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Irish Coffee: Danny Ainge’s masterful Celtics summer

Posted By Ben Rohrbach On July 20, 2012 @ 3:48 pm In General | 41 Comments

How do you think David West is feeling right about now? If you’ll recall, when he snubbed the Celtics for the Pacers in free agency last summer, he said [3], “In Boston, everybody is kinda realistic about the window that the Celtics have. Me looking at where I’m at, I think my window is a little bit wider.”

Since then, after watching the Celtics take the Heat to the brink in the Eastern Conference finals, West has seen his Pacers match Roy Hibbert‘s max contract (4 years, $58 million) — dedicating roughly $36 million annually to a “Big Three” of Hibbert, Danny Granger and George Hill — trade Darren Collison for Ian Mahinmi, and sign Gerald Green (3 years, $10 million) and D.J. Augustin (1 year, $3.5 million) as their biggest free agent splashes.

Meanwhile, Celtics president Danny Ainge painted his best masterpiece since acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 for Al Jefferson, the No. 5 overall NBA draft pick and a bunch of garbage. Not willing to call Ainge’s offseason a masterpiece? Take a look at what he had to work with this summer.

Ever since that coup five years ago, the challenge always has been how to keep the title window propped open as Allen, Garnett and Paul Pierce pass their prime. Not even Ainge could have predicted that trio along with Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass and a prayer could have reached Game 7 of the conference finals in Year 5. But they did.

And it was supposed to be the last stand of a team with the heart of a champion in need of a transplant over a summer that featured few elite free agents and 11 roster spots to fill. The C’s entered the offseason with only Pierce, Rondo, Avery Bradley and JaJuan Johnson under guaranteed deals for a combined $30.4 million. What Ainge has done with the remaining $43.9 million in cap space resuscitated that heart for another three seasons.

Reconsider the Ray Allen saga. He reportedly demanded three years, $27 million. Ainge offered two years, $12 million. And Allen left for three years, $9 million in Miami. Although it didn’t seem so at the time, the C’s president caught a break when Allen took his talents to South Beach. Still, Ainge deserves credit for choosing fiscal responsibility over sentimentality, as hard as it must have been to see a 10-time NBA All-Star go.

[4]

Courtney Lee might have been the best free agent left on the NBA market. (AP)

After all, the Celtics arguably locked up the best center, best reserve combo guard, best small forward, one of the five best power forwards and best shooting guard outside of Eric Gordon available via free agency — all for affordable dollars, upgrading the 2012-13 roster and collecting a series of trade chips down the line.

The biggest piece to the puzzle was Kevin Garnett, who Ainge convinced to sign for three years, $34 million on the eve of free agency. Obviously, KG deserves equal praise if not more, since his willingness to return for half his previous average annual salary allowed everything else to happen. Wouldn’t you rather have Garnett manning the five for $11 million a year from ages 36-39 than Hibbert or Brook Lopez for $15 million?

Meanwhile, Ainge dedicated his mid-level exception to Jason Terry. At first glance, JET’s deal added another past-his-prime performer to an already aging roster. Upon further review, Ainge replaced Keyon Dooling with another 10-plus seasoned veteran who has played 96 percent of his team’s games over the past five seasons while finishing top-three in the NBA Sixth Man of the Year voting each year. Would you rather have Terry for three years, $15 million or George Hill for five years, $40 million or Goran Dragic for four years, $30 million?

Jeff Green remains the biggest question mark of Ainge’s offseason moves, if only because of heart surgery, but the C’s almost had to make that deal, even if it cost them four years, $36 million. The Celtics couldn’t allow Green’s 26 games in green after the Kendrick Perkins trade to be the conclusion to that chapter. After all, he’s still a 25-year-old who has averaged 13.9 points and 5.5 boards in four NBA seasons. Would you rather have 30-year-old Gerald Wallace for four years, $40 million or the oft-injured Nicolas Batum for four years, $46.5 million?

Not only did Ainge steal Brandon Bass from the Magic for Glen Davis last summer, but his re-signing of Bass for three years, $20 million ensures Bass will make $2 million less than Big Baby in the four years after the deal. Would you rather have Ryan Anderson for four years, $36 million or Kris Humphries for two years, $24 million?

Finally comes the masterstroke. Ainge turned five players who might never have cracked a playoff rotation in Boston — JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Sean Williams, Sasha Pavlovic and a 2013 second-round pick — into perhaps the best remaining free agent on the market, 26-year-old starting shooting guard Courtney Lee.

Lee averaged 11.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 steals in 30.3 minutes per game for the Rockets last season, but more importantly shot 40 percent from 3-point range and played lockdown defense. Following the sign-and-trade deal, the C’s can offer Lee for as much as four years, $26 million but his contract will more likely start around $5 million in the first season, according to ESPN.com’s John Hollinger [5]. Would you rather have Gordon for four years, $58 million or Jamal Crawford for four years, $21 million?

Sure, you could argue guys like Lopez, Hill, Batum, Anderon and Gordon are upgrades over Garnett, Terry, Green, Bass and Lee, but not when you consider teams committed $240 million over the next 4-5 years to that first five and the Celtics will likely have that latter group in uniform for around $125 million over the next 3-4 years.

Throw in the no-brainer re-signing of Chris Wilcox for the veteran minimum and the fell-in-their-lap draft selection of Jared Sullinger at No. 21 overall, and Ainge needs only a free agent big at the veteran minimum to completely overhaul his roster around a proven Big Three of Pierce, Rondo and Garnett. And that doesn’t even include late draft selections and undrafted rookies Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith, all of whom have enjoyed various degrees of summer league success and any of whom could fill out the 15-man roster.

The Bulls, Knicks, Magic, Pacers, 76ers and Hawks did little if anything to improve their rosters, and the Heat added 37-year-old Allen and 33-year-old Rashard Lewis as marginal upgrades to positions already filled by the likes of Mike Miller and Shane Battier. Meanwhile, the Celtics essentially replaced Dooling, Allen, Mickael Pietrus, Ryan Hollins and Greg Stiemsma from the rotation that took Miami to seven games in the conference finals with Terry, Lee, Green, Sullinger and Wilcox. Not to mention a presumably healthy Bradley.

Unlike most masterpieces, Ainge’s adds this wrinkle: His became more valuable with youth. The 2012-13 roster will almost assuredly feature fewer 30-year-olds and own an average age almost a year younger than any team in the Ray Allen era. It took more than a draft for Ainge to keep the title window open. It took a free agent windfall.

(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach [6] on Twitter.)


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