Depending on how one feels about this year’s Celtics, the news that the team tried but failed to trade Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in March brought a sigh of relief or a cringe of disgust.
On one hand, the uncompleted deals kept Pierce’s contract on the books for at least one more season, while it remained possible Allen will walk at the end of this season with Boston getting nothing in return except a championship and a bunch of memories. On the other hand, Pierce may still be able to finish his iconic career in green and Allen may contribute to one final title run in Boston.
With the benefit of hindsight, the snuffed trades are a reminder that there are seldom any direct steps forward in the NBA. Had the trades occurred, the Celtics’ surge into contention in late March and early April never would have happened. To prepare for the future, a team must sacrifice its present. To go for it now, a team must mortgage its future.
The proposed trades — as reported by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, who is usually right about these things — would have sent Pierce to the Nets for injured center Mehmet Okur and a lottery pick, and Allen to Memphis for O.J. Mayo and a draft pick. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is said to love the depth in this year’s NBA draft (which is not really news because everyone loves the depth in this year’s draft), so it is logical that Ainge would want to free up salary cap space and stock up on draft picks.
Pierce and Allen are still members of the Celtics, obviously, and Ainge is still an executive who will do anything, anytime.
Suddenly, Allen re-signing with the Celtics after this season, which seemed to be at least somewhat likely, appears highly improbable. It is difficult to imagine Allen returning to a team that wanted him gone a month ago, especially in exchange for a player who would not even be guaranteed to remain with the team beyond this season.
It also places Pierce’s comments over the weekend about retirement in context. When he was quoted as saying in New Jersey, “This could be my last year playing,” it came off as a joke, which it very well might have been. But knowing he was so close to calling the Nets franchise home may have added to his dark humor.
While it may be tempting to believe the Celtics would still have been a player in the Eastern Conference after the trades, in reality the deals would have ended any hope the Celtics had at contending this season and probably for the next two or three seasons.
Either Mickael Pietrus or Sasha Pavlovic, who have done valuable work as role players, would have become the starting small forward for the balance of this season. With Pierce and Allen gone, Kevin Garnett probably would have walked as well to chase one more title with a contender. The Celtics would have held the rights to make a qualifying offer to Mayo, but in a thin free-agent market, some team may have offered the valuable sixth man a contract well beyond his worth. That would have forced Ainge to decide whether to make a matching offer, which could handcuff payroll flexibility, or to let Mayo go, leaving the Grizzlies’ draft pick as the only long-term compensation from the Allen trade.
If the Nets’ draft pick was top-three protected, as it was when New Jersey sent it and Okur to Portland for Gerald Wallace (although the top-three protection may have been what made the deal with Boston break down), then the Celtics could have come out of those deals with four picks in the middle and bottom — but not the top — of the first round. It is not as if the Celtics would have gone to Newark, N.J., on June 28 primed to draft Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Thomas Robinson and — just for kicks — Austin Rivers.
Not every mid-first round pick ends up being Avery Bradley. Not all cap space becomes Dwight Howard, either.
The deals that weren’t underscored three truths.
First, in the modern NBA, not even the Celtics’ status as token contenders is enough to completely dissuade a front office from the lure of draft picks and cap space. Having three Hall of Famers is a treat, but having fewer cap holds and less guaranteed money is a luxury.
Second, Ainge remains one of the most aggressive and unpredictable executives in the NBA. Whenever someone wants to speculate on how the Celtics will handle a roster decision, the only honest course of action is to throw up one’s hands and say, “We’ll see.”
Lastly, Pierce and Allen are still in Boston. Garnett is, too, for the rest of this season, and Rajon Rondo is here for the foreseeable future — even if that could change with the next phone call Ainge receives. Boston’s potential playoff opponents do not care what the Celtics’ payroll arithmetic looks like this summer. They only care that the Celtics are playing well enough right now to beat anybody in a best-of-seven series.
An era may have almost come to an end in Boston, but it didn’t, and the Celtics’ present still looks reasonably bright.