For the first time in recent memory, Danny Ainge has cap space to work with and a flexible financial situation. With Brandon Bass’ recent decision to opt out of his Player Option for next season, the Celtics have roughly $31,272, 580 (via hoopsworld.com) committed to next season between the 5 salaries of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Avery Bradley, E’twaun Moore, and Jajuan Johnson. This puts them about 27 million dollars under the cap with a lot of options to examine. The main issue for Ainge, however, is the impending Free Agent class of 2012 is weak at best. After Deron Williams, who happens to play the same position as the C’s strongest long term asset, there is little in the form of superstars available via free agency. There are solid players available as always—Ersan Illysova and Carl Landry and Jamal Crawford jump out as appealing options to run with Rondo—but nobody who can realistically combine forces with Rondo and an aging Paul Pierce to help get the Celtics past the Heat and other contenders next season are available for max offers.
The most important chip to fall this season remains firmly in the hand of 36 year old Kevin Garnett. Coming off a postseason of dominant 2 way basketball, it is hard to get a solid read on KG. Some like Jackie McMullan believe he will return, while others believe this final push was a proud last stand from one of the 20 best players to ever lace them up. If KG comes back, Ainge must find an athletic big to pair with The Big Ticket in the frontcourt to lessen his minutes and responsibility. Bass is a nice player, and he would be welcomed back at a reasonable contract, but he is realistically just shy of 6’7 and should be coming off the bench. A big to bang on the boards with KG and run the court with Rondo is the number one priority.
The next thing for Ainge to look at is the 2 wing positions. The Miami series ended painfully for many, and the lasting image for me and many others is the simple inability to stay in front of anyone on defense.Allen, Pierce, and even Rondo repeatedly got beat off the dribble against Miami, and to a lesser extent in the Philly series. Avery Bradley’s pitbull-like on the ball defense was sorely missed as the Celtics advanced deeper into the playoffs. This lead KG to have to rotate off of his man which caused havoc for the C’s defense as they scrambled in rotation. Ray Allen lost his lateral quickness and likely is headed elsewhere in free agency. More pressing and concerning was the defense (and overall play/sluggishness) of Paul Pierce in the playoffs. He became the 3rd player to shoot 34% or below in a playoff series (min. 100 attempts) and struggled even worse on defense. To put it nicely, Paul cannot hang with LeBron right now for a 7 game series on either end of the court. Given that about 25% of our cap money is allocated to PP for the next two season, Danny has a couple options. First off is explore the trade market. At the deadline, PP34 was reportedly dangled for a 1st round pick and an expiring deal (NJ for Okur and a #1 has been discussed, but ultimately turned down by dictator Prokorov). The second option is very painful for Celtics fans to hear but remains a viable business decision that merits strong consideration. Ainge could use his one time amnesty clause to get Pierce off of the salary cap for the next few seasons. This will likely only be considered if KG hangs it up and the Celtics are suddenly in full rebuilding mode. While it seems cold blooded and ruthless, the NBA is a business and the best option for the long term health of the roster must be priority number one at all times.
It is a time of change for a team that has been a dominant force for the better part of the past 5 seasons. We must keep in mind that Ainge had the Celtics in position to trade for KG and Ray by assembling a bunch of young chips and being willing to pull the trigger on a couple risky deals ( Ray coming off double ankle surgery, KG was about 32 at the time). To lead us into the next stage of the franchise, Danny has a lot of decisions to consider and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out.