Making the Case for One More Run (or Three)

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Matt Moore, senior NBA blogger at and author at, known to many NBA fans on Twitter as @hpbasketball, articulated a common feeling among NBA pundits about the Celtics' apparent off-season plan to bring back the same basic core group they've put on the floor for the past 5 years in an effort to compete for a title one or two more times:

Hardwood Paroxysm ‏@HPbasketball

I also think the Celtics are headed the path of the Pistons a few years ago. Hanging onto the core past its expiration date.

Hardwood Paroxysm @HPbasketball

Not only did Derrick Rose's injury spare the Heat from having to face him, it may have convinced the Celtics to overstay the Big 3 era.

He made the point that although the Celtics made a very deep run in the playoffs this year -- coming within a quarter of the NBA Finals, pushing the eventual champions to seven games (lasting two and a half games longer against said opponent than the astonishingly young and talented OKC Thunder) -- "too many things went their way." Derrick Rose went down with a horrific knee injury, effectively clearing the Bulls (a matchup nightmare for the Cs) out of the way. Chris Bosh also suffered a severe injury, missing the first five games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Once Bosh returned, the Celtics did not win another game, and Bosh's production was a huge factor in the Heat's ability to close out the Celtics in convincing fashion in the fourth quarter of the deciding game.

Despite all the injuries that teams across the league dealt with throughout the lockout-shortened season, the Celtics had all of their old stars available to play for most of the playoffs, even if Ray Allen was a shell of himself due to bone spurs in his ankles, Paul Pierce was fighting through a debilitating MCL sprain, and KG, as always, was fighting through all kinds of pain we'll never know about. Not to mention that in the ECF the Celtics were without their starting shooting guard, Avery Bradley, whose emergence fueled their second-half run of brilliance to the playoffs, due to dual shoulder injuries. Oh yeah, and we shouldn't forget not just one but TWO key players lost for the season to rare, unforeseeable heart conditions (plus the utterly predictable loss of Jermaine O'Neal to general "glass-body syndrome") which caused the team to be afflicted with something called "Ryan Hollins" for significant stretches of key playoff games. But yeah, even with all of that, it's true that the Celtics do owe a debt to a good deal of luck in getting as far as they did in the playoffs.

From that perspective, it might seem like the best thing the Celtics could do would be to call it an era, to allow that last, improbable, glorious run to the cusp of the NBA Finals be the ultimate chapter, the last word on the new Big 3 Celtics. Although the Celtics surely wanted to go out on top, with one last championship, before they rode off into the sunset, the possibility for that ending probably evaporated as soon as the Miami Thrice got together and Durant and Westbrook started taking turns getting MVP consideration while playing for the same team. So why not let the last memory of this group be a hard-fought, blood-soaked last stand, a blaze of glory? Let nobody say they didn't go out like true warriors, preferring to die in battle before the strength that fueled their defining greatness had deserted them.

Well, that certainly sounds nice. It is understandable that somebody, like Moore, could interpret the decision of Celtics management to bring back KG and, presumably, the rest of the merry old band for another run or two as a decision "of the heart and not of the mind." Indeed, the desire to hold on to the things we have cherished long after they are over is the essence of sentimentality. Yet this view overlooks the fact that the Celtics really don't have any other palatable options.

For a few years now (basically since KG's knee injury), people have been saying that this Celtics team is too old to really compete for a title, and they should just be blown up. Until this summer, however, the "nuclear option" wasn't really an option at all, because the team just didn't have the cap space, and it was much easier said than done to trade the Big 3, even for pennies on the dollar. At the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season, however, the Celtics only had a handful of players under contract, and, at least in theory, tens of millions in cap space. If Kevin Garnett had retired, or the Celtics had elected not to bring him back, the Celtics would have had a few basic courses of action available to them.

Reload via Free Agency

The Celtics could have renounced all or most of their free agents, freeing upwards of 30 million in cap space. They could have then pursued at least one max free agent, or a handful of second tier free agents, and immediately had a new, younger, if totally unproven core group of stars and quasi-stars to compete in the East for years to come. The rest of the roster could have then been filled out with salary cap exceptions and veteran minimum contracts. That sounds nice, but there are a couple major problems.

First, the free agent crop this year just isn't that good. Kevin Garnett was probably the second best unrestricted free agent on the market this summer before he agreed to sign his three year extension with the Celtics. Deron Williams, who occupies the top UFA ranking, isn't considering signing anywhere except Brooklyn or Dallas. The rest of the list includes guys like Gerald Wallace, O.J. Mayo, Steve Nash, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Tim Duncan, Kris Humphries, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, and Spencer Hawes. There are a number of good players on that list, to be sure. But most of them are nearly as old as any of the Big 3, and none of them is a franchise-changer. The restricted free agent crop includes names like Roy Hibbert, Javale McGee, and Eric Gordon, who are nice, talented young players who have All-Star talent and will undoubtedly each get a max contract even though they haven't yet proven to be worth one.

Even if that free agent crop looks nearly as enticing to you as the famed 2010 smorgasbord, you must keep in mind that historically free agents do not like Boston. Boston is simply not a top free agent destination. Rondo is a perennial All-Star who makes his teammates better, and Doc Rivers is a players-coach who is well regarded by players around the league, but they can't compete with warm weather, low taxes, and night life that stays up later than 2 am.

Bottom line, the Celtics weren't going to be able to put together an exciting new core in free agency this summer without drastically overpaying some aging stars or flawed young players and killing their future flexibility. The Celtics would be locked in, long-term, to a team that, in all likelihood, wouldn't do much more than fight to win a playoff series each year, and they'd be paying out the nose to do it.

Reload via Trade

But wait, you say, free agency isn't the only way to use cap space to acquire good players! That's certainly true. It is possible that Danny Ainge might have been able to use the Celtics' prodigious cap space in creative ways to help facilitate other team's trades, take on some not-so-great contracts, and acquire young talent that other teams couldn't afford to keep. The problem here again, though, is that without trading some or all of the Celtics' few young assets, Ainge would have had to take on quite a few bad contracts to accomplish anything via this route. Just as in the previous scenario, the Celtics would be locked in to likely mediocrity.

Basically, the Celtics could be spending this off-season acting like the Brooklyn Nets, who are making moves in a desperate attempt to keep Deron Williams around and become relevant again. The Nets want so badly to be relevant when they move to their expensive new arena in Brooklyn that they're willing to take on one of the worst contracts in the league in Joe Johnson, and will probably also offer a max deal to the truly flawed and injury prone Brook Lopez (they've already thrown a 4 year / $40 million deal at Gerald Wallace, who is 30 years old with a playing style that can't possibly age well). Thankfully, though, the Celtics AREN'T desperate. The Celtics are already relevant and have been for the past five years. What's more, they can stay relevant and realistically hope to compete in the playoffs without handing out or trading for any really bad contracts. Two or three years from now, the Celtics will have lots of options available to them, and they won't be saddled with any cap albatrosses. The Nets almost certainly won't be able to say the same.

Tank and Rebuild

This is now known as the "OKC plan" because of that team's wild success in a short amount of time after they drafted a number of players in the first round over the course of three seasons and pretty much nailed every single pick. However, it's not exactly an original or particular ingenius plan; it is also very difficult to replicate. Teams have been tanking to try to grab a star or three in the draft since before the Draft Lottery was created, and the pattern over that course of time has been remarkably consistent. Inevitably, a few teams become very good to great by following that plan because they both suck horribly for at least a year (but usually four or five) and enjoy the incredible luck of winning a top pick and nabbing the next transcendant star.

However, the vast majority of draft picks, even those taken in the lottery, don't become stars, or even solid NBA starters. For every team that succeeds with this method, there are countless teams in each era that wallow in prolonged mediocrity. Meanwhile, their fans lose interest, coaches and members of management lose their jobs or move on, players get fed up and either stop trying or demand to be traded, and what used to be a model franchise with a winning culture becomes the laughing stock of the league.

The point is, tanking to rebuild is anything but reliable. It is exceedingly more likely to profoundly damage the value of a franchise than it is to maintain or rejuvenate it. As such, tanking really ought to be a last resort of teams with no future, not the default option anytime a team is no longer guaranteed to be a title contender.

In any case, even if the Celtics did tank, got lucky in the lottery, and made smart picks, unless they immediately got a superstar with the first or second overall pick, they wouldn't be much better off than they are now. Rajon Rondo is an established star right now, and he's just about to enter his prime. Any effort to restock the team through the draft would take at least 3-4 years, after which time Rondo would be on the wrong side of 30. It makes much more sense to try to make the most of Rondo's talent while he still has it, and hope for the best.

The Practical Reality

Truthfully, Matt Moore is probably right that the days of these Celtics seriously competing for a title are over. The best they can hope for is another surprisingly deep run or two like the one they had this year. But so what? At least the Celtics will probably win an average of 45-50 games over the next few seasons, and they'll win a couple playoff series. The Celtics will stay relevant, and they will keep making money. In a market like Boston, where in any given season most or all of the four major sports teams are competitive, tanking means falling to the bottom of the sports totem pole for years, and it's difficult to get back up -- just ask the Bruins. Any year you aren't competing for a title in New England, your team becomes a total after-thought.

The reality is that as an NBA team, anytime you can trot out a team that can expect to win 50 games and / or a playoff series while turning a profit, you do it. The opportunity to do so just doesn't come around that often. Moreoever, the worst thing you can do as an NBA franchise is paint yourself into a corner long-term that you might not want to be in. Maybe the Celtics are setting themselves up to be what the Pistons were between 2006 and 2009, but at least they aren't looking to be what the Pistons have been since then, or even what the Hawks are now, or what the Nets are trying to become. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and perhaps Ray Allen (if he accepts the rumored 2 years / $12 million deal the Celtics have offered him) will all be mostly or entirely off the books within two to three seasons, if the Celtics want them to be, and they will all serve as assets either as expiring contracts or fairly paid, still-valuable contributors during that time frame.

Danny Ainge may not be turning the NBA world upside-down this summer the way he did in the summer of '07; the "three more years!" plan might not be sexy, provocative or frought with lofty promise, as the newly-minted Big 3 Celtics were heading into the 07-08 season which culminated in a championship. However, Ainge is taking his time, setting himself up nicely to pounce in and take advantage of more desperate, less intelligent GMs, just as he did that summer. He's positioning himself to take the Celtics to the top once again -- it just isn't the sort of thing he, or any other GM, can force.

In the meantime, the Celtics are like the music on a classic rock station. The glory days may or may not be over for them -- maybe we love them mostly because of nostalgia -- but what they have to offer is still a hell of a lot better than the vast majority of the new, ubiquitous crap in the Top 40. So let's sit back and enjoy it. Maybe they'll surprise us, yet.

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