The reputation of Danny Ainge could hinge on what he decides to do with Paul Pierce.
Pierce was the established piece of the Boston Celtics in 2007 when the Celtics director of basketball operations fused together this generation’s first power trio by adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
That core won 66 games and a title in its first year together in 2007-08 and would tally a record of 273-121 (.693) through five seasons together.
The taste of success eventually soured, ending with the 2011-12 seven-game conference finals loss to the Miami Heat followed by the jettisoning of Allen for the Heat that offseason.
Rajon Rondo’s injury deflated a 2012-13 season of mediocrity that ended with a first-round playoffs loss to the New York Knicks.
Now it’s decision time for Ainge, who must determine by June 30 whether to exercise a $5 million buyout option or pay the $15.33 million one year remaining on the contract of Pierce.
The rumors have swirled:
Bob Finnan of The News-Herald wrote in his recent Sunday column: “Sources indicate Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge will likely buy out forward Paul Pierce's $15 million contract for next year ($5 million is guaranteed).”
Rich Levine, close to the situation with CSN New England, wrote:
The latest comes to us from the News-Herald in Ohio, which ran a story that cited sources indicating that Boston is now “likely” to buy Pierce out of his contract. But for it’s worth, I spoke with a team source this weekend who immediately laughed off this report.
The funny part wasn’t the idea that the Celtics will buy out Pierce, because, as we know, that’s obviously within the realm of possibility. The joke was the suggestion that the C’s are “likely” to do anything at this point in time.
Levine summarized the situation as being undecided by the organization, writing that Boston is likely “exploring every option.”
The other option for the Celtics would be to trade the 35-year-old or utilize the league’s amnesty option. While Pierce isn’t a long-term solution for the Celtics, he could be the perfect scoring boost for a team seeking to win now. His non-guaranteed contract acts as a valuable trade piece for the Celtics.
Ainge is the chef and he has the option to change his recipe—especially now that the ingredients have certainly expired.
But removing Pierce is an emotional decision, as the Celtics’ staple talent has been with the team for each of his 15 seasons and is the franchise’s second all-time scorer.
"Listen, Paul's been one of the greatest Celtics of all time and that will play part in it,” Ainge told Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com. “We love what he's done for us, but ultimately we have to do what we think is the best for us from this point forward. And I think that Paul still has a lot of basketball left in him."
Although Pierce averaged 18.6 points per game this past season, his shooting percentage of 43.6 percent was his lowest since 2004. However, his defense remains undervalued and his Player Efficiency Rating of 19.14 remains on par with his similar ratings since 2007.
Pierce’s 2012-13 efficiency ranks among many of the league's most talented players:
|No. 31||Dirk Nowitzki||19.88|
|No. 36||Dwight Howard||19.48|
|No. 40||Paul Pierce||19.14|
|No. 50||Mike Conley||18.38|
|No. 57||Rajon Rondo||18.12|
|No. 64||Josh Smith||17.82|
|No. 87||Paul George||16.84|
Pierce is still effective and removing his contract doesn't necessarily change the future of the franchise.
Saving $10 million in salary by buying him out, Boston still would be just roughly $7 million under the luxury tax line with no clear chips to play toward improvement. Garnett hasn’t established whether or not he will return next season though he is owed $11.5 million.
Ainge has been all-in regarding his core of Celtics that includes Pierce, Garnett and Rondo. The team's additional salary is tied up in deals to Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee.
Ainge has left little flexibility and the Celtics have been left in a tough place with this decision on Pierce looming.
With Garnett considering retirement and Rondo still working back to health, Boston is left with few options of how to improve toward the future. A trade package that includes Pierce, Rondo or both might spell the beginning of a rebuilding era in Boston.
That creates an interesting element, as Garnett would likely retire, opening up salary space for Boston to bring in extra talent. It creates a catch-22 scenario, in which Garnett may only want to stay if the team has a chance to contend, but the team may only contend if Garnett's contract is wiped away through retirement.
Ainge doesn't have Boston in the best situation and his next move won't be an easy one.
If Pierce is sent off and finishes multiple successful years in another uniform, the decision to let him go could overshadow the success of bringing the Boston's big three together. Paul has always remained loyal, and shipping him away could be perceived as a slap of disloyalty.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said this of Pierce, according to Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe:
We live in a day and time where guys are changing teams like socks. And Paul has chosen to stay here throughout his career, when he clearly had all rights to leave. And he chose to stay. So I have so much respect for him, for that.
He wanted to get it done here, he made that choice, where other guys are running around trying to find it. Paul decided, ‘I’m going to stay here and see if I can win it.’ And he did that. So I hope he’s remembered for that, and obviously I hope he comes back.
Still, general managers are paid to make the tough decisions.
In the big-business industry of professional basketball, the heart rarely outweighs a franchise’s ability to contend.
As difficult as the decision will be, the hearts of Celtics fans are tied to Ainge’s decision and his lasting reputation may rest on it.