When the Celtics bowed out of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, some speculated it could be the end of the “Big 3” era. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, mulling retirement, were free agents, and Paul Pierce was rumored to potentially be on the trading block, due $16.8 million in 2012-13. Just like that, a Hall of Fame-studded trio that came together in 2007 to win championships — they won one, appeared in another Finals and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals twice — was saying goodbye.
But not so fast. GM Danny Ainge lured Garnett to return with a 3-year, $34 million deal, decided to hold on to Pierce, and, though Allen left in free agency for the rival Miami Heat, re-signed Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, as well as brought in veterans Courtney Lee and Jason Terry on deals paying more than $5 million annually. The Celtics, despite the loss of Allen, were far from punting away the “Big 3” and rebuilding toward the future, but rather retooling to win … now.
Well, the early returns are in, and it’s not working. Despite a four-game win streak heading into Monday’s action, the Celtics, 24-23, are holding on to the No. 8 seed in the East. Their presumed cornerstone, Rajon Rondo, is out for at least the rest of this season after suffering a torn ACL in late January. And virtually every player on their roster, Rondo included, has been included in trade rumors with the deadline 17 days away.
So what’s the problem with this team? On paper, Ainge has fielded a $76 million roster, far above the luxury tax, that’s as talented as any in the East, minus Miami’s. The Celtics’ run under the tutelage of Doc Rivers has been predicated on defense — it’s their efforts on this side of ball that landed former assistant (and since NBA Coach of the Year) Tom Thibodeau a head-coaching gig in Chicago — and they rank No. 8 in the NBA this year, though they’re only 29th in total rebounding.
Offensively, the Celtics’ 20th-ranked unit, 95.3 points per game (0.6 less than the 95.9 their defense allows), has struggled all year. Outside of Pierce, 18.6 points per game; Garnett, 14.9; and Rondo, 13.7, Boston only has one scorer in double figures — Jason Terry at 10-even. Not one player on the roster has a 3-point percentage exceeding 38% (Leandro Barbosa). And the highest PER among players who have appeared in at least 40 of the team’s 47 games, excluding the obvious 3, is rookie Jared Sullinger; his 13.64 rating is good for 179th in the NBA, a spot below John Lucas and Carlos Delfino. (It was announced Friday that Sullinger would miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery.)
The Celtics’ problem boils down to their reserves. Green, Lee, Terry and Avery Bradley have struggled all year, and the Boston’s backups rank 16th in the Association in scoring. Lee, 46%, is the only of the four with a field goal percentage higher than 44%. And Brandon Bass, well regarded for his mid-range jumper, is shooting 44% from the field, 5 points below his career pace; his 7.5 points per game is 5 points below last year’s mark.
Green, who missed all of last year following heart surgery but signed a 4-year, $36 million deal this summer, has struggled to fit in since leaving Oklahoma City in 2011; his 9.8 points per game is 5.4 below his 2010-11 mark with the Thunder and 6.7 behind his career high in 2008-09. Terry’s scoring is 5.1 points below his mark with last year’s Mavericks, though he’s up to 12.5 points a night since his role increased following Rondo’s injury. And Lee’s 7.4 points per game, a career low, is 4 points behind last year’s average in Houston, though he’s playing 7 less minutes.
The Celtics miss Ray Allen’s shooting and scoring ability, and replacement by committee, the strategy behind committing a combined $36 million to Lee (4 years) and Terry (3 years), is not working. Now, the best thing Boston can do to save face is cut their losses. Should they sneak into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and draw Miami in the first round, they’ll only lose a lottery pick and let their season last 4 or 5 games longer.
Rumors circulated Sunday, with the Clippers in town, that L.A. could be interested in Kevin Garnett, offering up a package of Caron Butler, due $8 million this year and next, and the far-from-energy-deprived Eric Bledsoe in return. Boston could do worse for KG, but they could also do better — KG is, after all, an All Star starter, voted in by the fans, and, though slower than years past, still a more-than-capable defender, playing on a reasonable contract. (Whether he would waive his no-trade clause to likely come off the bench for the Clippers is another story.)
In short, Boston’s chock full of bad contracts — Jeff Green’s and Courtney Lee’s, most notably — but not young talent. Now that the Paul Pierce-for-Rudy Gay swap is off the table, it’s time to look elsewhere.
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