About a month ago, the NBA trade deadline was fast approaching, and everybody from fans to people in the media to fellow NBA executives were clamoring for Danny Ainge, Celtics GM, to give up on the current core group and "blow it up," or at least make some kind of move to upgrade, with all kinds of rumors in the air that basically everybody on the team was available for the right price. Despite this, Ainge made no moves at all -- perhaps not for lack of trying -- causing shock, disappointment, and even outright anger among the fanbase. The lack of moves was attributed to the absence of any good available deals, and the desire to maintain long term flexibility for the summer. The argument was that it made more sense to let this group have their last run, the bittersweet end to the fifth year of a three year plan, and then reload or start the rebuild come summertime with a handful of draft picks and tons of cap space with which to work.
However, the team's run since the All-Star break, particularly post-deadline, in which they have gone 19-7 since the All-Star break -- one of the top records of any team in that stretch -- highlighted by some historically great defense and a few statement wins against the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and New York Knicks, may have given Ainge good reason to change his plans for the summer. Instead of looking to make a major trade to add a young asset, either by moving up in the draft or taking on a hefty contract from another team, or bringing in a big name free agent, the best move might be to "reload" with some familiar faces while adding depth.
Perhaps forgotten amidst the doldrums of the early season woes and the more recent highs of this euphoric post-All-Star break run, Jeff Green is still very much attached to the team, even though he's not technically on the roster, often seen sitting in a nice suit and fashionable glasses next to the end of the bench. Coming off his heart surgery, he will likely be amenable to signing a one year prove-he-still-has-it kind of deal with the Celtics this summer, a deal the team would probably love to make as well. Jeff Green could immediately step into the sort of role Pietrus currently plays, adding energy, depth, and athleticism while fortifying defense and shooting on the wing. Green would also give Doc more options with small ball lineups. He also still has some tantalizing upside as a potential sixth man with a very versatile game, like a more athletic James Posey (without the overflowing swagger, which admittedly may have been Posey's most admirable quality).
One of the biggest, happiest surprises of the season so far has been Avery Bradley's emergence as not just a legitimate NBA player, but a credible starter. His second-year emergence gives hope that JaJuan Johnson, currently serving his term in the role Bradley played last season -- confused, shaky rookie bench warmer -- might have a comparable second year breakout with an increased role next season as the 4th guy in the big man rotation. Sure, Johnson hasn't demonstrated any particular elite NBA-level skill, the way that Bradley did with his on-ball pressure the moment he stepped on the court, but he's still shown flashes that suggest he might be a productive, reliable player once he figures out the defensive system. Johnson could very well play a Leon Powe type role next season playing 10-20 minutes per game, depending on matchups.
On top of this, Ainge will have at least two first round picks (likely in the 20s) and one mid to late second round pick to work with in the upcoming draft, which has been widely heralded as perhaps the deepest draft since 2003. As is his style, Ainge will likely target either young prospects with excellent physical assets, or experienced upperclassmen prospects with well developed skills and versatile role playing ability (probably a combination of the two). Taking a quick look at the 2012 Mock Draft on DraftExpress, there are a few names that stand out. First there's Tony Wroten Jr., a combo guard whose physical profile and skillset evoke Tyreke Evans, who Ainge reportedly loved going into the 2009 draft. Later in the first, a big like Arnett Moultrie, Festus Ezeli, or Andrew Nicholson could catch Ainge's eye as a skilled and experienced PF / C prospect with excellent size. In the second round, Ainge might take a flyer on a physically gifted senior like Kris Joseph, or stash a player overseas.
Given the success and cohesion of the Celtics' current rotation, which boasts phenomenal defense and a great combination of youth, experience, hustle, and shot-making, the Celtics could go into next season with a very similar top 8: the starting 5 of Rondo, Bradley, Pierce, Bass, and Garnett, with Allen, Stiemsma, and Pietrus off the bench. Add to that group a potentially major contributor in Green and some great young depth with JaJuan and a handful of rookies, plus, perhaps, E'Twaun Moore. Ainge then would have a good group of familiar veterans from which to choose for the final spot or two, without having to spend much -- Sasha Pavlovic, Keyon Dooling, and Chris Wilcox, with the decision likely depending on where the new rookies fit in positionally.
Just a few months ago, running out essentially the same group with no big name free agent or trade acquisitions would have sounded like little more than a glorified "Bridge Year" plan, a dupe to induce fans to pay for season ticket packages and garner playoff revenue without having to commit much long-term money. Now, there is hope that such a plan could allow the Celtics to maintain long term flexibility by giving the older guys like Garnett, Allen, and Pietrus one or two year contracts with player options, and Green a reasonable one-year deal, while also putting a group on the floor that has a ton of chemistry, experience and potential to compete, bolstered by a now very young and athletic supporting cast that can run with Rondo.
Even if the Celtics lose in the second round or Conference Finals this post-season, there's hope in this scenario that the Celtics might carry this second-half resurgence over into next season with new depth and cohesion, much like the mystifying run the supposedly-ancient Spurs are enjoying this season. The sixth year of a "three year plan" might not be so painful or disappointing.