Ainge's comments this week stated that the off-season activity would be driven by the performance of the team in the remainder of this season. The team's response was to lose to New Jersey falling behind by 18 in the fourth quarter. Now I'm sure the Nets were delighted to rack up their 6th win (out of 52) and vaulting their winning percentage above 10%. However for our Celtics this low ebb comes after two months of spotty play, weeks of verbiage (without corresponding action) about improvement, and a de facto statement of confidence at the passing of the trade deadline. Seldom have any fallen so far so fast.
With massive salary commitments, few trade assets, and only their own late-round picks, it is hard to see how Danny can make much improvement over the summer. But this is a Can Do story not a Chicken Little panic attack, so let's look at how each approach might play out. Each requires significant action since right now only six players are under contract for the 2010-11 season. The tweak assumes resigning most of our own free agents. Re-tooling means replacing several pieces (and the devil is in the details.) The tear down is dismantling the aging team and preparing the rebuild--I say priming the pump because I think the reload opportunity has passed (if it ever existed). How, you ask? Well, my dear Watson, something like this.
Just a tweak to cobble together another run for the post-season with the gray-beard gang--at this point this option seems both the least likely to succeed and the most likely to occur. Small move(s) seem unlikely to be enough to return the team to a highly competitive level. Other than Ray the older players have seen a significant drop off in both their health and effectiveness this year. Another year older wouldn't seem to be a prescription for improvement--as Sir Charles would say, "Old people don't get healthy, they die." Rondo and Perk should continue to improve although this improvement is likely to be incremental rather than by leaps. Retaining Marquis, if possible with a 20% Early-Bird raise, would be a no-brainer. Positive outcomes pretty much assume that the Nate experiment is successful so the question is can he also be similarly retained? In this eek out another year scenario, extending Tony Allen for another year seems appropriate. Big Baby is under contract for another year so we assume he stays. The oldsters Pierce, Garnett, and Wallace are under contract and in the tweak approach Ray is resigned at a significantly lower salary. This actually seems realistic since he seems to love the team, Boston, and the care there for his diabetic child and a hometown discount seems do-able. That leaves Scalabrine, Williams, Marcus Landry, and two open roster slots. The easy answer is Scal and Shelden return as veteran minimums, Marcus takes the qualifying offer, and Boston's first and second round picks make the team. That's a pretty small tweak--essentially the same team with the draft picks joining the bench (Now you didn't really think late round picks were going to play as rookies did you?)
How about some minor variations in the tweak scenario? Other minimum veteran salary signees replace Scal and/or Shelden and/or Marcus; or management buys additional picks with the money saved from Ray and Scal's salaries. Want an even bigger tweak? Management splurges with a MLE signing (the LLE is biannual and was used on Marquis last year). The needs are many so maybe they split the MLE for two players but the problem is already a lack of quality so I suspect a single impact signing is more likely. Greatest need for a difference-maker?--any position but Rondo's or Perk's. How about that power three missing for, well, forever? How about an athletic big man like those that consistently rebound and dunk over our aging and/or vertically challenged front line? How about a shooting guard to spell/replace the oldest of the Big Three?
In case you've noticed we've already edged into the re-tool scenario. About the only additional move that might be expected in this approach would be an actual trade. Wallace to Larry Brown? Big Baby to a team with a depleted front line? In either case it would likely be for a skilled swingman or project center since exchanging like pieces doesn't make much sense. In this scenario the MLE would likely be a big man to replace the lost asset.
The problem with both the former approaches is that you are trying to patch a basically unsound structure. The problem with a summer demolition is that most of your assets lost a lot of value between the February trade deadline and the end of the season. $30M worth of expiring contracts (in a climate of teams desperate to save money or clear cap space) are now free agents and bring nothing in return. How about a sign and trade? Well nothing in that $30M is going to be highly sought after, or bring top dollar, so why trade when they can just be signed for relatively cheap? No, this is going to be a real uphill battle. Danny has done just what he cautioned Red not to do--ride a group of aging stars into oblivion and get nothing in return.
Now most Celtics' fans blanch, cross themselves, and sprinkle holy water when trading Paul Pierce is mentioned. He is however the only piece that might be moved for real value in return. In my opinion this is a necessary step in order to kick-start the recovery process. I go for rock bottom next year. Move everybody but Rondo, Perkins, and Daniels for draft picks and potential.
On a team that is catering, there is no room, rhyme, or reason for borderline veterans. Unless you feel like the player will develop into a rotation player on a good team, don't resign them. In this situation Scal, Williams, and Tony don't get extended. Big Baby and probably Marcus Landry (who we haven't seen enough of) are moved for picks or potential. 2010-11 becomes an extended tryout. I would try to resign Walker if he is released by New York although the salary hold on a roster slot can't be much if any less than his option. I'd even take Giddens back at the vet minimum. Both fit into an up tempo game--enter Rondo's Roadrunners.
The real challenge is to acquire picks/potential with essentially no resources. The immediate challenge is to make the next season a building year. It is easy enough to see clearing out the roster, much more difficult to envision acquiring pieces with long term value to develop. Next year is the pits. The trick is making those doldrums as short as possible.
Lets start with acquiring future resources. Take future picks rather than picks this year, or even next year. In fact trade this year’s picks for future picks, especially if you can get 2 for 1 or even a 1st and a 2nd (or two) for your first. Take future picks over current players in any trade possible. One futures resource almost never tapped is injured players. If we are going to be at the bottom next year, we can afford to wait for an injured star who is of no use to a contending team next season.
Right now Garnett may be the most difficult contract to trade. It might even make sense to wait until next year when he may have rehabbed into value and will at least be an expiring contract. Just how much value an expiring contract will have in a season that may be locked out is an interesting question however. In fact the effects of the whole CBA/lockout issue is an interesting question. Has the impending negotiations played a part in Ainge's planning? Will it effect contract values and lengths in the upcoming free agent bonanza? Next year will GM's/owners begin to look at contracts through 2012 as "expiring" because they anticipate not having to pay them for much/all of the 2011-2012 season? If there is a hard cap will the Luxury teams be given a "grace" period to get under or will they be forced to limit their squads to vet min contracts until the albatross deals expire? Is there some way Danny can turn the CBA conflict to the Celtics' advantage?
Another interesting aspect is the plethora of teams who have cleared cap room hoping to lure one, or in some cases even two, of the premier free agents. At this point eight franchises (NYK, MH, NJN, LAC, CB, SK, MT, WW) have cleared in excess of $17M to contend for these big names (some enough for two from the goodies bag). The brightest stars available (a P following indicates player holds a opt out for next year) include Bosh (P), Johnson, Wade (P), Boozer, Stoudamire, Nowitzki (P), Ming (P), and James (P). Their own teams can offer much more money and a longer extension to each of the player option stars. Early indications are that only Bosh, Johnson, Boozer, and Stoudamire are highly likely to leave their current teams. That is 10 max-contract slots cleared with perhaps as few as four stars available. Someone, actually several someone’s, aren't going to get the marquee star they hope. Do any of the Celtics' aging stars have enough gleam to attract one of the disappointed buyers? This is especially attractive for moving Pierce and/or Garnett.
O.K. we have a strategy, how might this actually work? Tactics are the topic for next time.