A little birdie on Causeway Street told me the Celtics’ philosophy for the coming era of rebuilding.
If there is one word that defines what Danny Ainge is trying to do in his attempt to return the Celtics to their championship glory, it is “assets.” But if there is a second term, it is “cost control.”
As Ainge and the Celtics prepare for the tough years ahead, there is a greater emphasis than usual on keeping payroll under control. A year ago, Ainge went all-in for one last run at a championship with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, handing out multi-year contracts to Jeff Green, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee. Topping the luxury tax line was not as much of a concern as giving Doc Rivers the tools necessary to chase an 18th banner.
That plan failed, of course. Pierce, Garnett, Terry and Rivers are all gone. The Celtics are left holding the bag for the rest of the mid-tier free agents they added last summer, as well as unwanted contracts for guys like Gerald Wallace, who was part of the Nets trade, and Jordan Crawford, who was acquired in a panicked trade deadline move last season when the Celtics were desperate for backcourt bodies. The Celtics did rid themselves of some $33 million owed to Garnett, Pierce and Terry for the coming season, but because of collective bargaining rules requiring taxpaying teams to more or less match contract amounts, the Celtics got little short-term salary relief.
With that in mind, Ainge is in no mood to talk about the players he will add this offseason. Instead, he is all about subtraction. The Celtics had 14 players under contract for 2013-14 before the trade, not counting a guaranteed deal for their first-round draft pick, which became Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk. After the trade, they had 18 players (counting Olynyk and second-round pick Colton Iverson), spurring the release of Terrence Williams, whom the Celtics had tabbed as a backup point guard of the future.
The Celtics now have a lot of shooting guards, only one capable point guard, a few ‘tweener forwards, a gaggle of raw centers and a bunch of power forwards, all with some obvious flaw. There are a lot of bodies, but very few obvious No. 1s on a depth chart. It’s not a good problem to have.
“We have too many players,” Ainge said on Monday. “We have logjams at power forward, center and shooting guard. We have a lot of guys, potentially, if things continue as they are, but I think that our job is to try to clean up that this summer.”
The primary order of business, now that the Celtics have stockpiled nine first-round draft picks over the next five years, is to somehow pare down the payroll. Shavlik Randolph, D.J. White and Iverson’s deals are non-guaranteed. Avery Bradley, Crawford and Humphries have expiring contracts. Rajon Rondo, who has two years and nearly $25 million left on his deal, remains an intriguing trade commodity despite a reputation for being difficult to deal with.
The draft picks are therefore just one aspect of the cost-control focus for the Celtics over the next several years. Picks don’t just mean young talent. They mean young, inexpensive talent, and the payroll flexibility to make blockbuster deals down the road.
Like, for instance, trading for a bunch of future Hall of Famers, as Ainge did in 2007.
“Draft picks are a great way to keep your payroll in check,” Ainge said on draft night. “The reason that payroll is important is not just for dollars. It’s also for flexibility. With the new CBA, being under the cap is a great advantage. Being under the tax is a competitive advantage. It’s an asset to be there. You have more flexibility. You can do trades easier. You have more money to spend on free agents and exceptions and so forth.”
As it stands, the Celtics do not have much of a competitive advantage with their payroll — or on the court, for that matter. To achieve the latter, they need to work toward the former. Call it cheap, call it frugal. In the NBA in 2013, call it smart.
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