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Danny Ainge Does it Again

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The offseason is a time of transition, when recollections of the most recent season eventually morph into thoughts of expectations and curiosity for the next one to come, which, in reality, is only a few months away. As a Celtics fan, neither thought process was very appealing - not initially, at least. In the rear view mirror stood the Los Angeles Lakers, holding the championship hardware we were so close to obtaining for ourselves. And ahead, on the horizon, loomed a very important, yet very cloudy, offseason, which gave us no guarantees that the club we saw make it to the NBA Finals would be the one we'd see take the court again in October. 

Rather than spending the first few weeks of the offseason basking in the glory of his team's second championship in the last three years, Danny Ainge probably spent them contemplating the immediate future of his ball club. His head coach, Doc Rivers, was on the verge of leaving the club to spend time with his family, while two of his star players - Paul Pierce and Ray Allen - weren't guaranteed to return, along with a slew of other free agent role players. 

Only five players were guaranteed returners at the end of the season (barring some sort of trade), but one was facing major offseason knee surgery and would miss the majority of the following year (Kendrick Perkins), while another was contemplating, and eventually went forward with, retirement (Rasheed Wallace). Meanwhile, the three contracts of the other returners - Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Glen Davis - tallied over half the total of next season's salary cap, which solidified the fact that the Celtics would have virtually no cap space, and therefore would not be players in a sterling free agent market. 

It's important to note just how little Ainge had to work with once the offseason got rolling. Once it became clear that Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were going to re-sign with the Celtics, it also became clear that, because the team had already well exceeded the salary cap, Ainge would only have the Mid-Level Exception, the Draft, the Veteran's Minimum (teams can use this as many times as they want, but the quality of player associated with this deal isn't always great), and, if he chose, some other lesser known exceptions to retain any free agents that played for the Celtics last season (the Non-Bird Exception, in this case). It might sound like a lot, but trust me, it's really not. The money, for the most part, was insubstantial, and the free agents options weren't exactly breathtaking. 

But if you look at the roster as it currently stands, it's difficult not to be really impressed with the names you see. Ainge somehow managed to not just merely address this team's major weaknesses from last season, but substantially improve them. He bolstered the frontline with Jermaine O'Neal (Mid-Level Exception), Shaquille O'Neal (Veteran's Minimum), Luke Harangody (Draft) and Semih Erden (not sure of the details of his contract yet). Despite losing Tony Allen, whose Bird Rights were held by the Celtics, Ainge still managed to add quality depth along the perimeter in Nate Robinson (Non-Bird Exception), Marquis Daniels (Non-Bird Exception), Von Wafer (Veteran's Minimum), Delonte West (Veteran's Minimum), and Avery Bradley (Draft). The final result (as of now), is a team that stands on the short list of next season's title contenders.

Perhaps the icing on the cake is the fact that the players that were added were some of the best available at their respective positions. As the options thinned out, Daniels became one of the most appealing options at small forward, while both of the O'Neals were two of the more impressive front court options. This team is not just The Big Four and a collection of nobodies. This is a legitimate team that was constructed in a very impressive manner.

Some of these players are certainly risks (Wafer and West, for example), but the deals favor the Celtics, and the production they might see out of this pair is well worth the risks the team is taking. If things go south, either player, or both, can be cut without any major financial ramifications. 

And let's not forget about Doc Rivers coming back - which I'm sure Danny had a hand in - and the addition of Lawrence Frank on the bench, who will help fill the void left by Tom Thibodeau this season, and could very well be coaching this club down the road. 

Ainge definitely benefited this offseason from the NBA operating under a soft cap, which features various exceptions that allow teams to exceed the salary cap in order to sign players. But the fact that so many of the deals are team-friendly is really what gets me. Shaq for roughly $1.4 million dollars? A refurbished front court for roughly $8 million dollars total? Wafer for less than a million dollars? West for just over a million dollars? These are fantastic signings when you consider how much these players can, and most likely will, help the team next season. 

We Celtics fans have a habit of looking at offseasons and trade deadlines and related events and saying things like, "Wow, I'm not really sure what we can do here, but I trust Danny to make it work", or "I'm not really sure about that rumor, but I trust Danny's judgement, so I'll go with it." Well, it's offseasons like this one that give us cause to say things like that.