Win or lose, Danny Ainge must soon engage in the process of renovating the Celtics. That was all part of the bigger plan after all. When Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett came to Boston, the Celtics knew they were operating with what was likely a three-year window.
So here we are now, on the eve of the Celtics’ second appearance in the NBA Finals in the last three seasons, and one cannot help but wonder if this is the last real roundup for Messrs. Garnett, Allen, and Paul Pierce. They’re not getting any younger, folks. And they’re not getting any better, either. None of that should detract from what the Celtics have accomplished this spring – and what they may very well accomplish still – but it does place additional urgency on these finals for a team that bases its success solely on championships.
At the moment, after all, we don’t even know if the coach of this team will return in 2010-11, the future of Doc Rivers having been cast into doubt by remarks that Rivers himself made weeks ago.
In the interim, as the landscape in the Eastern Conference changes, the Celtics will be undergoing their own modifications. Allen is a free agent at the end of this season. Pierce has a player option to return, but he is up next year. Meanwhile, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James could be on the move, all while Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose are staying put in Orlando and Chicago, respectively. The good news for the Celtics is that 24-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo has blossomed into a legitimate centerpiece and superstar - particularly when Rondo has yet to begin a five-year, $55 million contract extension that he signed prior to this season.
All in all, thanks to Rondo, the Celtics are in decent shape. But they’re also old. Of course, that isn’t going to change until Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Rasheed Wallace (signed through 2011-2012, like Garnett) are replaced by younger players of comparable skill level, a transition that could and likely will take place over years. The question concerns how and when Ainge will get there – and how much the C’s will suffer (if at all) during the inevitable process.
In that way, these Celtics are quite similar to the aging club 0f 1986-87, who lost to the Lakers in the finals. The next season, the Detroit Pistons supplanted the Celtics atop the Eastern Conference and the Celtics began to deteriorate. From 1989 to 2007, the Celtics made one trip to the conference finals and missed the postseason entirely on nine occasions. To say that they were caught in netherworld of mediocrity (or worse) would be a gross understatement.
Along the way, indisputably, the Celtics suffered their share of heartbreak and misfortune, too. At the end of the '87-88 campaign, the Celtics already had endured the Len Bias tragedy. Reggie Lewis had just concluded his rookie year and was seen as a blossoming talent – and history undoubtedly would have been different had Lewis’ story followed a less tragic path, too. Regardless, the Celtics made mistakes by putting off the inevitable – out with the old, in with the new – out of loyalty to their veteran core.
With all of that in mind, there is a great deal to consider. If the Celtics bring back Allen, for example, salary alone is not the only issue. How much playing time will he get? Would he be satisfied with a relatively minimal role? Would his presence deter the development of a younger player who might not even be on the roster yet? And in coming seasons, aren’t the Celtics certain to face the same questions with Garnett and Pierce, the latter of whom is the only member of the new-age Big Three to whom the Celtics might feel any loyalty akin to that shown Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish?
Today, even as the Celtics are set to begin the Finals, these are questions that Ainge is undoubtedly toying with. It is why he is currently knee-deep in preparations for the draft that will take place later this month and during which the Celtics have the 19th selection. Ainge built this current Celtics team almost entirely on draft picks in the middle of the first round, stockpiling enough talent to allow him to deal for Allen and Garnett three years ago.
In exchange, all of those years of promise – Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Delonte West – got him a legitimate three-year run at more championships.
In retrospect, Ainge deserves all the credit in the world. At the trading deadline, while some (ahem) were suggesting it was time for the Celtics to blow it up, Ainge thought his team was capable of making another run. Regardless of whether the Celtics win this title, their mere presence in the finals means Ainge was right. In just getting here, they have overcome Wade, James and Howard. Ainge evaluated his club in ways that many others did not, and he did not panic despite a regular season that invited an irrational response.
Does that mean these Celtics are done in the aftermath of these finals, whatever the outcome may be? Not necessarily. (We won’t make that mistake again.) It just means they will need more health and more luck going forward if they are to win with the same group. In the next year or so, Ainge needs to find someone to put alongside Rondo and form the nucleus for the next era in Celtics history; to do that, he may need to execute another bold trade. That could mean cutting ties with Allen, Pierce or Garnett, all of whom have contracts that could bring the Celtics greater flexibility.
Tomorrow night, for the 21st time in their history, the Celtics will begin play for the NBA championship. They have won 17 titles already. They have every chance of winning another.
But for this team with this nucleus and this coaching staff, there may be more than one reason to refer to it as the finals.
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