In the immediate aftermath of the Celtics’ loss to the Knicks last Friday, Doc Rivers had no answers as to what his team could look like when the 2013-14 season tips off. All things considered, it was probably better that way. Rivers believes he has to “immerse” himself in the moment to be an effective in-game coach, and there was no more vital moment in which to immerse himself than a potential close-out Game 6 on the Celtics’ home floor.
Provided Rivers is still around when camp opens in the fall, the Celtics team that takes the court at the practice facility in Waltham, Mass., cannot look the same as the one that limped off the parquet after the defeat to the Knicks. Rivers acknowledged as much in an emotional postgame news conference.
“No, no, no,” Rivers said. “We need more. We’re like that little girl in the commercial: ‘We need more. We need more.’ You know, we need more. And we do. The key is for us, do you want to take away to get more? That will be a decision that will be made later.”
With that, Rivers summed up why this offseason will be so touchy for the Celtics. For all the calls from fans to “blow up” the roster, those critiques are glaringly devoid of specifics. The rebuilding process would not be nearly as neat, either from a talent or a payroll standpoint, as so many fans seem to assume. It will be messy. It will hurt some feelings, among both players and fans. And it may fail.
When team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge reportedly came close to dealing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett at the trade deadline, the franchise’s foundation shook. Even if there was debate as to whether the proposed deals would make the Celtics any better in the short or long terms, there was little argument that the transactions would have marked the end of an era. Pierce and Garnett, along with Ray Allen, helped restore pride to the NBA’s most decorated organization. If Allen’s departure began to erode the altar built to the new “Big Three,” trading Pierce and Garnett would have taken a sledgehammer to the marble.
Now the Celtics enter the offseason at a crossroads with Pierce and Garnett. Pierce, 35, is due more than $15 million in the last season of his contract, but the team owns a $5 million buyout. That extra money could be used to add some of the pieces Rivers believes the Celtics “need more” of, but that would mean ending Pierce’s tenure in Boston, the only city he has called home as an NBA player. Pierce plans to play next season whether the Celtics choose to keep him around or not, which could lead to the surreal image of him walking into the visitor’s locker room at TD Garden.
Pierce’s situation is more than mere sentimentality, however. Judging by his performance in the playoffs, Pierce no longer provides $15 million worth of production. But if he goes, the feeling is that Garnett would go as well.
Garnett has made no such declarations about his plans for next season, and as the highest-earning NBA player of all time, he certainly does not need the money. Without saying so explicitly, Garnett has hinted strongly in the past — and echoed those thoughts last Friday — that he would rather retire than play without Pierce on the Celtics. That makes Pierce’s status more of a cold, hard business decision, because for all his limitations at 36 years old, Garnett is very much worth the roughly $12 million he is due to make in each of the next two years. Considering defensively challenged Nets center Brook Lopez will make $14.6 million and offensively limited Clippers center DeAndre Jordan will make close to $11 million in 2013-14, Garnett is a veritable bargain.
Of course, Pierce and Garnett are not the only moving parts in a possible rebuild. The Celtics proved in stretches that they could win without Rajon Rondo if they played the right way, and his relatively affordable $12 million salary and All-Star resume could make him an attractive trade chip. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford were up-and-down in their first season in Boston, and all three are on multi-year deals. The market for Brandon Bass might never be higher than ever after his strong showing against Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks.
Pierce, Terry and several other players deferred to the front office on questions related to next year’s roster, but some felt comfortable expressing their opinions. Jeff Green, who is under contract for at least two more seasons, does not want to see the complexion of the team change that much before 2015, when he has a player option.
“If I had a wish, everybody would be back, healthy, the way we started,” Green said. “We battled all season with injuries, guys getting hurt, guys in and out of the lineup. A lot of adversity we went through. It was a tough season, ups and downs, not knowing who was going to play with injuries. It was tough.”
Green is unlikely to get his wish. As much as the Celtics’ 20-0 run in the fourth quarter of Game 6 may have inspired Ainge, Rivers and green-clad fans, all of them clearly recognize that even at full strength, this team is flawed. What the Celtics lacked in talent this season, they almost made up for in fight. Yet the shortage of such all-important talent is indisputable.
“No, I think we need some additions,” Garnett said. “Health hit us pretty hard this year, and I’m sure they’re going to address that.”
There indeed will be additions, but some Celtics fans might not like the subtractions necessary to make it possible.