Roster breakdown: C’s offer new twist on old formula
|09.05.12 at 2:04 am ET|
When the season ended, Celtics team president Danny Ainge was looking at a roster with four players under contract and $32 million in guaranteed salaries. Over the next few months, Ainge acquired, drafted or re-signed 13 players. He handed out contracts worth more than $40 million for next season that not only rebuilt the roster but also carried implications into the next two years beyond this one.
The prevailing opinion is that Ainge is continuing the current run and in many ways he is. After all, Kevin Garnett‘s return essentially ensured that direction. But while Ainge was bringing (most of) the band back together, three of his free agents signed with other teams. One of those, obviously, was Ray Allen, whose defection to Miami caused Ainge and his staff to summon a long-shot Plan B that may in the long run prove to have been a better course of action.
Without Allen, Ainge traded four players and a draft choice and let the clock run out on two other veteran free agents. The move landed Courtney Lee, a versatile defensive-minded wing player who doesn’t need the ball to be successful offensively and who also happens to be a decade younger than Allen.
Ainge signed the equivalent of two mid-level caliber free agents in Jason Terry and Lee, and added a third veteran in Jason Collins, who agreed to play for the minimum. He also brought back Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green and added five rookies who have a legitimate shot at making the team, including first-round pick Jared Sullinger, who could play legitimate minutes.
Someone will be the odd man out from a group that includes second-round pick Kris Joseph and summer league finds Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith, but in all the Celtics will have nine different players than the team that took Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. Even with the Terry on board, they will also be younger thanks to Lee, Green and the rookies.
While Ainge kept the Rajon Rondo-Paul Pierce-Garnett trio in place as the core of the team, he completely remade the rotation and turned over roster spots that had been held by middling ‘ at best — veterans in favor of younger prospects. It’s a continuation combined with an acknowledgement that grit and balls only can take you so far.
Here are five takeaways from the summer moves:
KEVIN GARNETT’S CONTRACT WAS KEY
During the second half of the season and for all of the postseason, an interesting question began to form: How much would Kevin Garnett get as a free agent? Garnett had never been a free agent before. The Timberwolves signed him to a massive extension after two seasons — which played a larger part in the last labor stoppage — and then re-upped him one more time before ultimately trading him to Boston, where he signed another extension.
We’ll never know how much Garnett could have received on the open market because he quickly agreed to another extension that could be worth up to $34 million over three seasons. That’s a lot of money to pay a 36-year-old big man who has over 45,000 minutes in the tank, but Garnett is worth the risk, especially for a team that had few other legitimate alternatives.
Everyone knew that going into the process, and his deal left enough money under the cap to replenish the roster.
In the wake of the Garnett signing, Brandon Bass returned for three years and $19.4 million. That’s less than what Glen Davis got last year from the Magic and looks even better next to deals for Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova (four years, $32 million with a team option) and Brooklyn’s Kris Humphries (two years, $24 million). It’s still a solid investment in Bass, but a reasonable one.
Keyon Dooling also agreed to return for one year at the veteran minimum — a cut from the $2 million he received last year — while Wilcox also took a cut from his $3 million salary last season to return for the minimum. While $40 million may sound like a lot, when you’re trying to split that 13 ways, every little bit counts.
THE JEFF GREEN DEAL
This is the argument-starter. Why would the Celtics pay $9 million a year ‘ on average — for four seasons for a player without a defined position or an obvious role? Jeff Green’s agent, David Falk, has insisted from the beginning that his client could have had higher offers around the league, but that Green’s desire to return to the Celtics made it a one-team process.
By committing this much money and years for Green, Ainge is banking on a 26-year-old player who missed an entire season because of aortic aneurysm to become something better than he has been throughout his career. As SI’s Zach Lowe noted in a detailed breakdown, the key part of Ainge’s statement regarding the signing is that Green will guard perimeter players.
This signals that the Celtics understand Green’s defensive problems against taller players in the post and also heralds a direction that includes multiple small lineups that could, in theory, counter Miami’s attack. Building with another squad in mind has been a hallmark of Ainge’s restructuring methods during this era and it appears his attention is focused directly on South Beach.
It’s a smart play, but at the same time the Celtics will now have to deal with a beefed-up Eastern Conference that has added the likes of Andrew Bynum in Philadelphia. The traditional center may be a thing of the past, but the Eastern Conference is now full of legitimate 7-footers like Bynum, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez.
The Celtics are going to be undersized again with Garnett playing center. The frontcourt supporting cast includes Bass, Collins, Wilcox and Sullinger, leaving Collins as the only legitimate backup center on the roster — and he’s played a grand total of 1,020 minutes in the last three seasons combined.
The issue here isn’t whether it would have been better to allocate Green’s money for taller reinforcements. That would have been impossible under the tight constraints of the luxury tax line and also wouldn’t have been wise considering the lack of good centers available in free agency. The issue is whether Green will become an impact offensive player who can hold his own defensively. That’s the job description for players making $36 million over four years.
THE DOC RIVERS INFLUENCE
One of the knocks against the Celtics for years is that they were never were able to attract marquee free agents. Terry and Lee might not be All-Stars in their prime, but they were heavily recruited and ultimately chose to play in Boston.
This is not a destination market for elite players. Just like Philadelphia, Washington, Houston and other big markets that are not Miami, Los Angeles or one of the boroughs of New York. You can throw Dallas into that high-end mix, as well as Chicago. Maybe.
That’s pretty much the list and so, like a lot of teams, the Celtics have to work on other ways to sell themselves to free agents. The tradition is a nice talking point, but what really gives them an edge is the presence of Doc Rivers.
The coach is not for everyone, but for players of a certain mindset, he is as good as it gets in the NBA. The Celtics smartly had Rivers play the role of recruiter. He called Terry just after midnight on July 1, a call Terry referenced several times as a crucial factor in his decision.
Rivers also reached out directly to Lee after Allen signed with Miami. Ainge had to get creative to land the versatile swingman, trading four players who were not expected to be rotation players along with a second-round pick. None of that would have happened, however, if Lee hadn’t chosen to play for the Celtics.
Credit Rivers, the players and the culture for helping Lee land in Boston. His arrival might not have made national headlines but was a legitimate free agent coup.
THE LUXURY TAX
The Celtics will be luxury tax-payers again, but they were able to stay under the tax apron, which allowed them to remain creative in their pursuit of Lee. All of this is important because the tax rules have changed under the new collective bargaining agreement. This year teams will still pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty, but more punitive measures kick in the following season.
The ownership group is to be commended for continuing to go over the tax line year after year in an effort to build a contender. The Celtics have been taxpayers each year of the Garnett era, with a bill totaling more than $46 million. Only four teams have paid more in tax (although those four — the Knicks, Trail Blazers, Mavericks and Lakers — have paid a lot more).
Their financial commitment is one thing, but the new CBA also carries harsher measures for teams that stay over the tax. The Celtics should be bumping up against that line next season and if they go it over it again in 2015 they would be subject to the ‘repeater’ tax, which results in an even tougher financial hit. Additionally, it becomes more difficult for tax teams to execute trades, and they won’t have the full value of free agent exceptions.
Pierce can be a free agent after the 2014 season, and the Celtics are not completely hamstrung like the Lakers, Knicks and Nets with burdensome long-term contracts. Think of this as a two-year window at best. If disaster strikes there could be a season or two of reckoning, but the opportunity is there to hit the reset button if it doesn’t work.
ARE THEY STILL CONTENDERS?
Er, maybe. A lot of that depends on health, timing and matchups.
The East is a jumble behind Miami with Philly, Brooklyn and even Washington making big moves to jump into the race. The Pacers are a year older and should be better, while the Bulls are in a weird state of suspended animation as they wait for Derrick Rose to return.
You can make a realistic case that the Celtics are the second-best team on paper in the Eastern Conference and the one that is best-positioned to give Miami its toughest test in the playoffs. You can also make the argument that the C’s are walking a tightrope made of aging knee cartilage and it could all fall apart quickly. But really, what else is new?
The opening for the Celtics is still there, and this is a team that should be much better equipped to deal with the Heat in the playoffs. If — and it’s a big if — the Celtics can get there in one piece.
MEET THE NEW C’S, SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT THAN THE OLD C’S
Who stayed: Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Avery Bradley
Who re-signed: Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling
Who came back: Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox
Veteran newcomers: Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jason Collins
Rookies, draft picks: Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph
Rookies, non-guaranteed: Dionte Christmas, Jamar Smith
Note: The contracts of Joseph, Christmas and Smith are not guaranteed.
TIME TO MOVE ON