To a point, the Boston Celtics appear to be in the same boat as their veteran counterparts from San Antonio. Just a win (or two, in San Antonio's case) away from the NBA Finals in 2012, but potentially a batch of tired legs and bad luck away from a first-round exit (or worse) in 2013 if all the same faces come back to the same places. With so much of the Boston roster up for free agency this summer, why not use that as a needed excuse to rebuild, especially when even the most ardent of Celtics fans understands that this lovely run cannot last forever?
Like San Antonio, though, another year of sapped energy doesn't have to mean that things can't go completely right in the 2013 playoffs. With smart planning, solid minutes allotments, a regular season and playoff schedule (remember, in non-lockout seasons, a long first or second round can often take over two weeks to play) that features more room to breathe and/or (considering we have Kevin Garnett in place, in this hypothetical situation) rest, there's no reason why the Celtics (like the Spurs) can't use good timing and perhaps a beneficial spot in the playoff bracket to make things interesting, all over again. Adding to this lean toward stasis is the fact that, like San Antonio, Boston's particulars are probably better served playing in Boston's system than anywhere else.
Unlike San Antonio, though, the Celtics have a real shot at rebuilding. And unlike the Spurs, they don't have a couple of All-Star level studs that are near their primes in Tony Parker and (to a lesser extent) Manu Ginobili. Unlike San Antonio, the Celtics could truly just about clear the ledger here and work with significant cap space. And finally, unlike San Antonio, Boston has a potential franchise player to build around that is years younger than Parker and possibly better when it all shakes out. Even if we (and possibly they) admit to having no idea just what sorts of players to surround the alluringly unique Rajon Rondo with.
There is a significant chance that Boston GM Danny Ainge could blow these Celtics up, even without the obvious hook of replacing his current lineup of stars with another group of famous faces with multiple All-Star berths to their name. That's the most worrying thought of all, for both Ainge and Celtics fans, but it might be the correct move. With the 2013 free-agent class so lacking, even down to the restricted free agents Ainge could overpay in attempts to spend competitors off the table, it might be the best move.
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, clearly, want to keep playing basketball. Though neither is happy about how 2011-12 ended, you get the feeling these two would be signing up for another season or three even if the Celtics won Saturday's Game 7 and ended up upsetting the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals. Garnett found new life in the middle as a center in Boston's attack, a role he would no doubt be able to keep up with the Celtics or most other teams in 2012-13 and beyond despite his skinny frame -- partially because of the paucity of talent in the middle in the NBA but mostly because of KG's talent, length and drive. Allen looks like one successful surgery away from going right back to hitting high-arching threes with his eyes closed.
Both are free agents. As are a host of moderately priced vets (Keyon Dooling, the late Jermaine O'Neal, Chris Wilcox, Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavolovic, and Mickael Pietrus) that probably will be moving on. Brandon Bass even has a player option for $4.5 million that he could decline, considering a desperate free-agent market that tends to overreact to the last thing they saw on national TV. This leaves the Celtics with just $32 million in payroll heading into 2012-13, depending on whether or not some team decides to toss a chunk of change at restricted free agent Greg Steimsma.
This also leaves no guarantees, because of the sheer amount of teams that will be working with cap space this summer. Even if the free-agent class was loaded, players were bound to be overpaid in a market that features several teams looking to get real good real quick, after a season that saw several clubs essentially write off 2011-12 before it began.
This isn't a loaded free-agent class. Which is why a compromise might be in order. Sure, the Celtics might be smart in letting Garnett and Allen walk, and seeing what sort of young talent they could trade for with that resulting cap space. It might be the best move, considering what shows up on Ainge's BlackBerry this summer in terms of options. The final move, though, might be an admitted Last Waltz sort of situation.
One-year deals. Or, one-year with the team option for the second season. Bring the crew back with perhaps a better bench this time (Pietrus is frustrating as hell, but he could be back), and give it one last go. This is where we come back to the Spurs idea, one that leaves Boston in place should the giants in the East falter again, or one or two great matchups lead to another trip back to the Finals. Considering the options, an unholy alliance of conservatism and hope might be the team's best option — especially when you factor in the knowledge that Boston will have the same space and possibly better options (assuming all their veteran signees are just for a year) in the 2014 offseason.
This could fall flat. Famously, the C's were 15-17 at the All-Star break, and there is a legitimate chance that even with good health and improved bench play that we'll be looking at a 45-win team next season. The regular season isn't the point, though. It never is, with teams featuring players this mindful of what counts.
It's a tricky balance. But with Paul Pierce's contract still looming (paid a max deal in 2012-13, with just $5 million guaranteed in 2013-14 if the C's want to coldly pass on his team option that year) and Rondo around, it might be the best thing moving forward. Ainge shouldn't have to worry about explaining letting Allen and Garnett go to frustrated Celtics fans, but that might have to be a consideration. Or, when factoring in the iffy free-agent class, an excuse to move on with the same crew.
We'd say we don't envy him, but we do. "Has to decide what to do with Kevin Garnett." That's a pretty nice luxury.