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10 questions post-NBA lockout Celtics must answer

11.26.11 at 4:34 pm ET
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Now that the NBA lockout is all but over, we can talk actual basketball again. No more exhibition games. No more Paul Pierce sightings at the World Series of Poker. No more overseas discussions. Should lawyers on both sides approve the tentative agreement as expected in the next three days to a week, both training camp and free agency are scheduled to begin on Dec. 9, leading up to a Celtics at Knicks season opener on Christmas Day.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, head coach Doc Rivers and the rest of the C’s brass face a ton of questions over the next month. Here are 10 of the biggest ones they’ll have to answer.

10. How will the Celtics fill out the remainder of the roster?

The C’s currently have just six players under contract: The Big Four of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as well as center Jermaine O’Neal and second-year guard Avery Bradley. That leaves nine open spots on the 15-man roster.

Jeff Green has received a $5.9 million qualifying offer that makes him a restricted free agent, and the remaining eight players from the team that lost a five-game Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Heat are free agents. Only Nenad Krstic, who signed a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow that did not include an NBA out clause for this season, is off limits.

First-round draft pick JaJuan Johnson is a lock to land one of those nine open slots, while second-round selection E’Twaun Moore is a strong candidate to make the roster. Johnson has been working out in his hometown of Indianapolis during the offseason, and Moore has averaged 9.5 points in six appearances for Italy’s Benetton Treviso over the past two months.

Prior to the lockout, undrafted Pitt swingman Gilbert Brown was on the team’s radar, so he has a chance to join the Purdue pair on the bench as well.

Assuming Green remains in Boston, Ainge will at the very least have to find veteran players capable of playing significant backup minutes at center, power forward and the two guard positions. Re-signing combo guard Delonte West would go a long way in cementing the latter, and we’ll be examining the free-agent options at each position throughout this week.

9. Is the annual mid-level exception still available to the Celtics?

Can the Celtics convince a veteran like Grant Hill to accept a limited mid-level exception deal? (AP)

The mid-level exception was one of the biggest sticking points in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement, but teams will reportedly still have the opportunity to offer free agents a contract worth around $5 million annually over a maximum of four seasons should they not exceed the luxury tax line by $4 million.

However, as Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lowe notes, a team using the full mid-level exception then could not exceed the luxury tax by $4 million (an estimated $74.3 million threshold) by re-signing its own free agents using their Larry Bird rights (the same rule applies to sign-and-trade deals). Should a team exceed that $74.3 million, it can still offer a $3 million limited MLE.

8. Will the Celtics pay the luxury tax?

According to CBSSports.com’s report, last year’s salary cap ($58.0 million) and luxury tax ($70.3 million) will remain intact for the first two years of the tentative 10-year agreement. As it stands now, the Celtics have $64.3 million allocated to the six players currently under contract. So, the only real question is how much they’ll exceed the threshold. Should Green sign his $5.9 million offer sheet, that’s $70.2 million for seven players. Under that scenario, the Celtics would not be able to use the full mid-level exception, thus leaving a $3 million MLE, Glen Davis‘ bird rights, veteran minimum deals and rookie contracts for Johnson & Co. as their remaining options.

7. Should the Celtics use the amnesty clause on Jermaine O’Neal?

As part of the new deal, each team has the option to release a player under contract, paying the entirety of his remaining salary but with only 25 percent of it counting against the salary cap. O’Neal is the only true candidate for such a move, as the Celtics could free up $5.1 million of his $6.9 million salary in cap space for the 2011-12 season. However, the C’s could not re-sign O’Neal and would be without a single center under contract. Unless Ainge thinks he can find someone better (or more reliable) than O’Neal for that $5.1 million, the amnesty clause probably wouldn’t benefit the Celtics at all.

6. What can the Celtics expect from Jeff Green?

At least so far, the Jeff Green era has not been a success. Still, he has indicated his interest in returning to the Celtics, recently telling the Boston Herald, “A lot of people don’t know what I can really do. In Oklahoma, I was kind of overshadowed by Kevin Durant and the way Russell Westbrook picked up, but, excuse my language, I can really [expletive] play. I can really play this game, man.”

While Green averaged 9.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 23.5 minutes over 26 games after being acquired from the Thunder in exchange for Kendrick Perkins, Rivers could neither get him completely up to speed on the team’s schemes nor figure out exactly how to play the versatile 25-year-old. The lockout hasn’t made things any easier for Rivers, as a Dec. 9 training camp would leave him just over two weeks to get Green and a host of others on the same page. Ideally, Green would provide the Celtics the versatility to –depending on matchups — rest both Pierce and Garnett for more significant stretches during a shortened season.

5. How much does the Big Three have left in the tank?

Allen (36), Garnett (35) and Pierce (34) all turned a year older during the second lockout of their careers, and all three showed signs of their age down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs last season (Allen less so than the others). Even in a season that begins almost two months late and ends just a week later than originally scheduled, Rivers must find ways to limit his star’s minutes while still winning games. Green’s contribution could be the first step in the right direction, and landing a swingman like Jason RichardsonGrant Hill or Shane Battier with a limited mid-level exception wouldn’t hurt either.

4. How does a shortened season affect the Celtics?

If the season started on time, the Celtics would have had 58 games scheduled from Dec. 25 until the end of the regular season on April 18. Even if the NBA Finals are pushed back a week, as CBSSports.com reported, teams will have to squeeze eight more games into 57 scheduled off days between Christmas and April 25. That means more back-to-back games for everybody, and the Celtics struggled mightily in those situations last season to the tune of 8-11 (3-11 when the second game came on the road).

For much of last year, the Celtics played for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, only to let it slip through their hands and finish third behind the Bulls and Heat. This season, the Celtics would be better served to concede those top seeds, limit the wear and tear on his veteran core and ensure that they’ll enter the postseason as close to full strength as possible.

Re-signing Glen Davis is one of many tough questions facing the Celtics over the next month. (AP)

3. Should the Celtics bring back Big Baby?

It was a roller coaster 2010-11 NBA season for Glen Davis, as he began the year as a legitimate contender for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year honor and closed it as perhaps the most disappointing playoff performer on a team full of disappointing playoff performers. Given the team’s salary cap situation and lack of frontcourt depth, Ainge may have no other choice than to bring Big Baby back into the fold. Still, Davis remains an unrestricted free agent, so he could sign elsewhere regardless of what the Celtics want, but he has also expressed his desire to remain in Boston.

2. How much will Avery Bradley be able to contribute?

Outside of his 20-point performance against the Knicks in the final game of the regular season, Bradley’s rookie season left much to be desired. We’ve made the case for Bradley breaking out in this space before, especially considering he only turned 21 on Saturday. Bradley played well in this summer’s Lockout League in Las Vegas, and then averaged 13.7 points over three games during a short-lived stretch on Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel last month. His ability to contribute important minutes as a backup at both guard positions would give Ainge some added flexibility in filling out the roster.

1. Is this season the end of the Celtics as we know them?

In short, yes. Only Pierce, Rondo and Bradley are under contract beyond this season, as $31.2 million worth of Garnett and Allen come off the books as both become free agents in 2012. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Ainge over the next month will be ensuring this year’s Celtics remain in championship contention while maintaining the team’s salary cap flexibility to chase the likes of Dwight Howard in the offseason and transition from this Big Three era better than they did the last. That means no dumb, long-term contracts. And isn’t that what the NBA lockout was all about anyhow?

Read More: Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers, Dwight Howard Print  |  Email  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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