Danny Ainge has the worst job in Boston right now.
Think a million-dollar job picking the roster of the Boston Celtics sounds like a cushy occupation? Allow me to explain.
The dust is still settling following the gut-wrenching news (for Boston fans, at least) that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in Friday’s double overtime loss against Atlanta, and the range of opinions surrounding the short-term and long-term future of this team is as varied as it can be. Should the Celtics stay the course and hope the current roster can do damage with Rondo back at the helm next year? Or should they blow the entire thing up, getting rid of the old while ushering in a new era? There is no right answer; but Danny Ainge still has to try to find one.
The idea of blowing the Celtics roster up is an admittedly sensible one on paper; Boston has an aging roster, and unfortunately, the old guys are the most important ones. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t getting younger, and one has to wonder how much they have left in the tank. I personally think that both have two or three years left, but I’m also not the one who gets paid to decide such things.
That unfortunate distinction falls to Ainge. Despite the fact that he transformed a lottery team into a juggernaut in one year through a staggering list of moves, Ainge hasn’t been very popular in Boston ever since he traded Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green, taking a giant dump on the entire concept of “ubuntu” in one dumb move. His draft record has also come under fire in recent years, and there exists (unfairly, I might add), a perception that Ainge was simply gifted with Garnett and Ray Allen. Any way you shake it, Ainge simply doesn’t have a lot of leeway among Celtics fans.
If Ainge is underappreciated now, there is no limit to the vitriol that will be aimed at him if he trades away either Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. If he trades both – look out.
Regardless of how much basketball sense trading two highly paid, highly…distinguished members of your team makes on paper, that’s not where the game is played. It’s played on the floor of the TD Garden, inside the building where Paul Pierce has spent his entire career. Older Celtics fans remember Russell, or Bird, or Havlicek, or any of the countless other Celtics legends who took part in making the Boston Celtics arguably the most historic franchise in NBA history. Pierce is the only Celtics great anyone from my generation can truly appreciate, which is what makes this so difficult for Ainge. How do you trade the only great Celtic of the last two decades?
Of less import sentimentally is Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s arrival in 2007 coincided with the Celtics’ immediate ascension to the ranks of the NBA’s elite defensive units. His impact goes beyond quantifiable measures; he was the face of ubuntu, because what’s more Kevin Garnett than a bunch of grown men chanting maniacally before playing a game of basketball? Garnett is still effective today; the Celtics remain a great defense with him on the floor, and a bad one with him on the bench. Trading him would destroy whatever chance Boston has at being good defensive team, and also removes a versatile option on offense.
Finally, there’s Rondo. Dumping Pierce and Garnett announces to the world that Rondo is officially a franchise player, and the Celtics are his team. Yes, Rondo has been an elite point guard for a few years, but Pierce and Garnett have always been the team leaders while Rondo does his thing in the background. Without those two, Rondo is suddenly the veteran leader. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether he’s is ready for that role. I don’t really care that he’s prickly or a punk; being a nice guy is hardly a prerequisite for leadership (see Bryant, Kobe). What I worry about is what happens when the Celtics need a big basket. He won’t have Garnett or Pierce as his safety blanket; instead, he’ll have the ball in his hands and the other team’s best defender to deal with. He’ll also have hordes of media members following him everywhere he goes, something he apparently hates. If Ainge thinks Rondo is ready for all that, great. I’d like nothing more than for Rajon Rondo to be a franchise guy. I’m just not sure he’s there yet.
I guess the message in all this is that I think Danny Ainge should be patient. It sounds crazy, but I still like the Celtics roster, even if the loss of Rondo leaves a gaping hole in their offense. They still have a great defense, and it’s not like their offense can get much worse – it’s currently ranked 26th in points per possession. The Celtics don’t win on offense; they win on defense, which won’t suffer too much in Rondo’s absence. With that in mind, I’m interested to see how this team responds.
To be clear, I’m not one of the bozos who think that the Celtics will better off without Rondo. I’m also not shooting off flares and picking who to eat first on the Good Ship Celtic. If the Celtics play good basketball over the next three weeks before the trade deadline on February 21st, I see no reason to hold a fire sale. This team is good enough defensively that it will still be a tough out, even if they play offense like my intramural team.
However, if the team nosedives in the next three weeks, then Ainge really doesn’t have a choice but to listen to offers. I still think that he should explore every option besides trading Pierce or Garnett, but if he gets a good enough offer it’s going to be hard to say no (just to clarify, Rudy Gay’s bloated contract and one-way game does not constitute a “good enough offer”. Dangle DeMarcus Cousins or Harrison Barnes/Klay Thompson and we’ll talk).
I leave you with this. The Celtics team at present is still talented. Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley are still going to hound opposing teams into horrendous shooting nights. Doc Rivers is still one of the best coaches in the league. It’s true that the Celtics have virtually no chance of winning the NBA title this year, but I think that was the case before Rondo’s injury. Danny Ainge and Celtics management should use the next three weeks as a free trial run for the Rondo-less Celtics, and go from there.
As a Boston fan, I refuse to believe that this is the last time I’ll see Paul Pierce in Celtic green. I hope Rondo’s torn ACL doesn’t cause that possibility to become a reality.