As the Celtics head into tonight’s ‘showdown’ in Cleveland as they continue their ‘chase’ to lock up the 8 seed, it is done amongst midst of trade talk. As there was after many previous losses the Celtics had to bad teams before the all-star break, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cries will be louder than ever if these Celtics drop any of their next three games against Cleveland, Milwaukee, or New Jersey. The Celtics would just be too old, so they can’t win it all. They need to blow it up, start over, accumulate as many assets as possible, and hey, we’ll see ya again in four to five years, guys.
There’s just one problem. Don’t tell that to Wyc Grousbeck and Doc Rivers. And if they don’t want it, then neither does Danny Ainge. Ainge had to beg Doc to a great degree to get Rivers back on board with the franchise. It is already grueling enough for the Celtics coach who flies back to Orlando multiples times during the season to see his family. The situation was tough for Doc, especially in the years 2009 and 2010, but he greatly enjoyed coaching a championship group of veterans who respected him just as much as he respected them. He actually could coachevery young, and veteran player on the team. Rivers, does not however, have any interest in babysitting a team of young kids again. While Rivers signed a five-year contract extension, he could very well walk away from the money at any time, and go back to spending that quality time that he so cherishes with his family. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck also has no interest in watching a young team go out there once again for the foreseeable future and lose 50-60 games a year. Back in the mid-2000s, it was a necessity, as the Celtics were forced to blow up a roster that was strapped with wretched contracts, and had no legitimate talent on the team besides their franchise player in Paul Pierce. The ownership paid the price as the team dipped into complete irrelevancy, with next-to-nil television ratings (a humiliating 0.2 local Nielson rating in a 2004 playoff game against Indiana), scores of yellow seats nightly at the New Garden, and no immeasurable ‘buzz’ amongst the sports fans of New England. If the Celtics were to go through those years again, it would only be even worse this time around. Back then they did not have to deal with the Bruins, who themselves were just as irrelevant, coming off the entirely-missed 2005 NHL season, and two miserable 2006 and 2007 campaigns as well. Unlike the mid 2000s, the Bruins are a championship-caliber team and will be for the foreseeable future, and play a sport that is far more popular in the New England area than the sport the men in green play. It is very desirable to the ownership, just as it is to the coach, to keep the Celtics respectable even when they truly are not in the hunt for their 18th World Championship.
So it’s tasked upon Danny Ainge to keep his coach happy (giving him teams he actually wants to coach), his bosses happy (keeping the money rolling in), all while taking what he feels are the necessary steps to building the next Celtics champion. Ainge is going to exhaust all possible options to keep the Celtics a championship team. He already tried trading for Chris Paul, which he hoped, would be the precursor to a Paul-Dwight Howard duo in green for the next 5-7 years. He’d gladly trade Rajon Rondo for Pau Gasol, hoping to use Gasol as a pitch to sign Howard (and possibly Deron Williams as well this summer.) And he even tried trading Rondo for Carmelo Anthony last February, hoping to convince Anthony to stay in Boston and be the next Celtics star Ainge would build around. Still, as we get closer to the deadline, Ainge is continuing to run out of options. The Big Three are aging by the second, his best trade chip’s actual value is decaying with every day that goes by, and almost all current disgruntled NBA stars are seemingly finding new homes or warming up to somewhere else besides Boston. Regardless, the Celtics mad scientist of a GM will look for any possible solution to keep the winning going.
Before this freaks out any fan that thinks that Danny could turn this team into the Isiah Thomas Knicks, I can tell you that will not happen. Ainge will not go about and acquire overpaid role players and borderline stars that are strapped with long term deals much like those Knicks teams did just to lock themselves into being a borderline playoff team with no wiggle room out of it. Ainge has said time and time again that you win with stars in this league, and after Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount, he will not overpay for role players until he has his game-changers in place. That is certainly in line with what Ainge has been doing as the team has all the cap flexibility it needs. He did not overpay for his role guys when he actually had a championship team in place (not giving James Posey the four full years he wanted.) Whether Ainge will get his franchise guys in place is another story.
So now that brings us to what’s on our roster right now, and what Ainge is going to do with it. Ainge has the future in mind regardless; it’s the road he chooses to take to get to Exit 18. There are a lot of rumors out there at this very moment of contending teams interested in Ray Allen. If these Celts go 3-7 in these next 10 games, putting the playoffs altogether in serious jeopardy, then I certainly can see the Celtics moving Allen for any type of first round draft pick. This would then go back to the ‘blow-it-up’ model rather than retool, although Allen could always re-sign with the team in July. While Ainge will do what is in his mind what is best for the team, the one person who will not like it is Ray Allen. From what I have heard, even if the Celtics were to not field a championship team next season, Allen has great desires to remain in Boston. He has great interest in starting a career in the Massachusetts political scene. He and his family have settled down nicely in the area, and he has little desire to bounce from city to city and chase rings to end his Hall of Fame career. Ainge as we all know, will do what’s best for the team, and if these 2012 Celtics outright miss the playoffs, you can all but forget about them being able to pitch to any free agent about playing in Boston. So Ainge would go with the last resort, and trade away his aging, but still effective, Hall of Famer for an ‘asset’ which won’t have any impact on the team for at least another three to five years. Now what to do with the captain? Unless the Celtics are blown away in a deal where another team deeply desires his services, the Celtics will not trade Paul Pierce. Even if Ainge does decide to ‘blow it up,’ Pierce will not be traded for a late draft pick, a semi-prospect, and/or ‘cap flexibility’ (a Ray Allen to Contender X type of deal.) This ownership group wants to see him make a legitimate run at becoming the Celtics all-time leading scorer. Pierce himself wants to remain here in Boston, even if the team actually did go young and rebuild. He won’t ring-case, and it means a great deal to him and his legacy to be a one-teamer and retire a Celtic. Even if Ainge went with the last resort (which is the blow it up model, acquire assets, and hope to field a competitor again five years), there’s a 95% chance Pierce sticks around for that (the only 5% is if some team blew Ainge away for Pierce’s services.) Pierce is here to stay, and the only real chance he isn’t in Boston is if the Celtics got the Dwight and Deron package in the off-season and he had to be amnestied to get it done. Which is what goes back to the re-tool on the fly model. (Note: I deliberately skipped over Garnett because his contract makes him unmovable, unless the team is willing to take back future salaries of lesser players, which Ainge will almost certainly not do. Garnett’s contract will expire at the end of the year, and him re-signing in Boston is 50-50. If the team is competitive, he will stay, and if it’s not, he’s out.)
So what is Ainge to do? Well it’s simple. Let’s say the team does not get Dwight Howard this summer, and the odds are very high of that. The pressure will be on Danny to keep the team afloat, draft well in the middle (the team would have the 15th pick right now), acquire other helpful assets along the way, and then when the times are right – make the big moves. However, this is why free agency is key. You might be able to trade for one star with mid-level assets (as the Celtics did with Garnett and the Lakers did with Pau Gasol), but the odds are doing it with two stars is all but impossible. The Celtics may not acquire the big name free agent this very summer, but they will have too in the near future if this plan were to work. And that’s the team remaining somewhat relevant in the NBA landscape will be the key in the eyes of the Celtics’ brass. As Doc Rivers told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald over the weekend, “You sell (to free agents) what you have on your team.” In the Celtics’ mind, it’s “Hey, we don’t have the warm weather, but we have a decent team as is, and right now, you’re the missing piece. Come here and let’s ride this home to a championship.” That means, going forward, don’t be surprised to see The Big Three back as Celtics next year, and probably to finish out their careers. So, this is where a Rondo-for-Gasol trade makes them a better team now, keeps the cap relatively flexible, and puts them in a better position to sell their roster to an impact free agent. Many fans may get frustrated with the current team’s play and clamor for the days when the product on the floor meant nothing, and piling up the poker chips meant everything. But those days could be long gone, and if the Celtics are to build a new champion with a different model, they may never return again.