I suspect Boston’s goal is to come out of the summer of 2014 with two all-stars and a top-5 pick who could quickly blossom into one. That would give the Celtics three legitimate upper-tier talents and a quick return to the playoffs in the spring of 2015.
Here’s how things could unfold between now and the end of the 2014 free agency period:
1) The Celtics either dump or shift the perception of their large contracts.
Right now, the C’s are stuck with Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Green. Each has three years remaining on his contract except Bass, who has only two. All except Green seriously damaged his trade value with weak play last season. And as recently as the all-star break, even Green was widely considered a toxic asset.
Assuming none of these four guys are offloaded this summer, the 2013-14 season could be used to rehabilitate their value, even if they end up with superficially inflated numbers on what could be a terrible team. Wallace might actually be beyond salvaging considering the atrocious contract Brooklyn gave him last summer and his declining game, but if the Celtics can remove just one or two of the names from this list by next summer because they’ve played well enough to have positive — even marginally positive — trade value, that’s a win. If by next summer any of them are valuable enough to play key supporting roles on a title team, that’s a downright triumph.
2) Brad Stevens enhances the value of the remainder of Boston’s roster.
Avery Bradley had a mediocre year in 2012-13 and needs to bounce back. Jared Sullinger played well while healthy, but then immediately saw back problems undercut his value. MarShon Brooks is cheap and useful. Fab Melo is cheap but hopeless. Jordan Crawford is cheap but clueless. Kelly Olynyk is an unknown. Everyone else is an expiring contract or filler or Keith Bogans, who is going to end up with a three year deal for somewhere around $4-5 million per season. Which is distressing.
I think Boston’s goal and Stevens’ main focus will be to develop all of the guys above and, by extension, enhance their trade value. That gives Ainge a number of ways to deploy them come next summer: as trade pieces for other players, as assets to move up in the draft, as sweeteners to get another team to absorb a bad contract, or as carryover Celtics.
These guys should all get serious minutes next year. With any luck, there’s a chance for a couple of breakouts there, particularly in Bradley, who was asked to do too much last season and could be primed for a minor leap.
3) The Celtics lose many, many games. More than 60, if possible.
The Celtics made the right choice to tank in 2007 even if the end-result wasn’t what they’d hoped. This coming season, the incentive to lose is even larger than the Andrew Wiggins-size prize at the top of the 2014 draft. Depending on who you believe, there could be a half-dozen stars in the top-10 picks, which means even if you don’t move up in the lottery, if you can lose enough games, you can still snag one.
I know, I know. Losing on purpose sucks. Bemoan the incentive structure in the league all you want, but under this newly restrictive CBA, it’s more critical than ever to get production from superstars and guys on rookie-scale contracts. Preferably both in the same package. This is particularly true if you want to keep guys like Green around. You need to find efficiencies in your salary structure to make up for his contract.
There are a number of ways to find the 60 losses the Celtics should be targeting. Some of them are morally defensible (expansive use of younger guys at the expense of older, more competent players in the name of long term development). Others are not. But one way or another, the C’s must find ways to chock up up those L’s.
If the Celtics can accomplish the three things above, and land a top-5 pick in the process, they’re set to reload in the summer of 2014.
First, they draft a future star in the top five or six picks. I think we’re all comfortable with Ainge’s ability to find a difference maker given a pick that high and a draft that top heavy (as he has labeled it). Is it a sure thing the C’s find a star? No. But it’s as good a bet as any draft since 2003.
Second, they sign a star free agent or acquire one in trade. As bait for a sign and trade, they can offer any of the first round picks Ainge has been accumulating or any assets they’ve managed to “enhance” during the season.
(This second point assumes either the desirability of outgoing Celtics players or sufficient cap space to sign someone outright. Either works. That makes Kris Humphries ($12 million, expiring) a key piece. If the Celtics move him, they can’t take on additional years of salary. That also means the Celtics may seriously need to consider using the stretch provision to limit Wallace’s cap hit on the 2014-15 team).
Let’s assume both of the above items happen.
That would give the Celtics one budding star and one established star. For a total of two.
But at the beginning of this piece, I promised you three.
Which brings us to:
The Rajon Rondo Problem
Rondo’s still on a great contract and his regular season ambivalence aside, he is capable of being the first or second best player on a title team. Ideally, he would be that third star we’re looking for.
But Rondo could screw up this plan. He’s too much of a difference maker. If he’s ready for the first game of the season, his season-long impact could push the Celtics to a few extra wins — and the back end of the lottery. And as we’ve established, they need to lose.
Holding Rondo out until after the all-star break would be one consideration. But if he’s healthy, he’d never go for that. Does holding him out until early January give the Celtics enough of a chance to build a cushion against seasoned, professional losers like Charlotte and Sacramento? Maybe. But it’s risky.
There’s a real possibility Rondo could be moved and not because he and Stevens won’t play nice together. Rondo could be moved because the Celtics cannot afford him submarining their submarining of the 2013-14 season. If Boston truly intends to lose, you’ll see any return for Rondo include expiring contracts, draft picks and maybe a young asset that doesn’t move next season’s needle in terms of wins and losses. A Rondo trade could also include the departure of Bass or Lee. In any case, expect to be underwhelmed by the return.
And then — expect a ton of ghastly losses to ensue. Blowouts, blown leads, a whole season blown off.
Be ready for that pain.
But absent Rondo, and with a batch of draft picks and some flexibility, consider the Celtics roster in terms of the above plan.
This is what I think is being considered in the Celtics’ offices this summer:
One year of misery in exchange for a quick return to the playoffs and a renewed charge at banner #18.