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Irish Coffee: What next for Danny Ainge’s Celtics?

07.02.13 at 8:05 am ET

Doc Rivers is gone. Come July 12, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry aren’t walking through that door. Even Terrence Williams got the boot. And so begins the next chapter in Celtics lore.

Strap in, because this may take a while. The previous rebuilding phase lasted 22 years, and Kris Humphries is involved this time around. A locker room shared by the former Mr. Kardashian and Rajon Rondo might just ignite enough toxicity to blow these Celtics up from the inside out. That’s one option, I guess.

At least C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge acquired a handful of building blocks, adding an additional first-round draft pick in four of the next five seasons and clearing cap space in 2014. Whatever else he accomplishes over the next couple months, it will all be done with an eye toward next summer.

As a result, don’t expect a Josh Smith to join the Celtics during the NBA’s free-agency period that began on Monday. Ainge admitted as much when introducing “not star” rookie 7-footers Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson.

Sure, the Celtics could chase a sign-and-trade deal for Smith, ink Rondo’s high school roommate to double-digit millions and let a handful of wildly entertaining sixth-seeded seasons commence, but that wouldn’t get them much closer to the only thing that matters around here: An 18th banner. As Ainge said, “This is the Boston Celtics.”

Of course, Ainge also said, “We are not tanking. That’s ridiculous.” So, what exactly is he doing?

First, he’s cutting costs. By trading Garnett and Terry, Ainge eliminated $7.4 million guaranteed from the C’s 2014-15 salary structure (taking back Gerald Wallace‘s three-year, $30.3 million deal hurts). Now, on top of Olynyk’s rookie deal, they owe $51.2 million guaranteed in 2014-15 to Rondo ($12.9 million), Wallace ($10.1M) Jeff Green ($9.5M), Brandon Bass ($6.9M), Courtney Lee ($5.5M), Avery Bradley ($3.6M), Jared Sullinger ($1.4M) and Fab Melo ($1.3M).

That’s not a ton of wiggle room under a projected 2014-15 salary cap of $62.1 million ($75.7M luxury tax threshold), but it’s a start.

Expect Ainge to shop both Bass and Lee this summer for expiring contracts that could clear another $12.4 million next summer. A one-for-one deal involving Wallace is too much for the Celtics to ask.

Likewise, plenty has been made of dealing Rondo, but Ainge has publicly backed the three-time All-Star as a centerpiece for the future and essentially made Rondo un-tradeable based on the C’s asking price. Nobody is going to offer a Kevin Love for a recovering point guard who’s been rumored as a coach killer all summer.

However, if Rondo returns to form as an elite player, especially without Pierce and KG by his side, then Ainge will have more leverage both at the trade deadline and next summer, when the point guard’s $12.9 million salary in 2014-15 could once again look like one of the game’s best bargains.

That’s why Ainge has been taking this angle since the Nets trade: “If Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are tradeable, then I guess everyone is tradeable, but there are guys we’re not looking to move right now.”

Whether or not Rondo plays nice with his new coach and emerges as a leader on a young team clearly in a transitional phase may also go a long way in whether Ainge wants to trade or build around him.

“Timing is everything,” said Ainge, deflecting a slew of questions about the still pending deal with Brooklyn. “It’s always easy to say what your plan is and what you want to do, but you’ve got to have other teams willing to do things to help you fulfill your plan.” The same applies to Rondo, who remains the C’s greatest asset.

Ideally, Rondo and Sullinger take their sweet time recovering from their surgeries; Wallace plays himself into trade bait; Green and Bradley take steps toward consistency; The Portland (Maine) Skyline of Melo, Olynyk and Iverson all show signs of development; and the Celtics still maximize their Ping Pong balls in the 2014 NBA draft lottery.

Because, as Ainge said, “Next year’s draft we don’t really see as loaded. We see it as top-heavy. There will be more impact players next year. … We always feel quality over quantity is important.”

(Actually, the ultimate ideal scenario for Ainge also involves some sort of open rebellion against Jason Kidd that leads to Nets Armageddon and a second 2014 lottery pick for the C’s, but that’s probably a long shot.)

Kansas freshman wing Andrew Wiggins, Duke freshman wing Jabari Parker and Kentucky freshman big Julius Randle headline a 2014 draft class that’s being dubbed the league’s best since 2003, when LeBron James, Celtics legend Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade filled out the top five.

That trio and perhaps a handful more are “quality,” and they make tanking worthwhile when the alternative could mean treading water for two decades. Within four years of that 2003 draft, Wade won a title, James reached the NBA finals and both Anthony and Bosh had led their teams back to the playoffs.

(Oddly, Milicic was the first of the five to win a ring, but he barely played on that 2003-04 Pistons squad.)

Suddenly, rebuilding around a 19-year-old phenom, an All-Star point guard (or Rondo’s trade replacement), Green, Sullinger and eight more first-round draft picks (or their return in trades) doesn’t seem so bad, especially when the Celtics will have plenty of cap room to sign free agents and facilitate trades.

‘€œThe reason that the payroll is important is not just for dollars,” said Ainge. “It’€™s also for flexibility. With the new CBA, being under the cap is a great advantage, being under the tax is a competitive advantage. It’€™s an asset to be there. You have more flexibility. You can do trades easier. You have more money to spend on free agents and exceptions and so forth, so it’€™s a competitive advantage as well as just dollars.’€

Of course, the Ping Pong balls haven’t always been kind to the Celtics, in which case Ainge would still have an All-Star in his late 20’s, a 2014 lottery pick and plenty of assets to be a player on the trade market — just as he did in Year 5 of his last rebuilding project, when he acquired Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007.

Despite the emotional difficulty of trading the brains (Rivers), face (Pierce) and heart (Garnett) of the franchise, there is a benefit to acquiring first-round draft picks and expiring contracts for an aging core.

‘€œWe’€™re in a much better position than we were when I got here 10 years ago, when we had to do it in pieces and move at a slower pace,’€ said Ainge. ‘€œOur objective is to do it less painful and with more speed and more pace. I think that we’€™re in a better position moving forward right now with some of our younger core players as well.’€

Tanking or not, Ainge can call it whatever he likes, but this summer isn’t about the 2013-14 Boston Celtics at all.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge, NBA, Rajon Rondo
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