.
Kevin Garnett: The Celtics believe that Garnett will be better next season as he moves a further away from knee surgery. Can he be 2008 KG again? Probably not, but he showed in the playoffs that he still has spring in his legs and that he can still be a dominant defensive player.
Garnett is signed for the next two seasons and that looks less like an albatross and more like a reasonable amount of time for him to continue performing at a high level.
His health is everything and Rivers made sound decisions to rest him during the season and keep his minutes low. That’s the prescription for the rest of his career and if the Celtics can get 70 games from him for 32 minutes a night, that’s a pretty good trade-off.
Kendrick Perkins: For as long as we talk about basketball in Boston we’ll always wonder if the Celtics could have won the championship if Perkins was available for Game 7.
As Rivers said, the starting five has still not lost a series when they’ve all been healthy, but that’s merely semantics. They didn’t have Perkins and they didn’t win.
It’s still a little unclear how much damage Perkins did to his knee and what his rehab schedule will look like. It’s also uncertain whether Perkins will be available for the start of the season.
His injury also may have altered some off-season plans because Perkins would have been an extremely valuable trade chip with one more year left on a very reasonable contract. It has been reported that the Celtics almost included him in a trade for Carlos Boozer.
Perkins is also extremely valuable to the Celtics because he is the perfect defensive compliment for Garnett. However, his knee injury will rob him of a summer to work on his game. He made strides as a low-post offensive threat early in the season but regressed as he battled knee tendinitis.
Perkins has also come a long way as a team leader and a bridge between the older players and the younger ones. If he can get healthy and remain productive he and Rondo can continue to be the two most important young players on the roster.
Glen Davis: What a strange season it was for Davis who didn’t really hit his stride until the postseason.
Davis finally accepted his role as an energy player off the bench who can do great things when he’s on the court. He also showed in Game 2 against Miami that he can be a very effective starter when he gets the chance.
The key for Davis is remaining patient with the current structure and continuing to add to his game. With Garnett back, Davis adjusted his offensive game from a jump-shooting big man to a multi-purpose banger inside.
It wasn’t without difficulty. Davis made just over half of his attempts at the rim (league average is 60 percent) and he had a rather alarming 18 percent of his shots blocked.
But Davis was a different player in the playoffs. He used his body to create space and also used the rim as an ally by finishing with reverse layups. He also started to get calls, which got him to the free throw line.
It’s a tough gig, but Davis did it well in the playoffs. Now he has to continue to do it night after night and also maintain his jump shot. It will never be easy for Davis to be an elite player in the NBA, but he can be a very good one as long as he continues to understand his role and his limitations.
Rasheed Wallace: Say this for Sheed: He is a man of his word. He said he would play better in the playoffs and he did. If the Celtics had been able to win Game 7, Wallace would have been an instant folk-hero.
As it is, he will go down as a one-year curiosity of bizarre play, fantastic interviews and rather heartwarming and hilarious interactions with his kids before and after games. That’s if he does indeed retire.
He may never play for the Celtics again, but that doesn’t mean that he just disappears from their financial ledger. If Wallace retires the Celtics still owe him the final two years of his contract at about $6.5 million per season. It seems likely that the two sides would negotiate a buy-out, which would lessen the financial blow, but that money would still count against the team’s cap.
On the court the Celtics will need to replace him with a big man who can step in and play, especially considering the questions about Perkins and the ongoing concerns over Garnett’s durability.
If this is it for Sheed we can say that it was a fascinating experiment, and it will definitely mean fewer technical fouls.
RAY AND PAUL
Paul Pierce: The captain has a player option for $21.5 million, which is obviously a lot of money. No one expects Pierce to be anywhere but Boston and he made a few jokes about it during the playoffs. “Are they worried about losing me?” he said once when asked about Rivers’ future.
If he does opt out, he and the team can work out a long-term arrangement that would make sense from a planning standpoint and maybe help lessen a luxury-tax blow.
Pierce will turn 33 before the start of next season and he is still going strong despite dealing with several injuries that only seemed minor because Pierce insisted on playing through them. For all of his dramatic theatrics he is a gamer and never wants to miss so much as a practice. The time is coming for the Celtics to reign him in during the season as Rivers did down the stretch.
Pierce remains an All-Star performer and second championship or not, he is still moving his way into the Celtics pantheon. Assuming he returns and has a healthy season, he will move into fifth place on the franchise’s all-time games played list and continue advancing on Larry Bird for second in points behind John Havlieck.
He is still the rock of the franchise and should have a few good years left.
Ray Allen: Now it gets tricky. Allen said after Game 7 that he wants to return and the Celtics would like to make it happen, but at what price?
The track record for 35-year-old shooting guards is not good but few 35-year-olds anywhere keep themselves in as good a shape as Allen does.
His outside shooting is so important to the Celtics because it spaces the floor and gives their offense some structure. Various advanced metrics show that Allen has an extremely positive impact when he is on the floor in terms of adjusted +/- ratings.
So, what would be fair? Two years for $20 million seems like a reasonable starting point, but Allen will get offers from other teams who want to add his stroke and his veteran wisdom. Miami has been mentioned a few times.
The decision on Allen will have a domino effect on the other moves, but it’s worth noting that even if he does leave, the Celtics would still not have cap room to sign a max free agent, and if Pierce picks up his option they will have no cap room regardless of whatever happens with Allen.
Ainge has long said that Allen is more valuable to the Celtics than other teams and both sides should think long and hard about extending this mutually-beneficial relationship.
THE UNSIGNED SIX
Tony Allen: For good and ill, the Celtics know what they are getting with TA. He is an elite perimeter defender and his work in the playoffs should pay off in the form of All-Defensive team votes if he carries it over to next season.
He is also an explosive but uneven finisher, a shaky jump shooter and prone to outlandish turnovers. But the Celtics can live with all that as long as he continues to give them 15-20 minutes of all-out defense each night.
Allen is no longer a developing player. This is what he is and this is the place for him to continue to do it. He told weei.com that he considers himself a “Celtic for life,” and of the remaining unsigned free agents he seems the most likely candidate to stay.
Nate Robinson: It was quite a reversal for Robinson who went from racking up DNP’s to saving them in Game 6 of the conference finals. Robinson said on several occasions during the finals that he was happy in Boston and wanted to stay, but he will have interest from other teams.
Robinson could be a nice compliment to Rondo as point guard because of his ability to create offense and play end-to-end defense. That hasn’t been lost on other teams who way be more willing to take a gamble on his athleticism now as opposed to two months ago when he was out of the rotation.
One thing to note. Robinson has a huge cap hold of about $10 million according to the invaluable Sham Sports. On a team looking to create cap space that would make him an automatic goner, but the Celtics can afford to be patient while that number sits on their cap.
Marquis Daniels: The enigma. He arrived with the potential of an undersized James Posey, but left the season buried on the bench and completely out of the rotation.
Quis was never able to rediscover his game after an early-season thumb injury and seemed as mystified as Rivers as to why it happened. He also came at the cost of the bi-annual exception, which removes one of the ways the Celtics can sign veteran free agents this summer. (It can only be used once every two years).
It seems unlikely that he would return, but he does have talent and in theory could still fit a role with the Celtics. As always, an enigma.
Brian Scalabrine: It is almost impossible to talk about Scal as a player without mentioning all the other stuff. The fans love him. The players and coaching staff respect him and he remains a smart player willing to do whatever is asked.
That said, there is doubt that Scalabrine can be an effective player anymore. He logged less than 500 minutes for the first time since his rookie season and made only 33 percent of his 3-point shots when he did play.
Scalabrine was the 13th man this season and now that his five-year contract has expired there isn’t much of a market for a veteran to fill that role. It would be tough to say goodbye to him, but it also may be time.
Shelden Williams: At this point in his career Williams is no longer in the development stage. He’s a solid rebounder with questionable hands and a limited offensive game.
He will also be just 27 years old when the season starts and still has value as a fifth big man. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to bring him back to fill that role, but if Wallace retires the Celtics will need to do more on their frontline.
The draft is heavy on wing players and project centers. If they do select a 7-footer there may not be room to carry a player like Williams. If they go in another direction and go after a veteran, Williams could fit as insurance.
Michael Finley: We may have seen the last of Finley, who remained a respected veteran but couldn’t summon a PJ Brown moment during the playoffs.
In his prime, Finley was one of the most underrated players of his era and enjoyed a rather remarkable run playing with some of the best teams in the league. But it seems doubtful that he can still contribute to a winning team.
That leaves Tony Gaffney and Oliver Lafayette, who were signed at the end of the season and got to see the playoff run up close. Their contracts are not guaranteed for next season but their presence amounted to a long tryout, which can only help their chances of sticking around.
Until we see them play, there’s no telling how they would fit but they are at least young and still hold the promise if development, which this team sorely needs.
Ainge has some big decisions to make, but it seems that the biggest has already been made. Against some pretty overwhelming evidence, the Celtics run is not yet over and he doesn’t seem likely to pull the plug and start over just yet.
However, even if he does bring back the starting five plus Davis, Robinson and Tony Allen there are several holes that need to be plugged. A backup big man may be at the top of the list along with more versatility on the wing.
Ainge has pulled more than a few tricks out of his hat when everyone was looking the other way, and as always it is dangerous to make assumptions about his moves, but as we hit the draft and free agency he may continue to play the hand that he dealt himself with the Garnett and Allen trades.
That would have been a tough sell in April, but given their cap situation it was always the best option and now it makes even more sense. The summer madness awaits.