The Celtics’ season ended with the crushing disappointment of a Game 7 loss in Miami, but the new one started with a letter. Every summer, Doc Rivers writes a long, detailed note to Danny Ainge about his team and what he thinks it needs. It should come as no surprise to anyone who watched the Celtics struggle to score points last season that the coach’s biggest request was for an offensive playmaker.
“That was my No. 1 need,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we had enough guys who could score off the dribble. [Rajon] Rondo can score off the dribble, but we needed a guy who can score and be a knockdown shooter at the same time.”
Enter Jason Terry. The Celtics -- more specifically, Rivers -- were the first team to call the veteran scorer just after free agency opened for business. The 13-year vet is a former Sixth Man of the Year winner who thrived coming off the bench -- a crippling weakness last season -- and possessed championship experience with the Mavericks (and also, as he’s quick to remind you, with the University of Arizona, where he won a national championship in 1997).
“My mission is to kill,” the affable Terry said. “Whoever that is, whether it’s the Heat, whether it’s the Lakers. Hopefully both. That’s my mission and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Ainge’s mission this offseason was building a more versatile and dynamic team, one that could match up with the Heat and take some of the scoring load off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He also wanted to add players who could keep up with Rajon Rondo in the open court and play off his strengths.
He began with four players under guaranteed contract, a handful of draft picks and a tiny sliver of space under the new realities of a harder salary cap and luxury tax system. This is how he and Rivers, along with his front office that includes Mike Zarren, Austin Ainge and Ryan McDonough, rebuilt the Celtics.
THE KG CONTRACT
If finding a scorer was the biggest need, bringing back Kevin Garnett was the whole point of the offseason. With Garnett back in place, Ainge could retool. If KG decided to walk away, then nothing short of a massive overhaul was in order.
When Garnett agreed to terms on the eve of free agency, it not only set the direction for this year, but also next season and possibly the season that follows. He agreed to a three-year deal that could be worth up to $36 million, a sizable cut from his previous contract. Additionally, only half of his $12 million salary in the final year of the contract is guaranteed, leaving both sides an out.
As Mark Deeks reported, Garnett also received a no-trade clause, making him one of only four players in the league (Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan) with that provision. In other words, Garnett is a Celtic and he’ll likely remain one for the rest of his career.
The contract was important for another reason: flexibility. Brandon Bass quickly re-signed for three years and just over $19 million, a solid contract for a solid pro, but not a cap-buster. Chris Wilcox agreed to come back for the minimum and Jeff Green agreed to terms soon after, although the final details would take weeks to hammer out.
Green ultimately signed a four-year, $36 million contract with a player option for the fourth year. The merits of his deal have been debated ad nauseam, but at the very least the 26-year-old is a significant upgrade on the wing behind Pierce, a major concern in recent years. He’ll have to be more than that to justify his contract, but there’s something to be said for allowing Green to operate with a clean slate as he comes back from heart surgery.
Slowly but surely, the roster was taking shape within the rigid confines of the new hard-cap reality in the NBA. By committing the full mid-level exception to Terry, the Celtics were bound to stay under the luxury tax apron of $74.03 million in salaries, leaving them little room to maneuver as they turned their attention to finding a replacement for Ray Allen.
COURTING COURTNEY LEE
Shock and disappointment over Allen’s decision to leave soon turned to grim resolve. Terry was never meant to replace the future Hall of Famer, he was supposed to augment the lineup. With Avery Bradley likely out for a significant amount of time to begin the season, the C's had to find a capable off-guard. Luckily, Rivers knew just the guy.
Courtney Lee is the kind of player who goes unnoticed by the average fan. He’s a tough defensive guard who does most of his work offensively away from the ball. The rare role player who can stay on the court for 30 minutes a night, Lee excels at knocking down 3-pointers, especially from the corner.
That particular skill was one of Allen’s strengths, and in the Celtics offense having a threat in the corner is critical for maintaining spacing. Rivers went to work on Lee with a meeting in Orlando the day after Allen picked the Heat, but in order to get him Ainge had to get creative.
Lacking the cap space to sign Lee outright, as well as an exception, the C's had to put together a sign-and-trade using their last remaining roster assets: JaJuan Johnson, the non-guaranteed contracts of E’Twaun Moore and Sean Williams, and the Bobcats’ second-round pick, secured from the Thunder as added compensation from the Green trade.
This was almost literally everything the Celtics had to offer, but there still was one last piece that was needed to make it work in order to finish the deal. At the last minute, the Blazers agreed to take Sasha Pavlovic, setting up a five-player, three-team trade that more or less made the Celtics’ offseason.
In Lee and Terry, Ainge was able to acquire two mid-level guards without touching the core of his roster or exceeding the tax apron. He also constructed a versatile backcourt that should thrive playing alongside Rondo.
“When [Bradley] comes back I don’t know if anyone has a better guard core than us, but we’re going to have to wait for that,” Rivers said. “In the meantime we have three guys who can all play multiple positions. That’s the way I would always want to coach, and I have an opportunity to do that.”
ROOKIES AND OTHER SURPRISES
Long before free agency, the Celtics began their offseason with a pair of low first-round draft picks. The hope was that they could draft at least one impact player and add another development piece. When Jared Sullinger fell to them, it made their night.
“When the day started, I did not think he would be there at 21,” Ainge said at the time. “We’re fortunate to get him.”
Sullinger was there because of concerns about his back, but he quickly showed during summer league play that his potential outweighs the risk. He brings a low-post scoring dimension the Celtics simply haven’t had in recent years and he also flashed the skill to develop into an all-around offensive threat.
Fab Melo offers a different package. A legit 7-footer who is still learning the game, Melo can bock shots and take charges, two skills that are very much in demand for big men. If he can develop beyond that, the Celtics will have a bargain at a premium position for the next 4-5 years.
Summer league typically is a time for rookies to get their feet wet and prospects to show their skills for European teams. Rarely do they make enough of an impression to get an actual chance to stick on an NBA roster, but that’s exactly what Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith did in Orlando and Las Vegas.
The Lee trade depleted the roster of young and inexpensive talent, but Christmas and Smith, along with second-round pick Kris Joseph, will enter camp competing for the last two roster spots. The only way the Celtics' plan was going to work was for younger players to fill out the roster. Now they have an intriguing set of options, albeit unproven ones.
“A team that is trying to win, it’s tough to count too much on three rookies coming in,” Ainge said on draft night. “Maybe one will be ready to go, maybe two of them will be able to play a certain role, we’ll see.”
Not all the developing will be done in Boston. Through a new initiative with the D-League, the Celtics assumed control of basketball operations with their affiliate in Maine. New rules will make it easier to send players up I-95 for a game and have them back in Waltham for practice the next day. The price in development is a small one if one or more prospects are able to blossom into NBA contributors.
THE FINAL PIECES
Once the key players were locked into place, there still was one nagging question: What about the depth at the center position? The Celtics have committed to keeping Garnett in that role, but they still needed critical backup help to battle the like of Andrew Bynum and Roy Hibbert.
This was not a good year for big men in free agency, but Ainge and his team zeroed in on Jason Collins, a veteran banger in the post with limited offensive skills but a solid defensive presence. Still, the C's were dangerously thin, and memories of last season when important minutes were handled by a hobbled Greg Stiemsma and an overmatched Ryan Hollins were still fresh.
Along came Darko Milicic, of all people. A washout in Detroit, Orlando and Minnesota, Milicic was available after he was waived by the Wolves via the amnesty clause. Reports out of the Twin Cities indicated that removing him from the locker room was coach Rick Adelman’s top priority, but one team’s problem is another’s solution. Milicic won’t be asked to be a savior, a starter or even a key cog, and the Celtics are taking a long view on his potential contributions.
“What we want Darko to be is to come in and fit a role for us and not push all these expectations that he’s had on him his whole career,” Rivers said. “I think his first concern should be our team instead of trying to establish himself as the second-pick-in-the-draft thing. I think that probably hurt him over his career.”
Added Ainge: “He has shown signs but he hasn’t been consistent. Time will tell. There’s a lot of competition at the big positions.”
That, ultimately, has been what this offseason has been about for the Celtics: depth, versatility and competition. They addressed all three and became younger in the process -- as many as 10 of the players on the final roster will be 27 years or younger. In the end, Ainge signed, drafted or re-signed 13 players, and more than half the roster was turned over from Game 7 of the conference finals.
While Rondo, Pierce and Garnett are back as the core, the Celtics will have a different look without Allen. The reserves have been bolstered with talents such as Terry, Green and Sullinger, as well as 21 feet worth of backup centers. This is the team Rivers wanted, the one he feels can not only get back to the conference finals but take one more shot at hanging another banner.