Danny Ainge decided to take Reload Road, and that made all the difference.
Danny Ainge has had a very good summer.
The Celtics entered the offseason at a crossroads and could have taken the team in some very different directions. One street led to Tanksville. A sad, lonely road that leads to despair and only a few lucky souls escape in tact. Another street led to Money River, where free agents bathe in ridiculous qualifying offers and absurd free agent deals.
Ainge looked around and decided that he wanted to keep going in the same direction that he was already going. Call it Reload Road if you will. It is the same road, only different. Instead of the Big 3 plus Rajon Rondo, it is the Big 3 including Rajon Rondo (and additional parts).
Danny already knew some of the bumps in this road and understood that he can only take it so far. But he also knew that the scenery was lovely and it still put him within striking distance of the ultimate destination, another Championship.
Make no mistake, the Heat will be overwhelming favorites in the East. The Nets have entered the conversation and the Pacers could conceivably take another step forward next year. But the Celtics are right there and with a break or two could once again be a good quarter away from the NBA Finals this year.
In theory, you could still call this team "old" because 3 of our best players will start the season on the downside of 35 years old. On the flipside, if you take a look at the rest of the squad, and you have solid, young veterans who know how to play and can absolutely fill their roles. As Matt Moore points out below, that's huge.
Experience matters in the NBA, and those teams tend to win. The Heat were the first team in a while whose core isn’t necessarily "old" to win the title. Those teams can usually topple others because their execution is sharper, their will stronger, their focus more resolute. And the Celtics have that. They won’t be missing guys who know how to close out a playoff series or hit the big shot. They won’t be missing defenders who understand system and don’t have to just rely on their bodies. But they also have those other players, the ones who can get out and run. For the first time, Rajon Rondo has the wheel and an engine to motor with. Green, Lee, Bradley, even the older Wilcox all can create mayhem in transition with Rondo whipping passes. The Celtics can produce offense in different ways than just throwing their opponent into the alley puddles and hoping they land a body blow, which was their offense last season.
The San Antonio Spurs have used a similar model in the last few years to rack up impressive regular season totals. That is both encouraging and cautionary since they ended up falling short in the playoffs both times. But you didn't need that example to tell you how important "staying healthy" and "keeping the starters fresh" will be.
Things will, in theory, be easier to manage without having to cope with the lockout condensed schedule. The team will have more days rest between games and will have time to conduct actual practices. The practices are key because the more the younger players know, the more Doc will trust them and the more they will be trusted to give the older guys some rest.
There was a huge +/- drop off whenever Kevin Garnett left the floor last year. That was both a testament to his amazing Benjamin Button like longevity as well as a glaring exposure to the kiddie-pool depth that we were left with at the end of the year. It is dangerous to assume full health, but even with a few to-be-expected twisted ankles and groin pulls, this team should be able to give quality bench minutes to flatten out that +/- discrepancy some.
As a possible finishing touch, Danny has left himself the option of using the Bi-Annual exception later in the year. If there is a more significant injury to deal with and someone shakes loose in the waiver/cut process this winter, the Celtics will have just under $2M (pro-rated) to offer a free agent instead of just the veterans minimum. That could be huge. Also, thinking slightly longer term, the Celtics now have good, younger players mostly making reasonable money in mix-n-matchable salary slots, so they could be put together to create an attractive package if a larger deal became an option.
By the way, a quick shout-out is deserved for the Celtics capologist and number cruncher Mike Zarren - to get that Courtney Lee deal done he must have spent some long hours and late nights in Vegas that had nothing to do with the craps tables.
So are the Celtics title contenders? They are in the conversation. They might not be favorites but they are right there, knocking on the door. Things happen every season. Good teams inexplicably nosedive. Key players get hurt (see Chicago). Danny and his staff put Doc and his team in position to take advantage of those situations. Considering the other choices and looking down those other roads, I couldn't be much happier with the path he chose.
The Big 3 era is dead. Long live the Big 3.