It sucks that the Celtics lost another big series when up 3-2, and it sucks that they did so in the same way they did last time (games 6 and 7 of the 2010 Finals), by petering out in the 4th quarter. But I don’t begrudge the management’s decision to see what they could get out of this same core, especially if good trade proposals weren’t coming in at the deadline. Had a few players been healthy (Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox), who knows how the season might have gone. I’m half expecting Rajon Rondo to be killed by a shark or fried by a lightning bolt this summer, given the franchise’s luck in the last thirty years.
Setting aside the admirable valor of this team, it’s time for some major changes. I don’t want to see the Big Three kept intact. One or two of them? Sure. But any talk of keeping the Core Four together and making a few tweaks to add depth is delusional and overly sentimental. (I’ve been listening to Sports Hub radio today, and I’m amazed at home many callers think the team will be a contender next year with just a few changes to the bench. Bring in Marcus Camby. See what Sean Williams can offer under Doc’s guidance. WTF?) This is a team that’s thrived since ’07 because the key players have played together for five years and they’ve always embraced the team concept wholeheartedly. But it is very hard to win an NBA championship without size and/or without players who can score when the moment calls for it. And the Big Three don’t really qualify anymore.
Consider Paul Pierce. In 2008, he was the scorer who could provide that kind of one-on-one production when necessary, by hitting jumpers and creating shots near the basket. He was able to negate the Kobes and the LeBrons back then, even though they were bigger stars and better athletes. Pierce was clutch. But he had very few such moments, let alone whole games, this postseason. Whether it was his sprained MCL or just being past his prime, Paul Pierce wasn’t that guy this year, and I think it would be insane to expect him to be that guy ever again. Valuable player for another two years? Sure. But we can’t hope for him to contain or outplay LeBron James.
Ray Allen is another lifelong scorer who, a few years ago, could explode for 30, 40, or even 50 points in a playoff game, even without explosive or acrobatic drives to the basket. But now? His ankle problems reduced his mobility to the point where he was too reliant on screens and kick-outs to get his shot off. And given his history with his ankles, I wouldn’t assume he won’t have other problems with them in the next couple seasons. He is obviously still valuable enough to get a nice two-year deal from a team that needs a shooter off the bench, and he knows that. I think he’s as good as gone.
Kevin Garnett surprised the league by returning to his ’07-’08 form to become, some would argue, the MVP of the Celtics’ unexpectedly long playoff run. But he doesn’t dominate down low the way a Tim Duncan, a Shaquille O’Neal, or a Hakeem Olajuwon once did, at least not consistently. And I have to wonder just how brightly KG would’ve shined if he’d been matched up against a bunch of hefty 7-foot centers this postseason instead of Josh Smith, Udonis Haslem, Elton Brand, and other small “bigs.” (The Celtics were able to “overachieve” in the playoffs largely because they faced the Sixers instead of the Bulls or Pacers in the second round. And even the Sixers were tough to beat.) With KG there is a limit to what he’s willing or able to do on offense, either because he tires at the ends of games or his slight frame precludes him from bulldozing his way to the rim against good defenders. It’s dangerous to depend on jumpers to sustain an offense in the 4th quarter of a Game 7, and that’s what the Celtics were left to try on Saturday night and two years ago against L.A. Does this mean KG shouldn’t be courted to sign for two more years at a hometown discount? No. I would definitely try to keep him around for another year or two, though I suspect he may not be interested in going through the grind of a full season unless a championship seems much more likely in 2013. The guy has so many years and so many games under his belt. He may decide that more time with his family and more years with healthy knees are the bigger priorities in his life at this point.
So, who is the de facto centerpiece of the Celtics? I think most fans recognized before the season began that the 2011-2012 Celtics really belonged to Rajon Rondo, who’d ascended the ranks of the league’s premier point guards since the title run of ’08. That was confirmed later on when we learned that Doc Rivers held a mid-season meeting with the Core Four, where he asked the Big Three if they thought they could contend this year and they said yes but turned to Rondo and said they needed him to lead the way. And the way Doc Rivers handed off post-game press conference duties to Rondo on Saturday night—choking up and reaching out to squeeze Rondo’s shoulder, as a father might do to a son—was further confirmation. Citing Rondo’s obvious value and his extremely reasonable salary, some folks say Danny Ainge’s best move is to trade Rondo now and get an All-Star or two in return. I don’t see how that could possibly work out well unless the plan is to truly blow up the team and start from scratch with another point guard of comparable ability. (I wonder where Steve Nash will be next year.) Rondo knows the Celtics system, he knows Doc, and he seems to know just about everything about all the other teams, including the plays they’re calling, which is obviously invaluable. He also led the NBA in assists per game and has become a triple-double machine. By the way, he had one of the best playoff performances of all time, against LeBron and the Heat, no less. I think the Celtics need to build around Rondo, and that means adding players who can play at Rondo’s pace.
Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass proved their worth this year, though I’m unconvinced Bass can be a starter at power forward unless the Celtics get a legitimate center who can rebound and protect the rim. I’ll be very interested in what the Lakers do with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, both of whom seem to hate playing in L.A., or with Kobe Bryant, or under Mike Brown, or all of the above. And the Thunder will have to decide how committed they are to Serge Ibaka, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after next year. Dwight Howard will probably be on the move at some point in the next 9 months, despite having opted in for another year with Orlando. And will New York hold onto Amar’e Stoudemire? That’s one messed-up team. Somehow, the Celtics could end up the recipient of one of those big men, or they could end up with a big man who becomes expendable when those other large dominoes tumble. (Dare I mention the name Kendrick Perkins? Good old Perk could end up being bought out so OKC can keep Ibaka.) Roy Hibbert is another good center who could be elsewhere next season. The Celtics could also bring back Chris Wilcox, who looked good on the fast break before an aortic aneurysm ended his season.
Of course, nobody knows what Danny Ainge has in mind. I am hopeful that he will keep the Celtics relevant and steer the franchise clear of the two decades of purgatory that marked the post-Bird era. I’m hoping Rondo is a part of it.