BOSTON -- In the offseason, the Celtics returned the core of a team that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, added the equivalent of two mid-level free agents, drafted a pair of calculated risks and filled in the rest with veteran free agents. Oh, and they signed Jeff Green too. The idea was that the new additions would provide scoring punch and allow Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to dial it back in the regular season and save their legs for the spring.
It sounded good in theory. It might have even been good in practice, but then the season started.
Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were slow to adjust to their new surroundings and Brandon Bass regressed. Green remained an either/or proposition. Darko Milicic went home, Chris Wilcox got hurt and Jason Collins was forced to play more than insurance minutes. Rondo was the team's only shot creator and Pierce and Garnett still had to carry the team on too many nights. That was especially concerning because each have seemingly lost a half-step. The offense remained locked in the lower depths.
Then Avery Bradley returned and all was well for about a week.
Rondo tore his ACL late in a game the Celtics should have won handily and Jared Sullinger had back surgery. Both players will be out until training camp in the best-case scenarios. Of all the things that could have gone wrong, this latest development was the most predictable. The Celtics knew when they drafted Sullinger that he might need surgery eventually, but they were hoping it wouldn't happen until the summer.
So, cue up the bugle and start playing taps? You must be new around here.
"I told them after shootaround what was going on and our goals haven't changed and nothing's changed," Doc Rivers said. "We will have to play differently. Again. We're still working on what we may have to do but we definitely have to be a small ball team. We have to put our five best players on the floor, so we're going to have to be creative."
That means playing Pierce as an undersized four with Green, Bass and Garnett up front along with their menagerie of guards. It ain't much, but it's what they got and true to their nature, the C's are at least talking tough.
"We're not ready to cave in yet, are you kidding?" Danny Ainge shot back at reporters on Friday before the Celtics played the Magic. "It's going to take more than that."
Translated, that means Ainge isn't ready to hold a fire sale just yet, but he may not have much of a choice anymore. The luxury tax is looming and as we've learned this season, that's an important consideration in more ways than just the bottom line.
First things first. The Celtics have two available roster spots and while they are bumping up against the hard cap, team sources said they would have enough space to squeeze in two veteran free agents. They will likely add someone soon, possibly by Monday.
Sullinger's injury does realistically eliminate one thought from consideration, which is dealing to strengthen the team for the here and now. In addition to being their best rebounder, the rookie was also their best trade chip along with Bradley. It was doubtful Ainge would give up either but the temptation no longer exists.
Everything else is seemingly on the table up to and including trading Pierce who said this week that he wanted to retire a Celtic. Ainge isn't in the business of giving players away and he certainly won't with Pierce, who has a long and distinguished history with the franchise. That does matter, especially at the highest levels of the organization. But if the right deal came along ...
Terry and Lee were in demand as free agents and could be again. Dealing one of the two or Bass could get them under the tax this season or open up some wiggle room next season. That, in turn, would allow them to delay a decision on Pierce -- who has a $4 million buyout on the last year of his deal -- for another season.
If the Celtics stand pat they would have more than $71 million committed to 10 players next season, which would put them over the projected tax line when the tougher financial penalties kick in and limit their ability to sign free agents and make trades. It would also leave them staring down the repeater tax, which would take effect in 2014-15.
All of which is to say the Celtics could muddle through the rest of the season and take that final shot next season when Rondo and Sullinger return, but realistically something would have to give between now and then. In the end it was a good plan, but now the long-delayed next step seems inevitable.
TRADES AND TAXES
Over the last two and a half seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies won about 60 percent of their games and finished no higher than fourth in the standings where they currently reside. They won one galvanizing playoff series against the Spurs and took the Thunder and Clippers to seven games in series that could have gone either way. They began the year winning 12 of 14 games and looked like a legitimate contender, but won only 17 of the next 30 and looked more like an also-ran in a loaded conference.
In 2008, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs as an eighth seed and scared the bejesus out of the 66-win Celtics in the first round. Over the next four seasons, the Hawks won about 60 percent of their games, never finishing higher than third in the Eastern Conference and never advancing farther than the semifinals. You can say that the Grizzlies were better than the Hawks, but it's hard to argue that they were any closer to the diamond-studded ring than Atlanta.
There were two questions facing the new owner Robert Pera and his front office led by Jason Levien and John Hollinger when they assumed control of the team. The first was whether the Grizzlies were on the cusp of a breakthrough or merely the Hawks Redux. The second was whether it was worth it to find out.
The three-team trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto and brought back Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye with Jose Calderon routed to Detroit answered the second question. The first question is an open-ended hypothetical that will lead to the inevitable second-guess until Levien and Hollinger complete the transformation.
The Grizzlies will still be good and in that sense, they did OK for themselves. Prince is an aging, but still active long-limbed defender with three-point range. Davis is an emerging big who is just now unlocking his potential as evidenced by a run of 15 games in which he averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds. Daye is ... something. We don't know what Daye is yet, but he can shoot so that's a start.
Davis' potential aside, Gay is still the best player involved in the deal. Yes, he's having a down season and is both overpaid and overrated -- the two things are related -- but he's still a 26-year-old scorer who posted a .548 True Shooting Percentage just a year and a half ago. It's hard to argue that Memphis got better in the short-run, which is why this trade is so difficult to evaluate.
Players have to be evaluated under two considerations: their production and their contract. By that measure, two more years of Prince at a fraction of the cost and Davis is a better value than two years of Rudy Gay for more than $37 million.
The Grizzlies' flexibility isn't much and it will be tested sooner rather than later because they will still have around $63 million on the cap this summer. Tony Allen will be a free agent and there is still the very real work of adding to a roster that needs help to be better than Hawksian. If Davis keeps progressing he will be an $8-10 million player in a few years right when the Grizzlies will have to make a decision about Zach Randolph.
All of which brings us to Mareese Speights, who was dumped along with Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby on the Cavs for Jon Leuer, which created a $4.3 million trade exception. All three players were easily replaceable, but the real cost of that deal was a future first-round pick. It's impossible to separate the two trades from one another because without the first deal there is no real cap flexibility and it cost the Grizzlies a pick and the best player in a six-player deal.
We can't properly judge the trade until after the various moving parts stop moving. What will that future pick look like? What will the Grizzlies front office do with that flexibility? Is there another move in the works?
We can reasonably say that in a vacuum the Grizzlies did OK and it's also fair to wonder if they could have done better had they waited until closer to the trade deadline or even this summer when they would have had a definitive answer on whether their team was good enough.
The real takeaway from this deal is that the luxury tax is not just about money anymore. Teams that go over the line are limited in free agency and in trades. Teams that continue to go over the tax apron -- as the Grizzlies were positioned to do -- will be subject to harsher penalties. It makes no sense to cripple your franchise both financially and in terms of roster management if you are not convinced you have a legitimate chance to win a championship.
That's what the lockout was all about and on this score, the owners won. The hard cap is real and it will affect teams throughout the league. The big-market Celtics, as noted above, are set up to avoid the repeater penalties if the team stops playing at a championship level, which it appears they have.
The Grizzlies weren't even the first good team to dismantle prematurely. The Mavericks busted up their championship team without giving it a chance to defend the title. But Memphis was the first team to do it during the season, which makes it just a little tougher to rationalize emotionally, if not realistically. They won't be the last.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT TYREKE?
It's hard to remember just how good Tyreke Evans was in his rookie season when he averaged 20 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds en route to winning Rookie of the Year. Our own Tom Ziller captured Evans perfectly in the 2010 Basketball Prospectus Annual:
The most striking thing about Tyreke Evans isn't that he can get to the rim; many NBA players do that both frequently and well. It's the lack of mystery in Evans' intentions that knocks you off-kilter after watching him for a few months. So many great penetrators play off a counter- balance, either their own perimeter game or the gravity (and defensive attention) of a teammate. Evans had neither as a rookie. He shot worse from outside than most of the league and, until the late-season trade for Carl Landry, had no post presence alongside him. Everyone knew Evans would be dropping his head and barreling to the rim. And no one could stop him. If he adds a Derrick Rose-style pull-up or Brandon Roy's hesitation moves, watch out.
Lofty as they were, those were the expectations. It didn't happen. There is still very little subtlety to Evans' game and his jump shot has remained suspect. It didn't help that he began his career as a point guard, a position he's ill-suited to play, and then battled through injuries in his second season.
His production dropped as his game moved away from the rim without much success and he shuffled between the point and the wing. It wasn't a shock when he didn't join fellow draft classmates Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday and Steph Curry in getting an extension before the season started.
Ah, but here comes the good news. Evans's raw numbers are down a bit because his minutes have decreased to about 30 a game, but he has recaptured the part of his game that made him successful.
He gets to the rim at a rate comparable to elite scoring guards like James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade and he finishes at better than 61 percent per NBA.com stats tool. Unlike those other superstar guards, Evans still lacks the perimeter game to keep defenses honest and the playmaking skills to make others better, but his True Shooting Percentage is over 55 percent, which represents a massive jump.
"When you play the (point guard) position and have been playing that your whole life you never develop anything else," Smart told me. "You don't work on anything else because the ball is always in your hands. Now I post him up. I use him off the elbows. That's the developmental part for him."
Evans doesn't get nearly the attention that his teammate DeMarcus Cousins receives and part of that may be his quiet personality. But Smart raved about Evans' willingness to work his way back into the starting lineup after he missed most of December with a knee injury.
"Not one time did he say, ‘Coach I'm ready for my starting position,'" Smart said. "He said, ‘Let Francisco (Garcia) keep starting. This is a guy in a contract year that said that. That just shows that he is all for the team."
It's not just talent that makes NBA players. It's also environment and the Kings' structure has been less than ideal the last few years. There's no doubt that Evans can play, but four years into his career there is still debate about what his role should be on a good team. He is essentially back to square one, albeit with a better defined position. Still, Evans is just 23 years old and Smart believes that he still has room to develop.
"Him and DeMarcus," Smart said. "They all think these guys are like 28. The window for growth is still so big because they're still so young."
The window for the Kings to decide Evans' future is shrinking, however. He will be a restricted free agent after this season and there is little sense around the league as to what his future will hold owing mainly to the uncertainty that surrounds the Kings' franchise. In the right situation with a point guard who can initiate the offense and shooters around him, Evans could thrive. But is he good enough to command that kind of responsibility -- and money -- on a team with higher aspirations?