As soon as I saw Chad Ford had given the C’s a relatively middling B- for their off-season moves, I knew it was coming—a deluge of comments saying Ford had gotten it wrong, that he just didn’t understand what Danny Ainge was doing, that he was biased against a team most fans love to hate.
Meanwhile, I read the B- grade and thought: That’s about right. Did you ever have a teacher who threatened to dock you a letter grade for every day your paper was late? You could turn in the greatest paper ever written, but if you were a few days late, you could do no better than a B. That was Ainge this off-season. He couldn’t get an “A” under a grading scale that put him in competition Pat Riley and Gar Forman. The C’s salary cap situation made that impossible.
To me, a B- stands for something just a bit better than maintaining the status quo—for doing your best to plug roster holes without the benefit of fail-sale solutions. That’s exactly what Ainge did, and he did it (basically) with Bird rights and the bare minimum of cap exceptions afforded teams over the cap.
That’s a B- off-season, and that’s fine. But in the rush to defend the front office, some folks are overlooking a fundamental truth: This wasn’t the only path open to Ainge this off-season.
And that was Ford’s point:
Did Ainge do the right thing? If the Celtics can make another deep run or two, he probably chose wisely. But if we saw the last gasp of the Celtics this past spring or if the Heat just steamroll everyone this season, then Ainge and the Celtics missed a critical chance to rebuild while they had the cap space to do it.
The option was there. Paul Pierce handed it to the Celtics by opting out of the final year of his contract. Had the Celtics then renounced their rights to Pierce, Ray Allen and the rest of their free agents (and convinced Rasheed Wallace to retire in the most cap-friendly way possible), they could have set themselves up with about $17.5 million in cap room—enough to sign one max player or two pretty good players.
Of course, this scenario would have left the Celtics with just five players under contract:
Kendrick Perkins (now injured, of course)
That nucleus is not going to attract one of the Wade/James/Bosh trio—especially since they may have planned their little Miami slumber party years in advance. Dirk Nowitzki? He’s aging and was going to stay in Dallas anyway. Carlos Boozer or Amare Stoudemire? Maybe, but that five-man roster needs a star swing man more than another front line ingredient.
Rudy Gay and Joe Johnson? Their teams took them off the market with unmatchable deals.
That would have left Boston to pick over the mid-tier free agents—the Josh Childress-J.J. Redick-Brendan Haywood types. Sign a couple of those guys, and you’re right at the cap, left with only the veteran’s minimum exception to fill out the roster. The C’s could have also preserved some cap space, hoping to fleece some team looking to get rid of an unwanted contract during the season.
Barring a free agent miracle or a sign-and-trade involving Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, the path outlined above—the rebuilding path—would have represented a significant step back in 2011. But it could have netted them a good young asset to pair with Rondo and/or another round of major cap space after the 2011 season.
Ainge chose instead to wait at least one more season. And I like that decision, for several reasons:
• No radical rebuilding plan would have made Boston a better team in 2011 than they will be with the current roster;
• The popular narrative is that the Celtics have signed on for a two-year run with this veteran group, and that any real rebuilding will have to wait until after the 2012 season. That’s not necessarily true, for two reasons:
1) The likelihood that a lockout will wipe out at least a portion of the 2012 season. If it wipes out the entire thing—a doomsday scenario I don’t think the league will let happen—that hefty 2012 salary bill disappears. If the lockout results in a shortened season, a veteran team gets to rest and the Celtics ownership gets to pay pro-rated salaries;
2) The Celtics will have expiring contracts of all shapes and sizes to play with during the 2012 season, and expiring contracts will be desirable commodities no matter what the new collective bargaining agreement looks like. If things are going badly midway through the 2012 season, the Celtics will have assets to deal. Those assets might not bring back star players, but they could bring back draft picks and useful young-ish players on longer deals.
Take all this into account, and Ainge probably made the right choice. But remember: He had a choice.