This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.
The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals had the feel of a showdown between poker players shoving all their chips to the center of the table. By Game 7, the mind games were over; both were all-in, and the result would be determined solely by whose hand held the stronger cards. One also got the sense that big change was ahead for the loser.
For the Heat, the return of Chris Bosh proved to be the trump card, and Miami’s three of a kind sent Boston’s two pair home for the summer. The effort of this Celtics team is worth savoring for the present, but soon the attention of the front office must turn to the future: what sort of hand will the Celtics be playing with this fall?
The good news is that the Celtics will have loads of cash to work with (salary data from hoopshype.com). Obviously, the two biggest uncertainties are Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, unrestricted free agents who will only return to the Celtics at less than their respective market values. Both will have other suitors, likely on contenders with similar, if not better, chances at a championship in 2013; already, Garnett has been connected with the Spurs, and New York has been mentioned as a possible destination for Allen.
If the Big Three era is truly over, one of the most important lessons to be learned from it is that timing is everything. Provided with the unique opportunity to land two Hall of Fame names in the same offseason, the Celtics didn’t hesitate, and the result was an NBA title, an Eastern Conference championship, and another conference finals appearance.
The other takeaway is that only excellence can realistically contend for a championship. The last time a team seeded lower than fourth made an NBA Finals was the lockout-shortened 1999 season, when the 8th-seeded New York Knicks temporarily filled the power vacuum left by Michael Jordan’s retirement in what was otherwise a weak Eastern Conference. There’s a realistic case to be made that the ’12-‘13 Celtics might no longer be in the conference’s top four, even with the return of Garnett and Allen; Miami and Chicago show no signs of slowing down (assuming a full recovery by Derrick Rose), Indiana is similarly on the rise, and Orlando, New York, and Philadelphia could all conceivably outplay Boston’s aging legs a year from now.
At times, the Celtics’ performance this postseason suggested an ability to sustain excellence into next season, but the road had also never been so clear for them. Derrick Rose’s torn ACL prevented what would likely have been a second-round exit, and Bosh’s presence could easily have swung Games 4 and 5 in Miami’s favor. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to gauge just how deep this current squad could hope to travel next year.
But the comparative lack of transcendent talent on the free agent market this offseason should give Celtics management pause before parting ways with their veteran stars—cap space shouldn’t necessarily trigger a free agent bonanza. The blueprint to avoid: the 2009 Pistons, who inexplicably blew $90 million over five years on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, relegating the model franchise of the East in the 2000s to mediocrity or worse for the foreseeable future.
So please, Mr. Ainge, don’t open your wallet for O.J. Mayo. If you must spend money on a stopgap solution, negotiate one-year deals with Garnett and Allen, if they’re amenable. That leaves the Celtics with much more flexibility heading into the summer of 2013 when Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, among many other talented stars, become unrestricted free agents, the missing pieces of another potential championship-caliber team. It also allows a group that clearly relishes playing together one more chance to do something special—but with a healthy Avery Bradley and Jeff Green contributing much needed support. Maybe they won’t contend for a title next spring, but they’ll make just as passable of an effort as they would with the addition of anyone currently on the market.
Winning does not come without its costs; the Celtics have been over the luxury tax threshold in each season of the Big Three era. The key is to make those dollars count, and this offseason doesn’t provide that opportunity. Let’s give these old goats one last go-round before preparing for the next generation of Celtics basketball.