Following a thoroughly disappointing exit from the 2011 playoffs, Boston seems to be a team in flux. Next season's team will no doubt resemble this year's, due mostly to the unknown nature of the upcoming CBA and the un-tradability of many of the current Celtics, but a lot can happen in an off-season when Danny Ainge has access to a phone.
Coach ‘Doc' Rivers:
*Signed a 5-year deal to continue coaching the Celtics
Boston fans have near-universal love for Doc, even when criticizing his rotations, play-calling, and lack of trust in anyone not in the Big 4. He is one of the nicest gentlemen coaching today, he's funny, he can call highly effective plays, and he has the ears of everyone that matters on the team. I do believe that if Doc left the Celtics this summer the team would have fallen apart moreso than when Perk was traded. The Big 4 could not have broken in a new coach.
Prior to Doc signing his new 5-year deal to stay in Boston, I wrote a draft of this piece that said I wouldn't be upset by Doc stepping down and the windfall of change concurrent with that move. It is clear to me that Doc's current system can only get this current roster so far. Offensively, they're stagnant. Plays are too dependent on perfection. If one screen is missed often times they settle for an awful heave or 24-second violation. The team is so mechanistic that one wrench (i.e. athletic defender) throws the whole thing off. Doc needs to open things up, but seems incapable of doing so. The offense, as constructed and run by the current players, cannot win a championship.
Defensively, the Celtics are superior to most teams, but not the championship-caliber teams (MIA, CHI, LAL), and those teams are younger, deeper, and more athletic. A top-notch defense can get the Celtics far, but not far enough. That much was proven during the past month. And it is highly unlikely that the defense can/will get better, as the defensive stars on the team continue to age. The Celtics defense has hit its ceiling. Now it's all about effort and execution. How much effort can Doc continue to get out of these guys for 7+ months?
Doc's season-long reliance on the starters cost the team both this year and last. Pierce, Allen, and KG are worn down by season's end, especially when covering for teammates' injuries. Doc has tried two ways of getting around this issue. Last season, Doc rested guys down the stretch and they entered the playoffs as the fourth seed. Twenty-four games later, we witnessed the agonizing result of a team-wide empty gas tank. This year, Doc had his team fight for the top seed, only to finish third. There is no easy answer, which is why Doc hasn't found it, but I am concerned with what his game plan will be next season.
Now that the Celtics signed Doc for five more seasons, Doc will need to do the following in order to keep the Celtics in contention: limit the starters' minutes while not undermining what makes the Cs successful (precise ball movement and defensive rotation), force Rondo to shoot 1,000 jump shots and 2,000 free throws every day until he becomes better than league average, incorporate all new players into the Celtics' way of life and rotation, inspire the team on a daily basis to fight, fight, fight. If he fails at any of these tasks the Celtics will not win the 2012 Championship.
It's great to have Doc back, but unless he expands himself as a coach and teacher the Celtics will tread water for the next five seasons, wasting the best shot they have of adding Banner 18 in the foreseeable future.
Current Team (currently under contract for the 2011-12 season):
- Ray Allen ($10 million player option - he's expected to exercise it)
- Kevin Garnett (I don't buy the retirement talk; http://www.celticslife.com/2011/05/kevin-garnett-to-retire.html)
- Jermaine O'Neal (I don't buy the retirement talk, unless his body is more broken than we know; http://www.celticstown.com/2011/05/13/jermaine-oneal-considering-retirement/)
- Shaquille O'Neal (I think he'll retire, but Mama usually knows best; http://aol.sportingnews.com/nba/story/2011-05-19/shaquille-oneals-mom-says-hold-off-on-retirement-talk)
Those seven players alone basically bring this team to the ceiling of the current salary cap.
For a championship contender the Celtics certainly have holes: Center, backup PF/backup SF (depends on the position Jeff Green fills if resigned), backup SG, third PG, bench players. They cannot address all of those needs in free agency because they do not have enough to work with. They must pick and choose carefully, hope the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and subsequent marketplace stay sane, and work to address some needs through the draft and from within. It won't be easy. Here's what they're looking at...
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA):
The team is over-budget, so there is no chance of bringing in a premier UFA without first pulling off a monster trade of one or more of the Big 4. If the team does that, then why would a premier free agent sign with a team obviously stuck in the dreaded ‘rebuilding/bridge mode'? Also, there aren't any truly special UFAs out there this year, so sacrificing the core of your team for one does not make sense.
The Celtics must consider guys with their Mid-Level Exemption and their Bi-Annual Exemption (BAE), if those two things still exist in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The Mid-Level Exemption is exactly that, a mid-level contract (i.e. league average) that can be offered to one player or divvied up among multiple players. The Bi-Annual Exemption is similar, though lower in salary, and can also be divvied up, but, as the name states, can only be used every two years. The Celtics can use theirs this off-season.
The top Mid-Level Exemption (MLE) guys are not coming to Boston. Let's face that fact now. Boston is no longer the team with the widely-considered best shot at the Championship; that now belongs to the likes of MIA, CHI, or OKC (and LAL if they reload). Boston has been knocked to the second tier, not least of which by Doc's reluctance to play many of the veterans and rookies who have joined the team since 2008. The top MLE guys, especially the talented veterans who desire to win a championship, will be begging to play with LeBron, Wade, Rose, and Durant.
Danny Ainge will battle with SAS, LAL, DAL, and others (NYK) for the guys that the championship contenders don't want or can't utilize. These second-tier MLE guys will be less talented and less athletic. The Celtics will have to make do. There are a number of names floating around, but none are true impact players. What the Celtics need is rebounding, size, and youth, and they will be best served bringing in intelligent, emotionally-compatible complimentary players (e.g. P.J. Brown and James Posey in 2008).
I would love to see a talented defensive big man like Samuel Dalembert or Kenyon Martin join the team, but they're likely to be paid a lot of money to play elsewhere, perhaps in Miami (though they're also near the cap ceiling). Jason Collins is an UFA and played admirably during the Hawks' playoff run. He is 7-ft tall and would be a nice fit as a backup to Jermaine or Shaq. Reggie Evans was a rebounding machine for the Raptors this season. I could see Ainge taking a chance on 6'11" Kwame Brown, but I hope he doesn't. Nazr Mohammed and Joel Przybilla are both UFAs and I'd be quite content with either of them coming off the bench for 15-18 mpg. There aren't any truly talented centers available, but there are a number of good complimentary guys, who under the new CBA are hopefully paid as such, allowing the Celtics a shot at signing them.
The scorers on the market (J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford, Michael Redd) will get paid big bucks to score elsewhere, as scorers are always overpaid for their sole talent. They likely wouldn't fit into the machinations of the offense anyhow. I don't see the team adding a talented offensive player this season. They'll have to squeeze what they can out of what they have (i.e. get Jeff Green to score).
As for backup wings, there are a number of talented, intelligent veteran guys available. I'd be interested in Anthony Parker, Tayshaun Prince, Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, Mickael Pietrus (has player option), Leandro Barbosa (has player option), Boris Diaw (has player option), Grant Hill, Al Thornton, or Marquis Daniels (if healthy), but I don't believe the interest is equal on the parts of the players and the Celtics. There is one UFA, however, who the Celtics have craved in seasons past: Josh Howard.
Restricted Free Agents (RFA):
This is where the Celtics have the best chance of filling their roster. They're over-budget, so outbidding other teams for their respective RFAs is impossible (e.g. no chance at DeAndre Jordan); however, they luckily have a few talented ones on their own squad that they have a good shot to resign via Bird Rights and other quirks of the current CBA.
Personally, I would make it a priority to resign both Jeff Green and Delonte West. Give the 24-year old Jeff Green a full season of tutelage and minutes and his confidence and defense will improve. West is a gamer and competent backup at PG and SG. I would also bring back Nenad Krstic and Von Wafer, on team-friendly deals only. I believe both can fill roles on this team and contribute on a weekly basis.
Next Year's Team (my best estimate):
- Rajon Rondo - Rondo, Rondo, Rondo. Where art thou, Rondo? He's certainly the most enigmatic of the bunch, and that's saying something. Team leader? The Future? Carried by his Hall of Fame teammates? Hot-headed? Will he ever practice his jump shot and free throws so that they're consistent? He's a gamer, he's tough, and he plays the Boston Way, but can he carry the torch into the Celtics new era? That is the key question now. We know he's good enough to lead a team of Hall of Famers to the playoffs and, when he wants to, he can dominate a game or series, but he's so darn enigmatic. Can he lead the Celtics into the new era? In my sports' heart, I'm leaning ‘no'. He will always need multiple scorers on the floor with him to make up for his lack of scoring and I fear his mental state once the Big 3 retire. Can Rondo lead without KG, Allen, and Pierce constantly in his ear? For now, Rondo must improve his jump shooting and free throws. Next season, Doc must cut down on his minutes so he can rest his back and various ailments and enter the post-season at 100%.
- Ray Allen - I don't like Ray hanging around to congratulate the Heat after their victory. It seemed like a marketing move by him to show his class and grace, and possibly to reveal his interest in joining the Heat after next season. I tend to respect respectful athletes, but this was uncalled for. Certain teams and players hate each other. The Celtics and Heat hate each other. Their fans hate each other; if you can even call Miami's fans ‘fans', glorified seat-fillers is more like it. You stand with your teammates, not your enemies. As is, his talents are diminishing. He is kept afloat by KG's expert screens and Rondo's pinpoint passes, in conjunction with his own sweet stroke and workout regimen. But he is clearly becoming more one-dimensional. It's shocking he cannot create his own shot, and his defense is noticeably slipping (he cannot guard an athletic SG). He's worth the $10 million he'll be paid next season (if he picks up his player option), and he likely won't receive a larger contract elsewhere, so he'll be a Celtic next year, unless Danny trades him...
- Paul Pierce - His career is winding down, or perhaps it is better to say that his body is slowing down. He cannot compete for 40 mpg with the young-ens any longer, as they are all quicker and more athletic. He's still a scorer, but his 30-point days are becoming few and far between. He's still a physical presence, but overall health, as with all the Celtics, is a constant issue. He's here for three more seasons, and I don't ever see him being dealt or requesting a trade. It will be sad to watch him slow down, but his final games in Boston will be electric and memorable. In many ways, those days will make everything worth it. As for next year, here's hoping he can recapture his best parts from this year.
- Kevin Garnett - He'll never be the same KG, offensively or defensively, as in 2008, but he's still an asset and a leader. His minutes must be limited to 25-28 per game and he's effectively useless in back-to-backs, so the question arises, "How effective can he be in a situational role?" And, "Will he ever accept coming off the bench?" Coming off the bench isn't an option, in my opinion, and his situational ability is questionable. He's always thrived off his talent and intensity, and both seem to be waning with age. If next year is truly his last, how much of himself will he leave on the court? To win a title, he better leave everything.
- Jermaine O'Neal - I envision him coming back to play 18 mpg and collect $6.2 million.
- Avery Bradley - Bradley should be ready for more minutes, but if not, the Celtics must sign a third PG, as West is injury-prone. Unless Ainge and Doc have total faith in Avery Bradley, they cannot go into the season with him as the potential sole backup to Rondo (should West go down with an injury).
- Jeff Green - He'll be back on a one- or two-year deal. Ainge would be admitting to a major mistake after the Perkins-Green trade if he lets Green go to another team. There is a chance that a team submits a massive offer sheet for Green, thereby eliminating the Celtics from matching it, but it's highly unlikely.
- Delonte West - He'll be back because he loves it in Boston and the Celtics know they need him. In the best of worlds, he will play out his career as Boston's backup PG/SG.
- Nenad Krstic - He seems to be interested in returning and without many sure bets in free agency the Celtics would be crazy to let a 7-footer walk away for nothing.
- Von Wafer - He knows the system and there is little interest from other teams. It's worth it to him and the team to resign. I also believe that Doc needs to play him more often, as he is an offensive sparkplug and no longer a defensive liability.
- Anthony Parker - There is a very good possibility that Parker will be the team's shiny off-season addition to backup Ray Allen at SG. He'll split the team's MLE.
- Josh Howard - It's about time he signs with the team after all the flirting that's been going on the past two years. They both want each other, make it happen. He'll be a terrific backup for Pierce (if he can stay healthy). He'll split the team's BAE.
- Joel Przybilla - Out of all the available big men I'm settling on him as he seems the type to be the last standing when the music stops. He has the perfect nasty streak that this team lacks without Perkins in the lineup, and he's a rebounder, which they desperately need. He'll split the team's MLE. I know I may be reaching on this choice, as he's probably too stubborn to accept such a small salary.
- Kwame Brown - I think Ainge takes a flyer on Brown and makes him a backup to the backup C, giving him a chance to earn minutes based on his work during practice. He'll take a cut of the team's BAE.
- Draft Pick #25 - This spot is reserved for whomever the Celtics select at #25 in this year's NBA Draft. Hopefully, it's a mature young big man who loves to rebound and take charges.
* Sasha Pavlovic / Troy Murphy - If the Celtics run out of salary cap space and need to resign one of their own guys to soften the cap hit in lieu of signing Przybilla or Howard, I believe it will be Sasha. Perhaps he can contribute throughout the season, backing up the backup at SF. If not Sasha, then I believe the Celtics take another shot with Troy Murphy, which I wouldn't mind, but I do believe Murphy is frustrated with this team after the weeks he spent riding the pine.
* As for the Celtics draft pick at #55, I believe they'll draft a foreign player and store him overseas for the next few years.
2011-12 Depth Chart:
PG: Rondo / West / Bradley
SG: Allen / Parker / Wafer
SF: Pierce / Howard
PF: Garnett / Green / Brown
C: O'Neal (Jermaine) / Przybilla / Krstic / Draft Pick #25
Bye Bye (guys not returning):
- Glen Davis - It's time to let him go. He's had unlimited opportunities over the past four seasons, but he always lets the team down one way or another. Mentally, I don't believe he'll ever be successful in the NBA; he's too emotionally fragile. Physically, he has limitations, such as speed and elevation. I'll miss the good-Big Baby (taking charges, hustling, taking charges), but I will gladly wave goodbye to the bad-Big Baby (18-ft jump shots, breaking his hand in a fight one week before the season starts, disappearing in the playoffs). I'm frustrated just thinking about him.
- Sasha Pavlovic - He'll miss his friend Krstic.
- Troy Murphy - He's probably ruing the day he chose the Celtics over the Heat.
- Carlos Arroyo - He's probably ruing the day the Heat cut him.
There is little more any of us can do at this time but speculate. This is going to be a roller coaster of an off-season with the new CBA. Who knows what the league will look like next year.
So, let's speculate. With the team I constructed above, I envision another second round exit from the playoffs. The Heat and Bulls are younger and more athletic, and will no doubt stack up as best they can. And let's not forget about the Knicks, Hawks, 76ers, and Magic, who all have a shot to make a push next season. I'd be happy just to see the Celtics knock off the Heat before losing to another team, but I honestly cannot see that happening. Jeff Green will be the major X factor next season. If he can become the second or third leading scorer on the team, while playing above-average defense against the likes of Carmelo and LeBron, then I may be swayed into believing a championship run is in order, but if he continues to struggle with his confidence the team is doomed. All the starters are a year older and need more rest, Rondo doesn't seem likely to improve his shooting from the field or at the stripe, and Doc seems incapable of change. Even if their defense stays at league-best level, they cannot compete offensively with certain playoff teams.
All in all, I don't have much hope for the next few seasons. Though it can be argued that the Celtics should have squeezed more than one championship out of the Big 3-era, it is an inescapable fact that injury, age, and offensive stagnation made sure that they did not. With the Heat, Bulls, and Knicks on the inevitable upswing, the road to another championship is going to be near-impossible. Can the current squad, made up of the Big 4 and complimentary players, do it? Not likely. Can Danny Ainge swing a trade or miracle signing that will allow the team to compete at a higher level? Possibly, but also not likely. To me the beginning of the end occurred in Utah on February 19, 2009, when KG pulled up limp with a strain in his right knee. There was no doubt in my mind at the time that the Celtics were going to be back-to-back champions, with an outside shot at a three-peat. Instead, we've had the past three playoff exits.
I'm not trying to be negative here. I'm only being realistic. It won't be the 1990s all over again, but it won't be 2008 either.
Be respectful and keep it clean. Thanks.