Big Decisions in Boston: The Celtics Off-Season Precipice

My friend Thomas is a die-hard Spurs fan. How die-hard? I’m not sure he’s taken off his David Robinson jersey since the Finals started. Hell, it should be enough that he has a David Robinson Spurs jersey. But I digress.

Sometimes, Thomas can muster having a heart for other teams, particularly if they’re not in the Western Conference. So when he asked me what I thought about the future of my beloved Boston Celtics, I decided I should honor his gesture by answering in the kind of verbose and sardonic manner that I think he will appreciate.

It seems that the fate of the Celtics has become for a moment, intertwined with the team as far away as one can be from Boston, and with whom they share only a common foe. That’s right, the Clippers. After previous chatter about a trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett before the trade deadline, players the Clips could have desperately used during their playoff fizzle, at least Garnett is back on the table, along with head coach Doc Rivers, who despite being as identifiable with Boston as those two players, said it might be “time for a change.”

As recently as Monday morning, Boston announced that they would be willing to let go of Rivers and Garnett, who would presumably be willing to waive his no-trade clause if Rivers came along, for DeAndre Jordan, picks, and the Clippers taking on the bloated contract of either Jason Terry or Courtney Lee. Both Lee and Terry are owed $5 million a year for at least the next two years (three for Lee) and neither one will start on a Celtics team that features Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo at full health. With Boston no longer demanding Eric Bledsoe, whom the Clippers rue to part with until Chris Paul’s return is a sure thing, this deal looks a little more likely, especially if another Clippers piece is added.

If Rivers/Garnett/Lee or Terry for Jordan/picks/player to be named goes down and Pierce stays in place for the time being, the Celtics are still over the cap but not paying tax yet, and looking at a starting lineup of Rondo/Bradley/Pierce/Jeff Green/Jordan. Not bad, but not great either, especially if Jordan doesn’t continue to evolve defensively. The want-to-get list at that point includes a backup point guard and a scoring big-man, both of which could be had with the MLE, or if Boston waived Brandon Bass and “stretched” his cap hit over five years under terms of the new CBA. On that same coin the Clippers will start Paul/Jamal Crawford/Caron Butler/Griffin/Garnett, a lineup with serious potential. If the Celtics then move Pierce, things start looking very different. Getting Bledsoe for Pierce would be a difficult sell cap-wise unless some other pieces came with him, and the Clips are short a few guys as much of their “Tribe Called Bench” has become “A Tribe Called Free Agents.”

They could package Butler along with, as he would be expensively redundant on a Clippers roster that featured Pierce, but that’s still dicey cap-wise, and I don’t think they’re going to go three-for-one with three of their four best little guys for a cap-unfriendly veteran on his last legs. On another note, A starting lineup of Paul/Crawford/Pierce/Griffin/Garnett, with some affordable help off the bench ad Doc Rivers as coach, will either implode under the weight of expectations, expense and alpha-dog infighting, or win consecutive championships. Just sayin’.

There’s been rumored interest for Pierce all over the place, including a possible dead that would ship out Pierce and Bradley for Eric Gordon. Rondo, Gordon and Green along with decent role players is all right as well, but a free-agent perimeter defensive stopper would be a must-get. Paul Milsap is also a possibility, though it would now be a sign and trade, one that Ainge loves and one that Utah has the cap space to swallow. Frankly, I’d like to see that, especially if Boston follows through on the rumors that they’re going to draft Mason Plumlee. That’s a team that can make noise in the East, maybe even win the Atlantic if the Knicks don’t repeat their fortunes and the Nets continue, as expected, to be a wash-up. Unlike the Fab Melo Experiment, Plumlee is something approaching NBA-ready in his current form, and is the combination of rebounding and scoring that could be a highly functional and highly affordable backup to Jordan.

Alternatively, they could flip Pierce for a rebounder to compliment Jordan. Al Jefferson would be great for this, as was mentioned in earlier Pierce-Milsap rumors, though he may be pricy. He said he still had “not really proved myself” worthy of a max level deal before signing the five year, $65 million contract that is about to expire. Jefferson is notable in that he was part of the legendary seven for one deal that put Garnett in green in the first place.

But it’s hard to get too excited about anything yet because the future is so murky. One thing’s is for sure; Green had a dynamite season, and if he can reenact it in years to come, he and Rondo make a solid unit to build around, especially with some help down on the block. But there are so many questions. How useful will Jared Sullinger be when he gets back? Who do the Celtics draft? What is the future of the Fab Melo Experiment? What is Rondo like when he comes back, and can he more regularly develop a feel for when he needs to take over scoring-wise, ala Game 2 of the 2012 ECF?  Who’s going to fill the leadership void left by the potential departure of Garnett, Pierce and Rivers? If they move Bradley, who do they get to replace him as a defensive stopper? Do they even care about that?

A Celtics squad centered around Jordan, Green and Rondo, without Bradley, Garnett, Pierce or Rivers running it, would be much less of a half-court grit-and-balls team. That lineup has the potential to be devastating in transition and still effective in set offense, but for the time being, anyone who wants to win the East needs some way to at least slow down LeBron James and force him to take the kind of bad shots that San Antonio is making him take right now. Pierce was noteworthy in his ability to score effectively while slowing the rate of an opponent’s elite scorer. That may well be the biggest blow of moving Pierce away: The Truth was seemingly the only player with the ability to truly confound The King on both ends of the floor, defending him into less layups and more bas decisions, and making sometimes ballsy but never stupid plays, including the great “You Can’t Handle The Truth” three in Game 5 of the 2012 ECF.

I also really liked some of the Pierce-as-a-two-guard lineups the C’s ran this year, they were a nice change from Boston’s usually small guard corps and created some nice perimeter mismatches their either let Pierce score or drew double teams and opened up Bass down low or Green slashing in. As a somewhat secondary priority, it would be nice to see Boston bring in a reasonably skilled large guard or a shorter small forward repurposed for the role. If Bradley’s gone in some scenario, this would preferably be a Shane Battier type of guy; defense and threes. If Bradley is still around, then just a big guard who could shoot, attack mismatches, and give Rondo and Green/Jordan room to work.

When the off-season began, the options for the Celtics ranged from “one more time around” to “burn it down.” It would seem as if Ainge is plotting some sort of middle road, which I think was the right choice. Though the thought of Pierce and Garnett wearing a different jersey makes me sad inside, and the thought of Rivers leaving is actually pretty scary, any of the options I discussed above would be just fine. Ainge has a track record of shaky free agent signings, but those have been for the kind of big money Boston doesn’t have right now. All in all, I’m feeling very uncertain about the Celtics because so much is up in the air. From the movement Ainge has been hinting at since way before the trade deadline, it looks like change will be the only certainty.

I suppose we’ll soon see. Step one is to conclude business with the Clippers, whether the deal goes down or not. If the deal goes down, step two is to get a new head coach quickly, not screw up the draft, and then deal with the Pierce question. In a perfect world for overly loyal Celtics fans like my mom, the band would come back together, either Courtney Lee or Jason Terry would end up elsewhere, some sure-fire draft picks will come on, and a return to the conference finals for the Ultimate Showdown of Destiny with the Heat could take place. From a future-focused perspective, I’d love to see Jordan and Milsap in Celtics green, though parting with Rivers (one of the truly elite coaches, and currently tied for Boston’s second longest tenured coach), Pierce (who’s evolution defined this decade in Celtics history and who’s number will hang in the Garden soon) and Garnett (my favorite player in the NBA) will be unpleasant for me. I’ll save my diatribe on Garnett’s value to the Celtics for another column, but just like his arrival, his departure may well be another turning point for the history of Boston Basketball.

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