The problem with blowing things up and starting over is that there has to be a viable alternative. Take the Nets, who planned for years to take a shot at Dwight Howard only to have it all fall apart at the trade deadline. Instead, GM Billy King traded a lottery pick for the right to pay Gerald Wallace $40 million over four years and added Joe Johnson, whose contract has $89 million left.
The Nets are better today than they were when the season ended, but how much better can they realistically expect to get, even if All-Star point guard Deron Williams re-signs? More to the point, how much better will they be in Years 3 and 4 when they will be capped out?
Look around the Eastern Conference. The Bulls and Pacers are facing the loss of key players. The 76ers appear set for a major retooling. The Hawks are breaking up their middling core. There’s opportunity for the Celtics to remain competitive, and their main competition appears to be the team they just took to seven games in the conference finals.
As Celtics team president Danny Ainge surveyed the free agent landscape, he came to the obvious conclusion that there was no one worth trading in his vintage roster for a sleeker model. Howard was off the free agent market, and the glut of restricted free agents would be out of the C's price range (See: Roy Hibbert’s four-year, $58 million from Portland and Omer Asik’s three-year, $24 million offer from the Rockets).
Just as importantly, Ainge remains convinced that the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen still has more basketball left, and yes, he’s as surprised as you. When he brought them together he thought they would be able to maintain their performance for three years.
“They proved me wrong,” Ainge said. “They played for five years. Paul Pierce was Player of the Month in the month of March and runner-up in the month of April. KG, it’s well-documented what he did in the second half of the year and playoffs, and Ray, before he got hurt, he was playing amazing basketball.”
So, he’s trying to bring them back together again because it’s the best option for right now and it’s also the most realistic.
“The reason we haven’t made trades isn’t because we haven’t looked into possible opportunities to retool our team in the future, but those opportunities aren’t there and our guys continue to show how good they are on the court,” Ainge said. “We’re going to let them keep playing because it’s the best alternative for us, for Celtics fans and the organization. Never have I doubted whether they can play. The only question is can they contribute to the level where they once were.”
This plan is not without its flaws -- most notably, that Allen has not agreed to return yet. Even if Allen does come back, this is still the core of a team that finished 25th in offensive efficiency, was the worst offensive rebounding team in at least 40 years and was downright awful whenever Garnett was off the court.
The Celtics may match up well with the Heat, but the Bulls and Pacers remain formidable and until Howard finds a new home, he remains a wild card in every possible way. Nothing is guaranteed or assured about this plan, but Ainge understands this, as well.
“The only question is: Can they carry a team? So, we need help,” Ainge said, answering his own rhetorical question. “We need Jeff Green to be a good player. We need Rajon Rondo, who has evolved into a perennial All-Star player, to be what he is.”
That’s a good start, assuming they can sign Green. Both Ainge and Green’s agent, David Falk, made it sound as if a deal was imminent on Monday. “This is his No. 1 desired destination,” Falk said. Ainge said Green is motivated to show his brief time in Boston wasn’t the real him, and while there are legitimate questions as to just how good Green really is, he would be a significant upgrade over what the C's had in reserve last season.
They also need Avery Bradley to continue to develop. His play at the end of the season re-energized a tired team and completely reset the bar in terms of how good he can become. They need rookie Jared Sullinger to become a rotation player and help prop up a second unit that had zero reliable offensive threats. They need Fab Melo to provide defense, and it wouldn’t hurt if JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore were able to contribute meaningful minutes.
And they still need more help. This is where it gets tricky.
Ainge wants to wrap up his own players and still leave room to use the full mid-level exception: a contract that starts at $5 million and could be worth as much as $21 million over four years. If he plans it just right, he may even be able to use the bi-annual exception to bring back someone like Chris Wilcox.
The mid-level puts the C's in the ballpark with free agents like Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford -- although probably not O.J. Mayo. Ainge wants to add another guard -- yes, in addition to Allen -- who can provide offense off the bench and provide Rondo with suitable support. There’s strength in numbers, and that’s not something the Celtics have had in recent years.
The magic number is 74, as in millions. Here’s where we have to get into some advanced salary cap talk. As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA has imposed tougher penalties once you go over the luxury tax. Teams that are over the tax have to use a smaller mid-level exception and don’t have access to the bi-annual exception. There are also stricter restrictions on trades, but that will keep for a later time.
Last season, the tax line was $70.3 million, and it is expected to be similar this season. The league is conducting an audit where they will set the salary cap and tax line for this season. That’s why players can’t officially sign until July 11.
Because nothing is ever that simple, the CBA added a $4 million “apron,” meaning that teams have an extra $4 million in wiggle room to use their exceptions, making the real number $74 million. Then it becomes a hard cap. Literally.
“If we use the mid-level we have to stay under the 74 [million dollars],” Ainge said. “There’s no choice. We’re trying to use the mid-level. If we use that mid-level exception then it basically becomes a hard cap at 74 [million].”
Long story short, that’s why Garnett’s new deal reported to be for three years and $34 million is so vital. That’s why offering Allen $6 million a year makes good financial sense and why it will be important to keep Green’s new deal at a manageable number. It’s also why Brandon Bass appears to be further behind in the pecking order -- he could also be used in a sign-and-trade -- and why role players like Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma haven’t been addressed yet.
This is a carefully choreographed dance that Ainge and his front office are trying to pull off. They may not be able to do everything, but they’re going to try.