Fans of the Boston Celtics must be feeling a strong sense of deja vu. Of course, the fans that are old enough to remember the tail end of the Original Big Three Era that is. We all know the stories of how current Celtics GM Danny Ainge would tell Red Auerbach that he needed to start at least thinking about trading one of, if not all three of the Big Three. Auerbach scoffed at the notion and as a rebuttal to Ainge's suggestion, traded away Ainge instead.
Obviously Red didn't trade Ainge for those comments (although I wouldn't put it past him), rather he traded him out of necessity. Larry Bird only played in 6 games during the 1988-1989 season, due to heel surgery and the C's needed big men to replace Bird and spell McHale and Parish. Out went Ainge, in came Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine. Ainge saw the writing on the wall that the this was signaling the end of the Big Three Era (that and Kevin McHale's destroyed foot). He's seeing it now, and like his front office predecessors before him, he's seemingly very limited in what decisions to make going forward.
Back then two of the major cornerstones of the future tragically passed away (Len Bias and Reggie Lewis). Back then, they opted not to trade any of the Big Three and made several poor draft choices and free agent signings. This is where Ainge has to be careful. With uncertainty in the CBA situation it's impossible to even begin to toss ideas out there without beginning each scenario with a huge asterisk.
With that being said, the Celtics are in the midst of a historical off-season. It certainly won't be as historical or directly impactful of the 2007 off-season and most likely not as next off-season, but it's the beginning of something huge. The Celtics are in a very difficult spot here and there are a few things to think about before going too crazy.
First of all, Ainge wouldn't give players like James Posey, Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins long-term extensions because he wanted to have as much cap space, excuse me, flexibility, for when Kevin Garnett's contract is off the books. As of now only Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley are officially on the books entering the 2012-2013 NBA season. So the question becomes, which free agent do you want badly enough to kill that flexibility?
Which brings us to the second point. If they truly are going for one last run with THIS group, then you can forget about the bigger name free agents like Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, etc. Unless they make a drastic trade (or two) involving one of the core players (yes that includes Rondo as well) then it makes no sense and goes against Ainge's desire to have flexibility next summer. What to expect then?
If the new CBA reflects similar free agency and trade rules (or even more stringent rules) than you should expect a very similar off-season as last summer. They will attempt to re-sign their own players using Bird rights like Nenad Krstic, Delonte West and possibly Glen Davis, depending on if any team tosses crazy money his way. They'll use the MLE (again, if it exists) on a player that's only willing to take a one-year deal, which you can forget about guys like Jamal Crawford. Although the one caveat with a guy taking a one-year deal is if they feel like they can go all out on a title contending team for one season in hopes of excelling at a 6th man role, thus earning a bigger contract the following summer (see Posey, James from 2007-08 with the C's).
This is by no means to toss a bucket of ice water on the off-season hot topics list. Everyone loves to discuss trades, free agent signings, team building. But the reality of it is that Ainge is trying to hold up an old colonial house when renovating it on an icy hill… during an incessant blizzard. Think about it. Do you REALLY want to give Krstic a multi-year deal for more than $6 million per (he made $5.5 in his final season)? Do you REALLY want to sign Jeff Green to a multi-year deal at over $10 million per, which he could easily be asking for?
Of course, you could always sign these guys along with other free agents and include them in trade packages, but that's not always guaranteed and never easy. This is why Ainge is on a slippery slope. Not only does he have to decide if this group is capable of contending for a title, he simultaneously has to keep that flexibility next summer. Another difficult part of the process is trying to figure out if Dwight Howard or Chris Paul would seriously consider playing for Boston.
Re-signing Doc Rivers to a 5-year deal was huge in this regard. A lot of non-Celtic players seem to have an affinity for him, which bodes well for the C's. But that can only go so far in negotiations. These guys want to be a part of their own super team, and how ironic is it that Ainge and the Celtics created this monster methodology in 2007, only to be victims of it now?
Ainge will do his research on Howard for sure. Personally I highly doubt Dwight wants to play here, even if they had a max contract to offer. Sure, they could always make an offer to Orlando this year to obtain Howard, but why would they if he has zero intentions on re-signing here? There was a reason the Knicks got Carmelo Anthony… that's the only team he WANTED to play for.
The new CBA rules could obviously change all of this and make things easier for Ainge and the Celtics. But the one thing that Ainge must avoid is over-paying free agents in both years and dollars, effectively killing flexibility and keeping the team back where it was for 22 post-Big Three years… mediocrity. That keeps their draft position mediocre, leading to most likely mediocre players and definitely below mediocre chances of making it deep in the playoffs, let alone title contending.
Ultimately in Boston, most fans care about building a champion or at the very least a team that has a legit chance at a championship. In the NBA it's very difficult to do without several superstars on your team, at least historically. That's why only a handful of teams have won championships. So while there is a ton of uncertainly surrounding the NBA and especially the Celtics in the next couple of seasons, it's certain that Ainge is not afraid of making controversial moves with the intent of fielding a championship contending team. Hang on, it's going to be a fun ride on that slippery slope with him.