It was quite the weekend for Celtics fans. The beleaguered Boston Celtics, losers of six straight games, returned home on Sunday from a terribly disappointing overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. That Friday night tilt would prove to be gut-wrenchingly painful in many ways, but the fact that the C’s blew a 27-point lead to a team that had previously lost 9 of its last 14 games says a lot as it is.
Sunday wasn’t just any ordinary Sunday though. Not only were the hated Miami Heat in town for the first time all season in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, but it was the return of Ray Allen! Story lines galore at the Garden! But wait, there’s more… After “tweaking” his knee on Friday (and playing through the pain), Rajon Rondo was surprisingly announced as inactive for Sunday’s game and was headed to the hospital for an MRI on his right knee. The Celtics would go on to play arguably their best game of the season without Rondo and upset Miami in double overtime! 100-98. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combined to play 94 minutes! The Truth posted a triple-double! But all of that greatness was mired by an announcement that came in the middle of the action, sometime after 2 pm. It went something like this: RONDO TORN ACL. Ouch. Paul Pierce’s reaction says it all.
So the Celtics, regardless of their awesome win on Sunday, are officially at a crossroads. With Rondo, they were a playoff team that, well, probably wasn’t going to win many games in the postseason. Maybe Boston was potentially the No. 6 seed with an upset shot of beating a team like New York or Indiana or Chicago in the First Round. Now, the problem is that, even without Rondo, the C’s are probably still a playoff team; but now it’s as the No. 8 seed with zero chance of beating Miami in a seven-game series. The Eastern Conference is so shallow, only the 76ers, Pistons, or Raptors have any chance of sneaking into the top eight. If the Celtics keep the roster as it is, even if they finish five games under .500, they probably finish higher than Philly or Toronto, once again keeping them out of the NBA Draft Lottery. So what does Boston want to do from here? Allow me to explain the options…
KEEP THE ROSTER IN TACT
If you take a look at their roster, the Celtics have 10 players under contract beyond this season. Paul Pierce’s contract (15 million/year) expires at the end of 2014, while Rondo, KG, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, and Avery Bradley are locked up until 2015. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, and Fab Melo are under contract through 2016. The key behind all of this are the contracts of Paul Pierce and KG. You have to assume that they’ll retire at some point, right? This applies particularly to Garnett, who could be ready to hang up the sneakers after this season even though he’s in the midst of a three-year deal. That being said, I also doubt Pierce will have anything left in the tank when his contract is up. So if Pierce and KG are off the books at the end of next season (2014), that frees up over 27 million dollars for the Celtics, while leaving them with a handful of expiring contracts (including Rondo, Bass, and Terry) to use as trade pieces in 2015. Can that be the year that the Celtics make a run at a big name in free agency and/or make a move to get a top tier player through a trade?
I know that fans don’t want to think that far ahead, but if they keep the roster as it is through the rest of this season and let Pierce and KG and Doc Rivers make one final playoff run together, it could allow the Celtics to have a lot more salary cap flexibility in the coming years. Not to mention that Boston could potentially suck ass in 2013-14 (especially if Rondo is slow to return to health and Garnett is gone), and could potentially move into the lottery of the 2014 NBA Draft, which could be the best draft in the last decade with guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins on deck. I know there are a lot of questions to be answered, but being mediocre for one more season might be the best way to ensure a quicker rebuilding process for 2014-2015. Plus, you have to think that KG and Pierce and even potentially Doc Rivers want to go out with pride, if it is in fact the end of their respective careers in Boston.
MAKE A COMPLIMENTARY MOVE OR TWO AND WORK WITH WHAT YOU GOT
With the February 21st trade deadline looming over their heads, there are few types of moves the Celtics can make this season. Boston can beat any team on any given day because of two players: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Even with their age and declining skills, we’re talking about two of the best players to ever play the game, although it’s obvious that neither is as spry as they once were. Meanwhile, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger are certainly nice pieces as well, but let me be blunt: the rest of the team is very much expendable. If the Celtics are convinced they can still win a playoff series without Rondo, they absolutely need to shake up the rest of their roster. So basically, we’re talking about combining some kind Jason Terry/Jeff Green/Brandon Bass/Courtney Lee package with one of the young trade chips (ideally Sullinger and not Bradley) and hoping to come away with a solid point guard and/or a rebounding presence in the paint.
Kyle Lowry is certainly a name that comes to mind, especially considering that the Celtics lack a true point guard without Rondo. Lowry is talented and affordable and would provide a great combination of offense and defense, while being a potential trade chip going forward when Rondo comes back. He’s the perfect stopgap, if you will, and could be easily attained especially with Toronto aggressively pursuing Rudy Gay from Memphis. Other stopgaps in the backcourt include Andre Miller, Rodney Stuckey, Luke Ridnour, and Jameer Nelson. As far as the frontcourt is concerned, I’m sure Boston would happily unload Bass or Terry or the young Fab Melo for someone who can grab a damn rebound. The list of affordable, easily attainable stopgaps there include: Paul Millsap, Jason Thompson, and Dejuan Blair, among others.
MAKE A BIG MOVE AND START REBUILDING, NOW!
Now, a smaller complimentary move like that would essentially be a move for this season only. That’s basically giving Pierce and KG and Avery Bradley another asset or two to work with without completely overhauling the roster and hoping for the best. But what if the C’s do decide overhaul the roster? There are two directions they can go. On the one end, what if the Celts decided to package all of their young talent and see what it reeled in? If Bradley and Sullinger were packaged together, along with maybe a draft pick and some other pieces (Lee, Green, etc.), the Celtics could potentially acquire a young superstar like DeMarcus Cousins and start the rebuilding process a little early. I know Cousins is going to be nearly impossible to attain, but it’s the idea of Boston mortgaging nearly all of their assets for one star player that just sounds so enticing… and awful at the same time. On a lesser extent, Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay, and Al Jefferson are all available too! This idea I don’t like so much. Rebuilding around one good player and a bunch of trash is not really the way to go.
Now consider including the likes of Pierce and KG into a trade to start the rebuilding process this season, and the idea becomes much more intriguing. Without having to surrender draft picks and, of course, Avery Bradley, the Celtics can go out and make a trade for the future with more ease. The only thing is that it would have to involve a contender. Garnett has a “No-Trade Clause” in his contract, so theoretically, he would probably say no to any destination other than maybe Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or the Clippers. None of those teams have much to offer besides draft picks, which is why the Thunder are the most intriguing counterpart of the aforementioned teams. Would Jeremy Lamb/Perry Jones and a Houston’s first-round pick be enough for the C’s to unload Garnett? That’s for Danny Ainge to decide, I guess.
On the hand, it would be much easier to deal Paul Pierce, who becomes an expiring contract next season and doesn’t have a “No Trade Clause.” Pierce would be a huge boost to a number of playoff hopeful teams including: Golden State, Utah, and, once again, the Clippers. Would the Celtics pull the trigger on a deal that involved them receiving Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, or Eric Bledsoe? I would do it in a heartbeat.
Barnes or Thompson would become expendable if the Warriors wanted to make a push to win now. The Jazz have a glut of talented big men on their roster and definitely could shop one to get a veteran swingman like Pierce. And Eric Bledsoe continues to play behind Chris Paul. All three teams could give up one of these young assets for Pierce, and although you have to respect Pierce’s best wishes in regards to where he wants to finish his career, if he is willing to be shipped to a contender, and if you feel like you have to make a deal to ensure what’s best for your franchise going forward, a deal that includes any of these five guys would definitely be worth it.