LONGSHOTS: Danny’s next trick needs to be pulling a rabbit out of his hat
by Dave Long
Ever parked your car on the street leaving plenty of room in front and back to get out later, but when you came back you have about three inches of clearance on either side? The only way to get out of that tight fit is to inch forward and back about 100 times to get your car free.
If you can imagine that, you know what it feels like to be Danny Ainge as he tries to reshape the Celtics into a contender again next season. And, despite a year of managing minutes, age-related injuries and a cruise control mentality among some veterans, it appears Danny will give it one more run with the current core. So he needs to maneuver his way to getting some new players to balance the inevitable decline in consistent production from an aging core with a land-locked salary cap position.
It’s not that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen weren’t effective when it counted. They were good enough to come within a fourth-period fold of the NBA title and beat teams with the league’s two best records along the way. It’s just that only KG may have a better season in the coming year. And that’s only because he’ll be 18 months removed from the surgery that cost him the 2009 playoffs. Still, at 34, even that is dicey, because 34-year-olds with 14 years of tread on the tires usually lose productivity, not gain. As for the other two, Pierce will be 33 on Oct. 13 and Allen 35 on July 20, and while each had his moments, both showed signs of wear during the season and in the playoffs.
Thus it’s not just a matter of plugging in a big for the retiring Rasheed Wallace. They need some key new pieces to fill in the inevitable lost production offensively and on the boards that will most likely happen in 2011. And Kendrick Perkins’ knee surgery which only makes the picture murkier. On the bright side, Rajon Rondo will be better, as will Big Baby, so they can take up some of the slack, but their improvement won’t be enough.
So here are some things Danny needs to consider as he goes about his business this summer, starting with an assessment of the Big Three and the formula needed to win.
The Formula: Unless you have the overwhelmingly best player, as the Bulls did with Michael Jordan and L.A. with Shaq and maybe the Kobe Lakers do too, you need three big-time stars to win. And one has to be a Top 10 player as KG was when the Celtics won in 2008. While they may have two of the three, it doesn’t appear they’ll have the needed one at the top as currently constructed — so now what?
Ray Allen: A free agent whose 16.3 points per game were his lowest since his rookie year and his 36.3% from threepointland was the worst of his career. Those numbers say he’s now a complementary player and not a Big 3 type. Worth signing at $5 million for a year, maybe two, but not if the numbers go higher or the years get to long. If it does, lets hope whoever’s offering needs to do a sign and trade to bring some pieces to maneuver with.
Kevin Garnett: Maybe it’s the knee still healing, but he’s a different player now. Still the vital player for team defense, but he’s no longer much of a low-post scorer and he got killed on the boards by Pao Gasol in the finals — especially in the Game 1 and 7 losses. He’s still key, but now a number two or, more likely, the third star.
Paul Pierce: You may recall last year at this time I was for taking the Branch Rickey route. That is, “it’s better to trade a guy a year too early than a year too late” because you can get something of real value that may be helpful for long after the star player is done, instead of waiting too long when you won’t get much back. He had his moments but was nowhere near his 2008 vs. the Lakers. His game revolves around taking it to the basket because it gets him to the line and buys him space outside for his jumper. Thus, while he’s not quite at this stage yet, he’s becoming like Michael Jordan in Washington after age robbed him of his ability to slash — a jump shooter. So I think he’s down to third-star status. He can also opt out of his $21 million contract, which would help. But not if they have to give him an extension for three or four more years to do it. Plus he’s the only one who could maybe bring a future star in a deal.
1989 Celtics: The run of dominance was over by then, but Red kept his Big 3 until the end to retire Celtics. I had no problem with that, though I have two comments. Thanks to that and the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, they went 22 years between titles. And second, I find it interesting the guy traded from the core — one Danny Ainge — easily had the most productivity left. Danny saw it first hand and needs to leave sentimentality behind.
The 1965 Yankees Syndrome: They went from first to worst over two years with a stop in sixth place in between. It happened because stars Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Roger Maris were in decline when they won the ’64 pennant but few realized it because they were still intimidated by the Yankees uniform. But 1965 for them, was like all those inexplicable home losses to the Nets, Wizards and other bad teams in 2010. So if I’m Danny, I’m thinking of this because it wasn’t the last team that played well one year and was nowhere close to that four months later.
Needs: In order: First, another star to meet the formula. Second, rebounding. Rondo can not dominate a game unless they force transition and you need to control the defensive boards to do it. Third, a low post scorer — with KG and Pierce in transition they need one. Youth — it will lead to a more consistent regular-season performance — preferably in Rasheed’s vacated back-up center spot. And maybe a coach.
Conclusion: While some say you’ve got to go for it when a title is in sight and not worry about a long-term collapse, I’m more inclined to try to get three titles over 10 years while being in contention that whole time even if it means stepping back next year. Twenty years of Celtics irrelevance was tough to take and I don’t want that to happen again. So they have to be wary of 1965 Yankees syndrome, be ready to explore moving Pierce, Allen or Garnett if the right deal comes along and be willing to do it if it does.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.