Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics are in a no-win situation.
Sure, the team began it's Rajon Rondo-less trek 4-0, including victories over legitimate powerhouses in the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat, re-instilling hope in their fanbase. Yet what's happening in Boston is much bigger than the span of four games, than immediate hope.
Because the Celtics as we have come to know them are done, finished. Not just because Rondo's out for the season, not just because Ray Allen now calls South Beach home and not just because of the aging (and thus deteriorating) stylings of Pierce and Garnett. No one concern is to blame—it's everything.
Boston has reached a proverbial crossroads, one they've wrestled with before, but were ultimately able to avoid.
Aversion isn't option now. The Celtics must either commit to making an emotional or tactical decision.
Enter Pierce and Garnett.
Deciding upon the fates of both players will be the most arduous of decisions Ainge has ever had to make. Partly because they're two of the most renowned players in the game, but mostly because their destiny is directly linked to that of Boston's, to that of Ainge's. No matter what.
By now, it's imperative that we understand the Celtics are not winning any titles as currently constructed. A Cinderella-esque playoff push is not out of the question, but a championship is.
More than halfway through the season, Boston finds itself without one of the most talented floor generals in the league and its most efficient rebounder in Jared Sullinger. Its been stripped down to the bare minimum of functionality and left to render season-defining assertions off a meagerly-sized winning streak.
Fooling ourselves even after victories over the Heat and Clippers is futile. The Celtics cannot contend with the likes of either over the course of a seven-game series. Not while they continue to embody fragility and decimation.
Naturally, there's only one route for Ainge and crew to take then—the one that culminates in the dismantling of a core that toiled with dynasty-level status.
Difficult a verdict though it may be, it is one that, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Ainge appears willing to make:
"I'm going to look and see what opportunities are there, like any other year," Ainge said. "Last year, I was close to making a change that I felt would give us a better chance in the here and now, and in the future. And those are hard to do."
This was a reference to the near O.J. Mayo-Ray Allen deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, a trade that fell apart minutes before the deadline. The Celtics had told Allen that they believed the deal could happen, that he was gone, and it ultimately played a part in the acrimony surrounding his departure. Looking back, it would've been a prudent move for the Celtics. Looking back, it still bothers Ainge that it didn't happen.
Ainge has always insisted that his mentor, Red Auerbach, made a mistake staying too long with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, that he should've moved them when they still had value.
Except it's not that simple; it never is.
Looking back, it's rather easy to proclaim Auerbach extended the stays of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale far too long; it's easy to assume he made the wrong call. Yet such presumptions only hold true if there is a correct call to be made. And in that case, there wasn't. Not entirely. Just like this one.
There will be plenty of takers for Pierce and Garnett; there probably already is. But that doesn't simplify this conflict in the slightest.
How does Ainge readily deal Pierce? The same Pierce who still leads the team in scoring. The same Pierce who has bled Celtics green for nearly 15 years.
And per Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com, the same Pierce who has made a plea to retire in Boston:
Since Rajon Rondo's season-ending ACL injury, there's been plenty of talk about trading Paul Pierce, but the Celtics captain made his plea to the media before the team's first practice since losing their All-Star point guard.
"I want to retire as a Celtic," said Pierce. "That’s been my longtime goal, but it’s not under my control. The organization, they make their decisions, but it’s something I've desired since being here so long."
Passing on the opportunity to re-sign Pierce after next season would be one thing, but parting ways with a fan favorite and team-legend like him via trade is another. Just imagine how it would impact Ainge's own legacy in Boston. He would still be known as the one who helped assemble a championship-winning faction, but also as the one who blew it to hell in the most vile of fashions possible.
Foolish thought it seems to mix the ruthless side of the NBA with the equally equivocal emotional one, it's impossible to avoid—even for a purportedly hard-nosed business man like Ainge.
Assuming Ainge will ignore the attachment of Boston's fanbase in favor of the so-called "smart" business decision is hardly a certainty. Especially given that, according to WEEI 93.7 FM in Boston (via Brian Robb of CelticsHub.com), Ainge is just as sentimentally invested:
“No, because nothing has been talked about with Paul or discussed. Nothing is close to being done. I too, would like to see Paul Pierce retire as a Celtic. That would be great. We are all attached to Paul. He’s been great for the city, the franchise, each of us individually, he’s been a true pro. Having said that, if something came up I would talk to Paul, but my job is do what’s best for the Boston fans, and what’s best for the Boston Celtic team, regardless of my personal ties and personal relationships with players.”
There's a fine line between strategically savvy and emotionally committed in the Association. But it's one that Ainge was prepared to cross previously, when he nearly sent Ray Allen over to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Though it was the move that wasn't, it had a lasting impact on the Celtics. Allen finished the season in Boston, but the damage had been done and he forewent the opportunity to give it one more go in Beantown in favor of the sandy beaches in Miami.
Crossing such a line won't be as easy, or even readily acceptable, for Ainge this time around.
As he admitted to Wojnarowski, deals that allow you to justify such demolition are scarce:
This is a different day, a different era, a different financial landscape in the NBA. No one gives up packages of good young players and draft picks for All-Stars in the advanced stages of careers now. Those days are gone. In a quiet corner of the TD Garden on Sunday, Ainge understood it was impossible – never mind futile – to make a sweeping declaration about his intentions.
"In our situation, you can't just philosophically say, 'We're going to do this,' " Ainge told Yahoo! Sports. "You have to tell me what it is. You have to tell me what opportunities we have."
"Here's the thing: If I wanted to say, 'Hey, let's play for the future,' that's hard to do. And if I play only for the 'here and now,' that's hard to do."
They're more than just "hard" to do; they're almost impossible to do. Short of landing a superstar in his prime, Ainge won't be able to sell Boston on trading Pierce. Not from a loyalty standpoint. And even if he could land a Josh Smith or DeMarcus Cousins (purely conjecture), his reputation remains forever tarnished.
It only becomes more laborious a matter when dealing with Garnett. Where Ainge can at least trade Pierce at his behest, take the public jabs and attempt to move on, he can do no such thing with Garnett.
Boston's fiercely allegiant forward is one of four players (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki) in the league with a no-trade clause. Any deal Ainge intends to strike must receive Garnett's consent. Which is cause for almost nothing but tragedy.
Reports like the one by Sean Deveney of the Sporting news will surface, but they mean absolutely nothing.
Ainge can't just trade Garnett. He arguably wouldn't be able to deal him at all. Again, the interest from outside sources would be there, but Garnett has remained steadfast in his devotion to Boston.
Remember, he teetered between retirement and returning to the Celtics this past summer, nothing and no one else. And according to former teammate Kendrick Perkins (via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com), he actually won't play for anyone besides Doc Rivers:
"He's caught in between what he wants to do," Perkins said. "This is his 17th year, so I don't know. ... But I wouldn't be surprised if they do give one more go at it, just knowing their hearts and their competitiveness. They might go out there and give it another shot."
"I don't know if he wants to play for anybody but Doc," Perkins said. "That would be the thing. He doesn't want to play for anybody but Doc."
How is Ainge supposed to shop him knowing this? How is he about to slap Garnett and everything he's done for the organization in the metaphorical face and expect emerge unscathed? By selling him on playing for a contender like the aforementioned Clippers?
With a championship ring and a slew of other credentials to his name, Garnett isn't about the accolades; he's about ardent loyalty, about family.
The same family he thought he was returning to when he re-upped with Boston. Thus, I reiterate, how does Ainge bring an offer to Garnett, let alone even discuss his name in potential transactions? Doing so only sets the stage for a more slovenly breakup than the one with Allen.
Supposed Ainge presents Garnett with the opportunity to play in Los Angeles or another contending market. Then suppose he rejects said offer (which he will). What then?
Garnett would almost certainly retire upon season's end and the illusion of the inseverable bond that exists between he and the Celtics would be broken, in the most callous of furors imaginable.
Where would that leave the Celtics?
Knowing that, Ainge couldn't embrace a full-fledged rebuild even if he wanted to. Not only does the sensitivity of Garnett's contractual existence discourage it, but there's also no guarantees it would work.
Draft picks and young assets aren't as accessible as they once were. As Ainge previously divulged, teams are no longer able to be cognizant of strictly the now. It has to be about the future too, for everyone. Rebuilding isn't as easy as it once was.
But say he succeeds in blowing it up. Say he is able to convince Garnett to play elsewhere, rises above the moral obligations and bisects the ties between the former, Pierce and the organization. The column-old question of "what then?" still applies.
It is far from determined that Ainge could even land picks and assets valuable enough to build around. From there, it's anything but a lock said pieces pan out. And should he move one or both of his aging pillars, and it not produce adequate results, he'll have failed the very franchise he has relentlessly attempted to do right by?
Yet if he holds his hand, allows the contracts of Pierce and Garnett to expire, he'll have done nothing. Boston may feign title contention over the next year or two (or three), but won't be a legitimate threat.
So what's Ainge to do? We know he'll explore the possibility of trading Pierce (not Garnett), but will he pull the trigger on a satisfactory accord if one presents itself? Will he have the audacity to trade a decorated legend?
Or will he take the safe route, quelling the emotional concerns of Boston's fanbase over the diplomatic ones and thereby emulating what he believes Auerbach should have averted?
Knowing Ainge and his avidity to do what's right by the franchise, even if it seems wrong, there's no doubt that he comprehends what must be done. That he knows the $76 million committed in payroll this season and the $70 million for next season are not conducive with flexibility or restructuring.
That he understands retaining Pierce and doing what's best for the Celtics franchise may be mutually exclusive. That he understands he has but a couple of weeks before the trade deadline; but a couple of weeks to decide the future of this team.
That he gets what has to be done.
But are he and the rest of the organization ready to appropriate what he already knows?
"Deals are just hard to do," Ainge (via Robb) said. "They’re just challenging.”
More challenging than finding those scant "deals" is perceiving them as an unconditional necessity.
And thus accepting that Ainge must play the part of a villain at a time when there can be no hero.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.