One of the major reasons for the Celtics' resurgence in the second half of this season is that they have gotten some major contributions from some unexpected sources.
The trade of Glen Davis and Von Wafer to the Magic that sent back Brandon Bass was heralded from the beginning as a smart move by Ainge, but it's become more and more of a steal as time has gone on. Originally pegged as a move to get back Big Baby's production for a season without having to give an overweight head case a multi-year contract, it is now clear that the Celtics got back a player who plays a very similar role on the team, only without the off-court distractions and over-inflated ego, and with much greater efficiency.
One of the results of the loss of Jeff Green before the start of the season to a heart condition is that the team went out and snagged Mickael Pietrus off the waiver wire after he was released by the Phoenix Suns. Pietrus has since become a fixture of the bench unit, probably coming closer to replicating the contributions of James Posey circa 2008 than any backup wing the Celtics have had since the team chose not to shell out the money to re-sign Mr. Fourth Quarter Three to a three year deal. Like Posey, Mickael has also had a great effect on team chemistry; while he doesn't quite have the tough-guy swagger that Posey had, Pietrus is constantly smiling and laughing, both on and off the court. Mickael doesn't make a huge impact in the box score, but his gritty, versatile defense and his ability to hit momentum-swinging shots from outside make him more valuable than advanced stats might indicate.
Meanwhile, the final, merciful end to the Jermaine O'Neal era, and the unfortunate loss of Chris Wilcox to a heart condition, created a golden opportunity for golden-haired Greg Stiemsma, an undrafted rookie free agent who was the D-League Defensive Player of the Year last season, originally pegged as a third string center likely to see the court even less than Semih Erden did last season. The Steamer has taken full advantage of that opportunity, proving himself to be a highly valuable defensive role player; he is second in the league in block percentage and top 25 in steal percentage, with a fantastic defensive rating of 90. On top of that, he also has a nifty quick-release mid-range jumper and the ability to finish lobs and easy layups at the rim.
Finally, there's Mr. Avery "the Pest" Bradley. He started the season as a wide-eyed, inexperienced, shaky second year guard, who seemed to lack a true NBA position, and whose only clear NBA-level talent was his on-ball defense. Since then, he's taken advantage of injuries in the backcourt and has proven that with extended minutes he can be a factor at both ends of the court, and even hit pull-up mid-range jumpers and corner threes in transition. His confidence has only grown as the season has gone on, to the point where he and Rondo are displaying some great on-court chemistry, looking like a supped-up version of the Rondo and TA combination back in the 2010 playoff run.
While these great, unexpected contributions have set the Celtics up to make a run in the post-season that just a couple months ago probably seemed impossible, it also creates some interesting dilemmas for this summer. How much will it cost to keep this group together?
Projecting the sort of pay-day Bass will probably be looking for seems pretty simple. One need look no further than the player for whom he was traded for a baseline. Glen Davis was given a deal at 4 years / $26 million, starting at $6.3 million. Since Bass has shown himself to be a much more efficient, athletic, and team-friendly player than Davis, his price-tag is probably a few million higher than that. The Celtics can probably hope to retain his services for 4 years / $28-30 million. It is possible, however, that a team with cap space desperate for some impact players might take a look at what Bass has done as a starter and give him something closer to Carl Landry money ($8-9 million per year). The Celtics might not be willing to match such an offer, but Bass really seems to like it here and the Celtics can offer both a starting spot and a winning situation with a great coach and a point guard who knows exactly where to get him the ball, so Bass might be willing to accept a bit less to stay.
Pietrus is currently making the veteran minimum, but that is somewhat misleading because he's still collecting a paycheck for $5 million from the Suns. As previously stated, Pietrus doesn't fill up the box score very often, but he brings a lot of intangibles, and guys who can do 3 and D and cover both wing positions often draw a lot of interest from contending teams with MLE money to spend. Still, the best comparison for Pietrus is probably Matt Barnes, who is currently making $1.5 million for the Lakers. Mickael will probably be looking for a 3 year deal, but it's most likely that he'll get a 2 year deal for 3-4 million, or a 1 year deal closer to 4 or 5 million. Look for the Celtics to try to lock him up closer to the former (2 years / $3 million).
Stiemsma's a difficult situation to gauge, if only because he's a fairly unique player. There are few players in the league who can do what he does on the defensive end at the center position who don't make a ton of money. Still, he's already 26 years old and his ceiling probably isn't too much higher than where he is right now. Plus, per the Gilbert Arenas Rule, the biggest deal Greg could get this summer is just above the MLE. That's probably not going to be on the table, though. Greg is a very solid backup center who can impact a game in a number of a ways, but I wouldn't look for him to become the next Ben Wallace. Instead, Chuck Hayes is probably a better comparison. Hayes was also an undrafted free agent who spent some time in the D-League before being signed by the Rockets, another team that was dealing with injuries. Hayes was also a unique player with one discernable NBA skill (rebounding), who proved himself to be a great defender and glue-guy once he was given extended minutes. After making $664k in his first full season in Houston, Chuck earned himself a 4 year deal for $8 million. At the end of that deal, he signed a 4 year deal with the Kings for $21 million. Expect Stiemsma to follow a similar path, assuming he doesn't develop a post game or suffer a precipitous decline due to age (again, he's already 26) or injury. Stiemsma is a restricted free agent this summer, so it would be a surprise if the Celtics didn't retain his services, considering that his price will be low.
Now to the even more difficult question of Bradley. Bradley is only in his sophomore season, and considering the extent to which he's already improved over his rookie season -- and even over the course of his second -- it's fair to wonder how high his ceiling might be. This isn't a problem the Celtics have to deal with right away; Bradley is under their control until the summer of 2014, when he'll be a restricted free agent. Nevertheless, it will probably be in their best interest to do what they did with Rondo and lock up Avery before he gets there. Right now, the best guess for the sort of deal that Avery might be looking for in the summer of 2014 ranges between Marcus Thornton money (4 years / $33 million) and Arron Afflalo money (5 years / $43 million). If Avery really explodes once he's given an even greater offensive role post-Big 3, it's even possible he could want the kind of deal Monta Ellis got (6 years / $67 million). If the Celtics try to extend Bradley the year before he hits restricted free agency (that would be next summer), they could, perhaps, lock him down for something like 5 years / $35-40 million. In any case, though it isn't a pressing issue, this is certainly something that Ainge will have in his mind when he's giving out contracts this summer.
Other costs for the Celtics to consider this summer:
The market for Mr. Shuttlesworth will probably consist almost entirely of contending teams over the cap that will only have $3-5 million per year to spend (MLE money). Primary suspects include the Clippers, Bulls, and Heat. The Celtics will have plenty of cap space to offer more, but due to the situation with Bradley, Pietrus, and Green, the Celtics will have the leverage to offer only a little bit more than the MLE -- in the range of 7-8 million. Most likely, the Celtics will want to offer only 1 year, while Allen will want two. Perhaps they will settle on a one year deal with a player option for a second year.
KG has earned himself a lot of money recently, playing like an All-Star center since the halfway mark of the season (not that he needs anymore money). If the Celtics are willing to pay big bucks to keep KG, they'll be able to spend far more than what most contenders are able to pay. Their competition will probably consist entirely of teams with a bunch of cap space who are desperate to compete as soon as possible. The Nets and Pacers are the top of that list, with the Mavericks, Suns, and Rockets as possible dark horse teams that might be in a position to offer Garnett money in a bid to win right away. Garnett's market value will probably range between 10 and 15 million per year for a 1-2 year deal -- think what David West got this last December, only with fewer years. Chances are KG will be willing to accept a deal on the lower end of that spectrum to stay in Boston. The best guess here is that he accepts a 1 year / $10-12 million deal with a player option for a second year to stay in Boston.
Ah, poor Jeff. He was offer a 1 year / $9 million deal for the 2011-2012 season prior to the discovery of his heart condition. It is likely his best option will be to accept a similar one-year deal to try and earn a lucrative multi-year deal in the summer of 2013. Due to his heart condition, Jeff's exact playing ability will be uncertain, so his market value will be limited. He might accept a one year deal around 7 million -- perhaps as low as 5.
It's always hard to predict this kind of thing in the NBA; every year it seems there's at least one absolutely unfathomable deal handed out during the off-season. At the same time, there are plenty of examples of players who took far less than they were worth to stay in a situation they liked. That is probably the biggest thing the Celtics have going for them -- this group of guys apparently really enjoys playing with one another, and if things continue to go well into the post-season, that's not likely to change. Still, Danny Ainge is notoriously unsentimental, and if anybody currently on the team is looking for a deal Danny doesn't want to give, Danny won't hesitate to let him go, just like Posey in '08 and TA in '10. Hopefully that won't happen; though it's clear now that Danny probably made the right choice letting Posey go, since James was never really the same after getting his last pay-day, the team has really missed Tony Allen since he left and became one of the key pieces of the surprisingly good Grizzlies