When Rajon Rondo went down with a knee injury, the Boston Celtics' playoff prospects looked gloomy. They squeaked into the playoffs with the No. 7 seed, hoping their gritty defense and postseason experience would carry them through.
Even though they gave the New York Knicks plenty of fight after trailing 3-0 in the series, the C's are headed home much earlier than they're accustomed to.
After losing in the first round for the first time in the Big Three era, the Boston Celtics' future is far from certain.
Celtics are eliminated in 1st round for first time since acquiring Kevin Garnett in 2007-08 season
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2013
Of course, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers are all under contract for next season, but that may only be worth as much as the paper it's written on.
Retirement speculation swirls around KG, Danny Ainge already dangled Paul Pierce in trade talks this season, and who knows how much longer Rivers can hack it in Beantown?
With Boston's season over, let the speculation on next season begin!
Earlier this year, Kevin Garnett stated this year's All-Star Game would "definitely" be his last. And when Celtics blogger Ben Rohrbach pointed out that he has two years remaining on his contract, KG just said, "Y'all don't know what I know."
With the season over and done with, will Garnett reveal to us just what it is that we don't know?
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports tweeted that Doc Rivers said he was "positive" KG would return after last season. Following Game 6, however, Rivers said he was "not so positive" about Garnett's return for 2013-14.
Andrew Perna of RealGM.com drew some pessimism from this postgame Garnett quote: "I demand a lot of myself, both physically and from a skill level."
Though Garnett played at a high level in the series, especially in the final four games, he may not want to subject his body to the rigors of another NBA season.
The 36-year-old is in his 18th NBA season. Having already accrued hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, he may not want to return without a stacked, championship-caliber roster.
According to Jay King of MassLive.com, Garnett stated that Doc Rivers "came and pulled Paul (Pierce) and I to the side, and all three of us agreed to speak later—too emotional."
So when those three sit down, what will be said?
Pierce endured a dreadful Game 6, shooting 4-of-18 from the field. Though he averaged 19.2 points per game in the series, he shot just 36.8 percent from the field.
Garnett also said of his fellow elder statesman: "One of the big reasons I came here was because of Paul. Obviously, I want to be in a situation where it’s better, I want to make sure that I’m able to always help the team" (via King).
If you read between the lines, you may get the impression that as Paul Pierce goes, so goes Kevin Garnett. With their salaries, they are unlikely to be traded together, so if the C's ship Pierce, KG may just decide to hang up his sneakers for good.
You may recall that Boston nearly traded Pierce to the Dallas Mavericks as part of a three-team deal which would have netted them Josh Smith from the Atlanta Hawks (per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
Now Boston can either decide to try and trade Pierce again or choose the opt-out clause in his contract. Either way, it figures to affect Garnett's decision as well.
Rajon Rondo is probably the best passing point guard in the NBA. There's no way that Greivis Vasquez would have led the league in assists if Rondo was healthy.
Boston's mercurial point guard played in just 38 games this season, averaging 13.7 points on an excellent 48.4 percent shooting (plus 11.1 assists per game). Rondo can also rack up the rebounds and steals as well as driving the Celtics offense.
Without Rondo setting up players like Garnett and Pierce for open looks, the offense had no direction. His ability to get in the lane and force the defense to collapse was impossible to replace.
Assuming he's able to come back at full strength, he possesses tremendous value. Danny Ainge must decide whether to build the future of the team around the feisty point guard or shop him on the trade market and see if he can get a king's ransom in return.
It's not just the $28 million owed to Pierce and Garnett that is costing the Celtics a lot of money next season. Jeff Green is signed for $9 million, while Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry are due $17 million together (per Spotrac.com).
Green excelled in the playoffs, and he could be a nice piece to build around in the frontcourt for the next couple of seasons. Terry's game improved after he got elbowed in the mouth by J.R. Smith, but he failed to live up to his contract this year, and his production declined as the year wore on.
As for Courtney Lee, it's safe to say that experiment has not worked out. Lee averaged 7.8 points per game during the year, but Rivers didn't trust him enough to give him much playing time in the postseason. Lee averaged 1.5 points in 9.8 minutes against the Knicks, but he did not play at all in Boston's two victories.
Avery Bradley should be a piece to retain, as he's one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA. His scoring leaves something to be desired, but he's a steal at $2.5 million.
Jared Sullinger played well until a back injury sidelined him. Per 36 minutes, the rookie averaged 10.9 points with 10.7 rebounds over 45 games. If he can keep his back healthy, he could become a mainstay in the C's frontcourt.
Jordan Crawford made for a nice pickup at the trade deadline, especially since it cost the Celtics next to nothing. But while Crawford can score the ball, his defensive limitations are considerable.
With so few expiring contracts, Boston will have to do some clever maneuvering with its roster in the offseason.
Doc Rivers referred to Game 6 as a "microcosm of the year" in the postgame press conference on ESPN. The Celtics fell behind early and got things going too late to extend their season any further.
Now the Celtics are left pondering what's next. So trust Doc Rivers to be completely cryptic about it.
According to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, Rivers downplayed the questions about his future but didn't exactly remove all doubt, saying, "I'm coming back until I say I'm not. I don't want it to be a big decision."
Well, unfortunately for him, the "until I say I'm not" part of that statement doesn't help. Per Adam Zagoria of NBA.com, Rivers said about the future of Boston's core, "I've given it zero thought."
While it's still far too early to expect pointed answers about the future out of Rivers, he's hardly quelling the speculation that he might move somewhere else.
The Celtics' venerable president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, has a crisis on his hands.
As I wrote back in April: "Ainge has little room to maneuver in free agency this offseason as Boston's payroll already sits at $73 million for next year (per HoopsHype.com). Only D.J. White and Chris Wilcox have expiring contracts."
All their players are locked up through next season, with only Paul Pierce owed non-guaranteed money. The only bargains in the lineup are Avery Bradley (great defense) and Jordan Crawford (no defense) at less than $5 million total, plus the rookie contracts of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo.
Without the retirement of one of his big-money stars, Ainge will need to improve his team through the trade market. Of course, he could buy out Pierce for the $5 million, which might in turn prompt Garnett to retire.
Ainge might as well play the cards that were dealt for one more season and see what tweaks can be made. At the very least, he can hope to find a truly willing partner at the deadline this time around.