Well quite far, since we have only four players under contract - or six, if you count Sean Williams and E'Twaun Moore who have unguaranteed contracts for next year.
But looking at our 2011-2012 roster, how close were we really? Taking Miami Heat to game 7 in the ECF suggests that we are only one piece away, especially if we have Paul Pierce without knee injury and Avery Bradley available. But there are two (or three) really big issues, that we need an answer for.
- Will Paul Pierce be able to play adequate defense on LeBron James and Kevin Durant? Or do we need someone who can slow those two down? Is Jeff Green the answer?
- Kevin Garnett's +- statistics for the playoffs (and in the regular season) shows that we have a huge gap to fill behind him. How do we overcome that? He won't be able to play more minutes next year, than he did this year.
- The third question which is minor, compared to the two others, is 'Is our bench good enough to compete?' If we solve the other two problems, this could become irrelevant.
The first issue is a bit depressing, since I don't believe that either Pierce or Green is the answer. We saw it in several games in the regular season: Pierce does not compete well with the elite small forwards in the league anymore. He can bring it occasionally, but I wouldn't trust him to have the upper hand in a seven game series against Deng, Igoudala, Granger, Anthony, Joe Johnson, James, Durant etc. And while Green come back in good shape, he has yet to prove himself against the elite.
This is probably why Ainge reportedly is trying to trade up for Harrison Barnes or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They will not solve our immediate problem, but either could be the long term solution.
The problem for next season is that Pierce plus Green is probably the best we can hope for (with JaJuan Johnson getting the chance to prove himself, too). Other free agents: Gerald Wallace (U), Nicolas Batum (R), Michael Beasley (R - but will not be back with the Twolves).
The KG catch
The second issue has that one huge catch: We don't even know if KG comes back. If he doesn't, Paul Pierce might retire, and the team changes identity. I don't see the Celtics as possible contenders in that situation, so I'll just assume that he comes back.
He could probably get the same treatment that Duncan gets in San Antonio: Rarely over 30 minutes on any given night and an occasional D.N.P. (Old), and be in good shape for the playoffs. But when we get there, we still need other bigs.
I don't think that it's a given, that KG should play center, even though it's tempting after his performances this season. I could see him pair up with Hibbert (R) or McGee (R) as twin towers. And both of these are actually low post threats (compared to the bigs on the team this season).
Other free agent bigs: Brook Lopez (R), Chris Kaman (U), Elton Brand (will probably be amnestied, if he exercises his player option), J.J. Hickson (R), Ersan Ilyasova (U), Kris Humphries (U), Omer Asik (R). Most of these would improve the Celtics compared to this season, even if we have to let Bass go, though I would prefer to keep him as a bench player.
The power of the bench
The bench should be improved greatly by improving our front court. Stiemsma, Wilcox, Hollins and/or Williams would all be nice fourth option bigs.
I wouldn't mind having a back court rotation with Rondo, Bradley, Allen, Dooling, Pietrus (if his knee is o.k.), but I would like to have a pg who can run an offense, if Rondo gets injured. I don't know if Moore is the solution, but he looked more comfortable in that position than Dooling and Bradley. I don't believe that Ray Allen is a key, unless it's about keeping Garnett. Otherwise he is replaceable. I could imagine giving Brandon Roy a look, if he is serious about returning.
To answer the original question: How far are the Celtics from being a contender in 2012-2013? I don't believe that we are really only one piece away, unless that piece is an elite big man, who can team up with KG on both ends. The ideal partner could be Roy Hibbert, but I think that he and Indiana are too much in love. So we might have to settle for less and some more tweaking on other spots.