For what seems like the third straight year, the Boston Celtics are entering the offseason with more questions than answers about their identity and how to build going forward.
Despite their playoff run and improved late-season play, this is a Celts squad with several glaring holes that must be remedied in the offseason if they want to put an improved team on the floor when the 2013-14 season tips off.
While these are all needs that the team must seek to address in the coming months, let's take a moment to rank them against each other and see exactly which issues are more pressing than the others for Boston.
No. 5: A Quality Backup Point Guard
On paper, the Celtics appeared to have one of the deepest backcourts in the league, but when Rondo hurt his knee, it became abundantly clear that the team did not have a true backup ball-handler to step up.
Avery Bradley can handle the ball, but he is not a natural facilitator, while Jason Terry played his best basketball as a 2-guard instead of manning the point. Courtney Lee struggled in both aspects, ultimately being benched in the playoffs, and Jordan Crawford shot a gentleman's 30.4 percent in the postseason.
We'll discuss what the team should do about their shooting guards later, but there are several quality reserve point guards available in free agency who could play behind Rondo and help to keep his minutes reasonable as he rounds back into shape following ACL surgery.
Among the options out there are Daniel Gibson (5.4 points and 1.8 assists per game), Eric Maynor (4.5 points and 2.8 assists), Shaun Livingston (6.3 points and 3.3 assists) and A.J. Price (7.7 points and 3.6 assists), all of whom could provide Boston with more passing off the pine than they had in 2012-13.
None of these players is going to be a huge difference-maker in the postseason, particularly with the way Doc Rivers manages his rotation, but having a backup capable of logging 18-22 quality minutes per game is key to keeping Rondo fresh for another playoff run.
No. 4: A Draft Pick Who Can Contribute Immediately
Jared Sullinger's play early in the season was huge, as the rookie averaged six points and 5.9 rebounds while carving out an immediate role in the rotation, but the role of fellow first-round pick Fab Melo consisted of D-League stints, walking into a doorframe and being yelled at by Doc Rivers after Game 5 (00:36).
With Sullinger's questionable injury history and Melo looking like a potential bust, it is imperative that Danny Ainge and the Celtics' front office grab a player with the 16th pick who can be an immediate contributor to the club in some capacity.
Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, a hyper-athletic big man capable of playing power forward and center, would be an excellent addition to the Boston bench. He should be able to provide some much-needed muscle and grit on the interior, while giving the Celtics the shot-blocker they lacked in 2012-13.
In his junior season, Dieng averaged 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, two assists and 2.5 blocks per game while proving he could hit outside jump shots at a reliable rate.
Dieng may not be available though, and another option would be New Mexico's Tony Snell, who possesses great size as a 6'7" shooting guard and is one of the better perimeter scorers available in the draft.
Snell averaged 12.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in 2012-13, and shot 39 percent from three-point range on 4.7 attempts per game. His overall game is not NBA-ready, but he would thrive as a catch-and-shoot scorer and has the length to be a pest defensively.
Whomever Boston drafts, they need to make sure he is a player who doesn't need years to develop, as that would put the team in a difficult position for 2013-14.
No. 3: Retain Doc Rivers
Head Coach Doc Rivers may be in the midst of a five-year, $35 million contract, but that fact alone does not guarantee that he will be back in Boston for 2013-14.
ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that the Brooklyn Nets could be interested in bringing in the Celtics' head coach, and with Rivers' career so tied to that of Paul Pierce, it is possible that he opts to hang it up if Pierce retires or is traded.
Rivers may not have had great success with the team last season, but it is hard to expect even an elite coach to do much with a team as banged up as the 2012-13 Boston Celtics.
The reality is that Rivers, despite a few flaws like his reluctance to play young players and his mediocre offensive system, has built an identity for the Celtics that has led to six consecutive playoff berths and created a resilient culture that makes his team a constant threat.
Rivers is one of the better play-calling coaches in the league and preaches a gritty style of team defense that allowed just 87.7 points per game out of New York in the playoffs.
No matter how poorly the Celtics are playing, opponents can never simply count them out, because Rivers is such an excellent motivator that he always seems to know what buttons to push when Boston has its back up against the wall.
Twice last season Rivers rallied his team in situations where a lesser coach may have floundered. The team reeled off a seven-game winning streak when Rondo went down to cement a playoff berth and managed two consecutive wins when facing an 0-3 deficit against the New York Knicks in the first round.
Rivers may very well not be coaching the Celts five years from now, but given that it is unlikely they can reel in a Phil Jackson or a Jerry Sloan, they must ensure that Doc returns to the fold for at least one additional year.
No. 2: A Consistent Interior Presence
Dealing Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green may not look so bad in retrospect, with Perkins seeing his minutes constantly fluctuating and Green playing his way into a starting role, but there is no denying that the 2011 trade significantly compromised Boston's interior.
In 2012-13, the Celtics were 29th in the league in rebounds per game at 39.3, and tied for last in offensive boards with just 8.1 per game.
For all the talk of the league moving in a small-ball direction, Boston's inability to finish out quality defensive sequences with rebounds was a major problem, particularly in the postseason. Players like Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin were able to dominate the game on the glass and create high-percentage scoring opportunities.
Drafting Dieng and returning a healthy Sullinger will help with this category, but what the C's need to do is bring in an experienced player who knows how to protect the rim and control the glass. They do not need a post scorer, but someone who can finish on the pick-and-roll and clean up in the paint would be a major boost either in the starting lineup or off the pine.
Unless Pierce and Garnett are sent packing, Boston will not have much money to throw around in free agency, but there are several cost-effective options who could provide some much-needed muscle and grit on the interior.
Samuel Dalembert is a veteran big man who could log 20-25 minutes per game at center, allowing Garnett to spend more time guarding power forwards, and would give the squad a boost as a rebounder and defender.
Another option is Greg Smith, who lacks some size, but is a physical, aggressive player who made major strides in his sophomore season and proved he could finish around the rim and attack the glass, carving out a solid role with the Houston Rockets in the process.
Even cheap options like Timofey Mozgov or Chris Andersen would be major boosts for the Celtics' depleted frontcourt that could potentially lose KG, Chris Wilcox and Shavlik Randolph in the offseason.
No. 1: A Sense of Perspective
I am about as staunch an advocate for delaying the inevitable rebuild until the 2014 offseason as there is, and while Boston looked less than stellar in 2012-13, it is important to note that the team was missing three of its top eight players for the playoffs and stretch run.
Pick any team in the NBA and take away three of its top eight players, including arguably its franchise star, and you would be hard-pressed to find a squad that could do anything but try and weather the storm.
While it is increasingly unlikely Boston keeps the core intact for one more season, particularly since CSNNE’s Greg Dickerson believes that Pierce does not expect to return to the team (via NBC's Kurt Helin), that does not mean a complete overhaul before the 2013-14 campaign is the right move for the franchise.
As Dickerson notes, even if KG retires and the C's elect to cut Pierce, they still have too much talent to truly bottom out and will not be in the running for one of the potential superstars available in the draft.
We do not have a true sense of what the Celtics could do with the core of Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and the resurgent Jeff Green, and while the team is not going to challenge Miami for the Eastern Conference's top seed as in years past, they still have the potential to be a very dangerous fourth or fifth seed capable of another surprise conference finals run.
Given that Boston struggled through a lengthy rebuilding period following the losses of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, it may be tempting for Danny Ainge to blow things up before the Celts hit rock bottom, but this team deserves one more opportunity to contend for a title.
Though Pierce and KG have both played their best basketball already, they are still high-level contributors who know what it takes to win big games in the postseason.
In addition, Ainge should be aware that signing marquee free agents has never been a strength of the Celts franchise, and it will be difficult for it to lure in the likes of Al Jefferson or Josh Smith due to salary-cap issues. In 2014, the team will have more money off the books and could potentially make a run at talents like Rudy Gay, Larry Sanders, Luol Deng or any of a host of talented players available.
That perspective also extends to the legacy of the franchise, as cutting Paul Pierce or dealing him for a package that would be of little help to the franchise would be an unjust way to end The Truth's storied tenure in Boston. Pierce deserves either to finish his career out with the Celtics or to play for a true title contender, not merely to spend his last few seasons lingering on a team that's going nowhere.
The same is true for Garnett to a degree. If he finds a trade that puts him in a desirable situation and nets a suitable return for Boston, the team should consider it, but the Celts should not go out of their way to encourage a trade or to persuade him to retire from the game.
In such a turbulent offseason it will not be easy to keep a level head, but keeping everything in perspective is the single biggest need for the Boston Celtics organization this summer.
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