Instead of launching themselves into a new era, the Celtics put the future on hold for at least a few more months. Paul Flannery looks at the reasons for and ramifications of that decision.
When Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, Doc Rivers told everyone to hold off on the obituary. When Jared Sullinger went in for back surgery a few days later, Rivers said that they would hold it together. When Leandro Barbosa tore his ACL in Charlotte ... well, that was too much.
With three rotation players out for the season on an already thin team, grim-faced determinism was replaced by a troubling reality. The Celtics lost that game to the Bobcats, snapping a seven-game winning streak. Although they recovered long enough to beat the Bulls in a game that set the sport back a decade or so, they went on the road and got drilled by the Nuggets and Lakers.
Against that backdrop, team president Danny Ainge worked the phones. He called about Kevin Garnett. He called about Paul Pierce. He called about anyone and everyone up to and including a 7-footer so raw he never sees the court and a player without a functioning knee ligament.
There were rumors about KG to the Clippers for Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, and others about Pierce for Josh Smith or some mythical combination of draft picks and expiring contracts that never materialized. There was even a Rajon Rondo rumor because no trade deadline is ever complete without one of those.
In the end, Ainge did nothing more than replace Barbosa with Jordan Crawford, a younger, healthier, wilder version of the Brazilian Blur. Crawford doesn't have Barbosa's command or experience. He was squeezed out of the rotation in Washington and his shooting percentage hovers around 40 percent, which is a problem in that he shoots a lot. But he's young, affordable and healthy, and that in and of itself is a minor upgrade over where they were the day before the deadline.
There were no big trades and no franchise-altering moves that would set the course for the next era of Celtics basketball. There was just Crawford, vagabond Terrence Williams on a 10-day contract and two open roster spots to sign whatever is left off the veteran scrapheap. It's not that Ainge didn't try but, as he always says, he values his own players more than other teams do and he wasn't going to give them up cheap.
You can say that Ainge's insistence on getting value for his veterans is his fatal flaw, but if he came back with Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and a pick for Pierce -- the immortal HBAP package no one else wanted -- the howls would be heard from the Zakim Bridge to Caribou, Maine. You can't acquire something that isn't offered and Ainge felt that no deal was better than a bad one.
Complicating things was Garnett's stubborn refusal to waive his no-trade clause, not that it ever got that far. It was expected that if Ainge could do both things -- trade KG and find a new home for Pierce -- Garnett would grudgingly move on with the realization that there was nothing more for him in Boston. That was the subtext of the subtle out that he kept giving himself in all of his, "I bleed green" speeches he delivered over the last few weeks.
"If it was up to me," Garnett would sometimes say and people would seize on that and say, "But it is up to you, Kevin!" What they didn't understand was that Garnett wasn't talking about his no-trade clause. He was talking about Ainge and whatever came of the trade deadline.
Garnett didn't want to leave Boston for all the reasons Celtics fans love about him -- his embrace of the franchise, his desire to play for Rivers and his loyalty to Pierce and Rondo. He also didn't want to leave because this is the same person who had to be talked into leaving Minnesota after he had basically left the Timberwolves no choice. What can you say? The man doesn't like change and that's partially why no changes were made.
The Celtics are 28-26 and in seventh place in the East. The first order of business is simply surviving the schedule that has them playing seven of the next nine on the road and features eight more back-to-backs. Yet they sit five games ahead of the ninth-place 76ers and appear comfortably ensconced in the playoff pool.
If they get the right draw perhaps they could cause a little damage. If not, they could be out in the first round for the first time since KG came to Boston. Without Rondo, there is no logical reason to think they can pull off another springtime stunner but, as always, we're reminded to never bury them before the autopsy is completed.
Beyond that, there is no obvious next step. They have about $70 million committed to 10 players and a $4 million buyout option on the last year of Pierce's deal that will play him more than $15 million next season. It seems inconceivable that they would go that route with the Captain, considering he's still playing at a reasonably high level and has become a franchise icon and civic fixture. But you never know.
That would be Year Seven of a three-year plan. No one's getting any younger and Rondo and Sullinger will both be coming off major surgeries. Everyone will have to get used to playing with Rondo again and perhaps Rondo will have to get used to a different style of play where the ball isn't always in his hands and he's not the only one leading the break.
During his absence, the Celtics have recaptured a bit of what made them successful: ball movement, unselfish passing, a quicker pace. There's no reason that Rondo can't be great in that kind of system as those are exactly the qualities that make him such a unique player. Still, for whatever reason, it wasn't working and that's something that will have to be addressed in the offseason.
There's also very little reason to believe Rondo will be returning to the same team next fall. There's the Pierce question, for one, as well as Garnett's oft-cryptic comments about retirement. Comments that he always walks back later, but he'll be 37 years old in May and it's not unreasonable to wonder.
Ainge will have a trio of mid-level players -- Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry -- who could have some value. Avery Bradley will be entering his fourth season, which is right about the time a decision will have to be made on whether to invest in him for the long-term. There will be options.
It's possible that Ainge could do nothing but add a draft pick and a free agent or two, but the Celtics are staring at another problem. If they stand pat they would be starting their second year over the luxury tax under the new collective bargaining agreement. The tax will go up incrementally, but more importantly they would be facing the dreaded repeater tax if they stay over the line in 2014-15. As it stands, Ainge has positioned the team to avoid that fate, but another year with the same cast would force his hand.
All of which is to say we'll be going through this again, sooner rather than later. They have delayed the inevitable so many times, but eventually a new course will have to be plotted out and executed.
For now it's up to Garnett, Pierce and Rivers to make something out of a season that began with so much promise but has been an exercise in masochism. In some ways that's just how they like it, which is both sick and oddly inspiring. The Celtics as we know them are still here, a little more hobbled even by their gimpy standards, but still standing.
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