COMMENTARY | These days, it's become progressively more difficult to stick up for Dany Ainge.
Sure, the Boston Celtics president of basketball operations deserves a mild reprieve. After all, he just embarked on a slow-and-steady but full-fledged rebuilding effort. That doesn't win GMs many popularity contests. But it generally helps their organizations win in the not-so-distant future, as opposed to fading into a decade-long period of mediocrity.
Celtics Nation remembers the post-Larry Bird, pre-Kevin Garnett era. Poor draft selections compounded free agency blunders for years, mostly because the franchise held on to the winning recipe of the 1980s too closely, and for too long.
Ainge had no intentions of delving back down that path. Even while healthy toward the end of January 2013, the Celtics sat three games under .500 at 20-23. The end appeared to be looming for their nucleus of stars.
Rajon Rondo then partially tore his ACL, and then-rookie Jared Sullinger underwent season-ending back surgery. Ugly seemed to be getting catastrophic. That is, until Boston won seven straight games and 14 of 18 total, and proceeded to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
After a six-game postseason exit at the hands of the New York Knicks, fans were torn--should Ainge blow up the team and completely restart? Should he roll the dice and nurse his guys back to health for one more playoff run?
For now, it's hard to imagine he accomplished either.
Yes, he blew up the team. Pierce, the captain, leading scorer and 15-year veteran of Boston, was sent to the division rival Brooklyn Nets. Garnett, the defensive anchor and emotional pulse of the Big 3 era, went with him. Before they even knew what weather to pack for, coach Doc Rivers wanted out. Ainge relinquished the nine-year coach's contract, and allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to sign him in exchange for a 2015 first-round pick.
But as of today-July 18-it's hard to define any of this as the first stages of actual "building," with or without the "re" in front. It's a demolition, sure. One might even say he burned the whole house down. Most fans don't see signs of rebuilding, but rather an oversized stack of wet wood. Save for a strong draft selection in seven-footer Kelly Olynyk, it looks like Ainge is just standing over the detritus pouring out more gas.
That's because this squad, as it stands, probably won't be bad enough to qualify for a lottery pick in the rich upcoming draft class of 2014. They also probably aren't good enough to make the playoffs. They'll likely finish right in the middle of the league, maxing out between 31 and 36 wins--the kind of record Boston brandished for eight seasons between 1993 and its championship year in 2008 (it finished with 24 wins or fewer three times during that span).
Draft picks will certainly help fend off perennial awfulness--after the bevy of trades, Boston now owns the rights to nine first-round picks over the next five years--but Ainge's drafts are never a sure bet. Unless he can somehow land an elite talent by packaging some of these assets, like he did with KG in 2007, extra draft picks from strong teams like the Nets and Clippers could further delay the "full rebuild."
Another problem, and perhaps the most glaring one, lies in the team's salary breakdown and total roster. With the signings of Brazilian center Vitor Faverani and undrafted point guard Phil Pressey basically both finalized, the Celtics now have the maximum 15 players on their roster. Second-round draft acquisition Colton Iverson would make 16. Shavlik Randolph, whose unguaranteed contract must be picked up by August 1, would make 17.
With an overabundance of players, and a $72,047,821 inclusive payroll already exceeding the cap ($58.679 million) and luxury tax threshold ($71.748 million), Ainge has a lot of work to do before he's off the hook with Boston fans.
After all, Pierce and Garnett just unenthusiastically introduced themselves to Brooklyn, along with trade cohort Jason Terry. Pierce said he was hurt, regrettably stating he intended to spend his entire career in Boston, as part of one city with one team like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. He also said he had to convince Kevin "I Bleed Green" Garnett, during a 90-minute phone call, to waive his no-trade clause, delay retirement and come with him to the Nets.
Such statements won't exactly boost Ainge's approval ratings throughout New England. And suiting up the likes of Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, two of the players Boston netted in the deal, would hurt even worse.
Humphries will be due a whopping $12 million this season, which would make him the highest-paid Celtic. Wallace will earn over $10 million for the next three years. These contracts will not be easy to move.
But the president better try as hard as possible. And for that matter, he should attempt to deal Brandon Bass ($6.45 million, $6.9 mil in 2014-15), Courtney Lee ($5.22 million, $16.3 mil by 2016) and Jordan Crawford ( $2.16 million).
These guys could be solid role players for a contender, but they are expensive scrubs on a rebuilding squad. Even if Ainge gets 75 cents to the dollar for a package involving any and all of them, he should pull the trigger (think expiring contracts, draft picks). The top priority of any rebuilding franchise should be to clear as much future cap space as possible.
Although Hump's contract expires at the end of the season, the combination of Wallace, Bass and Lee will earn $22.45 million the following year. That's over one-third of the projected 2014-15 salary cap ($62.1 million) for three players who have no part of the organization's future.
Ainge must surrender his no-tanking philosophy once and for all, and make the best decisions now for Boston's long-term future. Trying to ride out semi-quality veterans in a rebuilding year makes no sense. This squad features talented young prospects, all of whom can develop if given the playing time this upcoming season will afford. Aiming for a .500 record and falling just short, or limping into the playoffs and busting once again in the first-round, could be two of the stupidest plans in all of the NBA.
Here's the consensus message(s) for Danny from the Twitterverse: fix things (or get out). If not for the fans, do it for Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Andrew Harrison, Mitch McGary and Aaron Gordon. The future rests on your next two and a half months of activity.
Otherwise, Boston could be reentering another dreaded, humdrum era of 30-win seasons.
Sloan Piva lives in New England and covers the Boston Celtics. He can be found on Twitter @SloanPiva.
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