Just to get the punch line out of the way: Yes. Danny has a plan.
Actually - he has more than one plan. But they all lead basically to the same place - rebooting the team as a contender somewhere around 2016. So collectively, let's call them: The Plan
Caveat: Okay, another 'acually' is that much of this is conjecture. I am not privy to Danny Ainge's inner thinking. But if you read this, I think most will agree it's a reasonable reading of the tea leaves.
I know that there is much crying and wailing right now by a segment of the fan/media base who can't believe Danny didn't just 'blow it up' by somehow working out trades of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for, 'young assets' that he could use down the road to rebuild the team the same way he did in 2007. This segment of Celtic nation is understandably worried that we are headed for some sort of 'mediocrity trap' from which it will take 15-20 years to emerge.
I'm going to propose that that isn't going to happen.
In my opinion, Danny has a plan. Danny's plan has had several possible paths. Before 3 pm EST today, it had more paths. Some of those paths are now off The Plan. But the plan still proceeds.
First, let's go over the path that no longer is possible.
Suppose Danny had found attractive deals for Pierce and KG that could have worked out (including getting KG's approval). What we would have now would be a collection of younger players, with potential to grow in value over the next couple of years. But we would not have KG and Pierce. We would most definitely have become a worse team for the rest of this year. Probably not bad enough to end up with a lot of balls in the lottery, though, if any. And we'd probably worse next year as well. But we'd be younger and the players would improve. And eventually, in 2-3 years, they'd have value and we could potentially deal some for one or two big name players and turn back into a title contender, say, right around 2016-2017 or so.
That sounds like a very legitimate path and I think Danny really worked his butt off to explore it and make it work if it made sense. As we know, it didn't work. Either he couldn't get the value he wanted or KG wouldn't approve or both. So that road through The Plan is dead.
There are other paths.
Here is one that a lot of fans are already predicting: KG and Pierce suddenly retire at the end of this season. That's a legit possibility. The story there would be that this current team ends up struggling to the finish, misses the playoffs or loses ugly in the first round. Pierce and KG are so dejected that they decide to retire. The 'benefit' of this is that (assuming they file papers) we'd get their salaries off the books for next year: Some 28M. Sound's great, right?
However, it would not be enough to get us a 'max contract' superstar who would replace the talent we'd be losing in KG & Pierce. Right now, including salary holds, Shamsports has us at 71M for next year - but that number bumps up to ~97M when you include salary holds and options. Even if you knock off 28M, that number only drops to 69M. Now, some of the salary holds and options can and will be cleared based on roster moves over the summer, but that ultimately, based on the analysis Roy posted a couple weeks ago, probably only clears up ~10M or so at most for any single free agent. You can do some drastic moves (amnesty Pierce, waive Terry, waive Bass, hell, waive everyone to get the total cap room up to ~20M - but you'd have 10 open roster spots to fill, so you can't use ALL of that on one 'max' player. In order to put a team on the floor you are going to have to spread those millions around a bit.
The net point is that that won't pay for players of equivalent talent to replace KG and Pierce for the next couple of years. It might get you one - but (a) the bulk of the rest of the team would be made up of minimum salary players and (b) who the heck is out there this coming summer that you want to throw a max contract at?
So this road probably leads to you spending that money, instead, on multiple 'asset' players - guys who are not 'max' players, but have value or who will likely grow into value. And, again, you look to convert them into super stars via trade in a couple of years. As a matter of fact - you don't even have to go through all the dramatic cuts to try to get max cap room to do that - you just use the smaller amount of room to add on to the assets Danny has already assembled.
Let's pause here and point out some things about the current roster:
- With the addition of Terrence Williams and Jordan Crawford, we now have NINE players (out of 13) who are under 28 years old.
- Of those 9, SIX of them (Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger & Brandon Bass) have all proven that they can play top rotation minutes at a high level in the NBA.
- Of those 6, TWO are under 23 years old.
- We also have a very raw, not ready-for-NBA 7 foot prospect in Fab Melo who has shown steady, impressive progress in his short 7 or so years of playing organized basketball. Yes, he's not much use yet. But he has high potential to turn into a very valuable asset.
- And, of course, we will have draft picks over the next couple of years
The point is, that Danny has already started the process of accumulating assets. So even if he only had a few million to spend on more, that would be building on top of that.
Now, as mentioned, he could eject some of the current parts, or trade them, but that would be to replace them with, as mentioned, similar young players. Either way, the team will have 10-12 pieces developing into assets during this period.
So the 'KG & PP retire' path still leads to the same thing as the 'blow it up' plan: A couple years of development with young players that might not be title contending before we finally trade a bunch of assets for a superstar or two and return to contention.
The Third Road:
Now, let's assume more optimistically, that the team doesn't completely suck. That they show some heart and even put together a decent run this spring. And we move on to the next possible road through The Plan(tm): KG & PP come back for more.
If KG & Pierce (& Terry) DO come back next season, they are still likely to be better than any replacements we would have secured via any of the proposed trades. All the proposed trades were for 'assets' - guys you end up developing and dealing later. Even if KG & PP decline, given where their level of play is this season, they likely are still going to be better overall basketball players next season than guys like DeAndre Jordan or Eric Bledsoe (who, for all his upside, would be in an odd position on a team with Rondo & Bradley and his value would not necessarily be fully realized).
So ... if we HAD made these deals, we almost certainly would have been a _worse_ team the rest of this season as well as next season (assuming KG & PP play).
Here is another scenario: Suppose not only do they NOT retire, but PP restructures, extending his contract an additional year. Both PP and the Celtics would have motivation for doing this. Right now, Pierce is only guaranteed 5M for next season. But his cap hit is for the full 15.7M amount and squeezes Danny's hand against the hard cap. It would be to the benefit of both for PP to be resigned for 2 years at a larger total amount (in particular with a larger guaranteed portion) but a lower annual amount. For example, 2 years for ~20-22M or so. That gives him more guaranteed money while easing us back from the luxury tax 'hard cap' by several million.
Now, that would mean that our "Three Original Gangsta's" (KG, PP & Terry) would all be signed through 2014-2015 season.
My money would bet that, while sure, those three guys will decline over the next two seasons, for most of it they are STILL likely to be better than any 'young asset' replacements we could have gotten. So the team performance probably won't be any worse over the next two seasons than if we had 'blown it up'. Remember, 9 of our 13 roster spots currently belong to players under 28. And a 10th, Wilcox is only 30 and arguably going to be _better_ next season as he continues (like Green) to return to full form.
Even as KG, PP & JT decline, it is not unreasonable to expect continued improvement from all the youngsters (or their replacements, if any are traded). At worse, even if they aren't title contenders, I just don't see how that team is worse over the next 2 years than a team that results from 'blowing it up'.
Now, bring your imagination forward to 2014-2015. If KG, PP & Terry all are still playing for us, maybe they squeeze out one last playoff hurrah. If so, great - they then retire at the end of the season - and we then get a combined ~30M in cap relief (depending on what PP's hypothetical restructuring was). If, on the other hand, the team finally sucks beyond suck - THAT may be the best time to go ahead and trade them for their expiring contract value!
You can bring in two big contract players on board with that kind of expiring ballast to trade. The salary cap would not be an issue because, by trading, you simply stay over the cap.
But wait! There is MORE!
Not only will their 3 contracts be up - so will Rondo's (12.9M), Green (9.45M) and Bass (6.9M) - so DA will have more decisions and flexibility to deal with with their contracts. Green will have a player option for the following season (also at 9.45M). If we extend Green, Rondo and/or Bass - it will be good to have the flexibility from all the other contracts ending. If we don't, then that frees their money up as well.
Assuming no major trades or injuries, Sully & Fab (if still with the team) would be under team control through all this. We'd probably extend Bradley to a mid-level contract as well.
Check out the list of 2015 free agents:
There are some interesting names that might be on the market. Sure, some of those names will have resigned before then. But this plan allows you trade the expiring contracts if the FA market doesn't look good. Danny will ultimately have a LOT of financial and contractual flexibility during this time with this plan. He can either go deep under the cap to pursue FAs or he can trade his expiring contracts to bring big contracts on board.
So this plan (which depends on what KG & PP decide to do, of course) results in one or two years of possibly declining play - or possibly still playoff contention, depending on how fast all the youngsters develop - followed by a year when suddenly Danny will have all the tools to totally revamp the team, bringing in one or maybe two superstar players.
In summary: Relax.
All roads through The Plan(tm) in the end, lead to a similar destination: Acquire the next superstar players somewhere around the 2016 season. Depending on the market, we may have to wait a year or so after that point. But that's the point at which Danny will have the tools to pull the big trigger.
The only difference between all these roads is how competitive we are for this season and the next one or two. I think Danny and Doc feel we are probably more competitive this year and next with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce than without. And I agree.