On Sunday, after a double-overtime win over the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce learned of Rajon Rondo’s season-ending injury on live television. The expression that crossed his face, and the “Oh my God” he muttered as a first reaction, was what it looks like when a great team’s present and future come crumbling down.
This is the end for the Boston Celtics as we know them and as we have known them since their own version of the Big Three came together in 2007 and promptly won an NBA championship.
This year’s incarnation of that team, one minus Ray Allen but still with Rondo, Pierce, Kevin Garnett and some intriguing pieces around them, seemed to many still capable of wreaking havoc come the playoffs. Despite their early-season doldrums, the thinking in some Eastern Conference front offices went like this: Boston would eventually gel, the conference would remain weak and with Rondo at the helm the Celtics might eventually be, if not great, at least very formidable.
Any notion of Boston being formidable vanished the moment Rondo tore his ACL and found himself sidelined for the next nine to 12 months.
The present is over. This team, at 21-23 and currently in the eighth spot in the spotty Eastern Conference, cannot advance in the playoffs without its star point guard. It may not even make the playoffs.
But the future has been jeopardized, too, perhaps as seriously. And the notion that Boston faces a choice between blowing up the team now or trying to muster on with this collection of talent misses the wider point. There are no good choices left. Those ended, too, with Rondo’s season.
There are myriad complications in trying to trade assets with the idea of constructing a new Celtics team with a real future, and they hover around a few complicating points: The summer of 2014, when a free-agent bonanza that will including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pierce, Danny Granger and others arrives to set the stakes for another half decade; Rondo himself, and how one builds around — or trades — a player with an injury that clouds a real sense of what comes next for him; and the Celtics’ unappealing cap situation.
If they stand pat now, the Celtics will have about $52 million in obligations when summer 2014 arrives. That includes contracts to Kevin Garnett ($12 million), Brandon Bass ($6.95 million) and Jason Terry ($5.45 million) that will bedevil them heading into the 2014-15 season. Jeff Green ($9.2 million) and Courtney Lee ($5.45 million) have deals that carry them through 2015-16.
Former Celtics star Ray Allen, by contrast, has a two-year deal with the Miami Heat that pays him just over $3 million a year.
Around the league, most see those Celtics contracts as burdensome and unattractive. Garnett is in decline and yet has two years left on his deal after this season. Pierce is also seen as an aging commodity who will make almost $16 million next year, and most in the league believe the Celtics’ culture and class will require them, were they to trade Pierce at all, to let him have a say in where he goes. There’s a sense that Boston would do right by him and not ship him to a bad situation, a nice gesture but one that further limits its options.
With the summer of 2014 hovering, there is a sense that the following teams will be title contenders after all the stars’ signatures dry on those new contracts: The Thunder, Clippers (if Chris Paul re-ups this season), the Lakers (ditto Dwight Howard), wherever LeBron James goes . . . and whichever places can piece together the leftovers into a formidable squad.
So why take bad contracts from the Celtics that tie up much-needed cap room, particularly with a punishing luxury tax on the way, when you can sit back and try your hand at 2014? And have the added bonus of watching Boston be saddled so thoroughly with obligations they’re one less player for those free agents?
Yes, General Manager Danny Ainge is capable of making gutsy moves, and he could yet move one or several key pieces in an effort to start moving toward the future. But Doc Rivers makes about $7 million a year, and that’s not money you pay to someone to oversee a time of transition and rebuilding.
The fact is that the Celtics bet big the last few years when they decided not to break up their team on the idea they could have one last run at glory. Two years ago, but for another Rondo injury, they might have bested the Heat in their playoff series. Or not. We’ll never know.
Last season, they had the Heat down 3-2 and were a win at the Garden away from another NBA Finals.
So it’s not that Ainge bet wrong when he bet on the future. He didn’t. It’s just that LeBron emerged, Boston got close but not close enough, and this season’s long shot became no shot on Sunday.
And that’s the least of the Celtics’ problems.
The issue now is how to move forward, and how to get value for expensive assets with decreasing value and, even if you could find takers, how to know what and whom exactly it is they’re building around.
Rondo? The idea that in 2014 they can plug some old, not-as-great-as-they-used-to-be players like Garnett around free-agent leftovers who will defy recent history and finally flock to Boston? Or the choke-it-down reality that Boston might as well go out, get a serviceable point guard before the deadline, and see if they can’t overachieve in a very weak conference?
There are no easy answers. No sure path. There’s no Rajon Rondo. There’s no good solution for Garnett’s contract, and maybe not for Pierce’s either.
There’s just the end of what was great, and now the slow, ugly transition into what comes next.