Makeover may not look like much
LOS ANGELES — After the Celtics’ crushing 83-79 Game 7 loss to the Lakers Thursday night, a surprisingly upbeat Danny Ainge walked through the tunnel outside the Celtics’ locker room and saw an approaching Kobe Bryant about to conduct his postgame interview with ESPN.
Ainge walked up to Bryant and gave the series MVP a congratulatory hug, but there was an interesting look on Ainge’s face. The Celtics president realized his team pushed the Lakers to the brink with a banged-up roster and without its starting center in Game 7.
He saw the relief on Bryant’s face after the Lakers responded from a 13-point deficit to win their second consecutive title, and he saw how much energy Los Angeles had to exert to do it.
So why in the world would he break this team up? The Celtics finished the 2009-10 season the league runner-up despite a plethora of injuries, an inconsistent bench, and a franchise player less than a year removed from knee surgery.
There is no question the Celtics need retooling. Some of the moves Ainge executed with the express purpose of relieving the aging starters failed miserably, but he will have to make some crafty decisions to restock the team for another title run.
Boston has seven unrestricted free agents, the most significant being Ray Allen, who just completed the five-year, $85 million deal he signed with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2005. He will be on the open market July 1. Allen repeatedly has stated that he wants to return to Boston and would do so at a reduced price. The Celtics own Allen’s “Bird Rights,’’ meaning they can pay him without counting against the salary cap.
Coach Doc Rivers wants the team to re-sign the sharpshooter. But Allen wasn’t so sharp after his brilliant Game 2 performance in the Finals. He was 19 for 62 from the field (31 percent) and 4 for 28 from 3-point range in Games 3 through 7, which could affect his marketability. When the Celtics desperately needed perimeter shooting against an aggressive Lakers defense Thursday, Allen couldn’t produce, and perhaps playing the most minutes he had in five years was a symptom.
“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,’’ Allen said when asked about his pending free agency. “But it’s obvious I don’t want to be nowhere else.’’
Asked whether the Celtics could push for another title, he said, “I believe Kevin [Garnett] will be healthier next year. We go a lot around what he does and Paul [Pierce] is going to be better and just more experienced. As guys get older the efficiency goes up. I don’t see why [we can’t be back].’’
Reinforcements are needed to make that happen.
Ainge brought in Marquis Daniels to be a backup swingman and reliable defender, and he played himself out of the rotation. The Celtics never had a capable offensive backup for Pierce or Allen, and it’s likely Daniels won’t be back.
Tony Allen is also a free agent and his defense on Bryant and performance throughout the playoffs boosted his stock. Allen is one of the few pure athletes on the roster and he has said he wants to return. The Celtics own his Bird Rights, as well.
Allen began the season coming off ankle surgery and his inconsistency put him deep on the bench until the final few weeks of the regular season. But he played well enough to earn an extended stay in Boston. Allen will get offers from teams seeking a high-energy defender and high riser, but Ainge can lock him up early in the process.
The late emergence of Nate Robinson gives the Celtics another quandary. Upon his acquisition from the Knicks, Robinson turned many teammates and team officials off with his immaturity. But he eventually learned the system and gave the Celtics a productive backup to Rajon Rondo. He helped win two playoff games with his offensive spark. Robinson relinquished his Bird Rights to facilitate his trade out of New York, and he is only 26, so with a full training camp he could be an asset.
Rivers said he wanted to use Brian Scalabrine on defense against Lamar Odom in Game 7 to “get under his skin,’’ and he did. But at $3.1 million, Scalabrine, 32, has played his final game as a Celtic. He leaves with a handful of memorable moments and a strong fan base, but a player who wasn’t athletic in his prime has now lost all of his physical skills, and the Celtics will move on.
As for Shelden Williams and Michael Finley, Ainge learned why they were available in the first place. Williams, the fifth overall pick in 2006, impressed Rivers with his work ethic but his skills may not be good enough to return. Finley can still shoot, but at 37 he can’t stop anybody on defense.
If Pierce does not exercise his early termination option and returns at $21 million next season, the Celtics will remain over the salary cap, meaning Ainge will have to use creative financing to replenish the roster. He still has a mid-level exception and both Allens’ Bird Rights. The free agency pool will be full of capable players.
There was a reason Ainge had a wry smile on his face Thursday night, because he realizes the run is not over.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.