The Boston Celtics could choose to remain contenders or enter a full rebuild this offseason, and there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. It all hinges on what Danny Ainge decides to do with Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
And even some parts of the future may be out of the general manager's control. Doc, for example, could decide to move on free of Ainge's influence.
According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, that's exactly what seems to be happening now:
If the Celtics decided to buy out Paul Pierce's contract, it would signal the end of an era in Beantown. Kevin Garnett would follow him out of Boston, and Rivers wouldn't want to be part of a rebuilding process. He's been there before and has no interest in repeating those painful steps.
However, the natural progression of change in Boston seems to be shifting. If Rivers does indeed decide that it's time for a change, that would essentially give Ainge the freedom necessary to cut ties with two of his star players.
Glue guys typically take part in the on-court action, but for the C's, it's Rivers who serves as the cohesive substance holding everything together. He's a player's coach who has balanced locker room presences and still managed to demand the best from everyone wearing green.
Without Rivers pacing the sideline and monitoring the locker room, the Celtics would not have been as successful. Nor will they be in the future if a different coach starts calling the shots.
Ainge understands this, and finding a new coach would give him the ability to cut ties with Garnett and Pierce, free of many negative repercussions. In a way, Rivers, with whom he has a close relationship, would be doing him a favor and allowing him to start that rebuilding process.
Fans will be able to accept massive changes. Boston supporters are typically intelligent and passionate basketball fans, and they would understand that it makes sense to give a new head coach an opportunity to build his own roster rather than trying to suck everything possible out of the careers of two declining former superstars.
It's no secret that NBA coaches have short life spans on the sidelines. No one is safe. Just look at the number of coaches that have already been fired this offseason, a count that includes six signal-callers who steered their teams into the postseason.
Even George Karl, the reigning Coach of the Year, was fired by the Denver Nuggets without a single game between the termination and winning the award.
When you're part of a historically excellent franchise, greatness is part of the job requirements. Even one poor season in which the expectations are not met can result in immediate termination.
Such is the case for the C's and their new head coach, assuming Broussard's report is correct and Rivers goes elsewhere. If that new coach is saddled with a roster he didn't choose, one that boasts the services of both Pierce and Garnett, he may end up being nothing more than a steppingstone toward the next coach.
Because of that, a coaching change gives Ainge the ability to buy out Pierce and either do the same with Garnett or watch as he ushers himself into retirement. He has to commit to the new coach, just as the new coach has to commit to the organization.
When deciding whether he wants to do this, the pertinent question for the C's general manager centers around whether a new coach could lead the current roster to a title. Boston doesn't just accept playoff berths; it needs to hang more banners.
Fortunately, the answer is a pretty simple one: no.
Garnett and Pierce are both declining, a fact made rather inevitable by the unfortunate effects of old age. KG is straying farther and farther from the basket and is unable to maintain his levels of defensive excellence throughout an entire game. Pierce's decline is less apparent, although his shot-creating abilities and field-goal percentages are both taking a turn for the worse.
Even with Rajon Rondo back in the lineup and a surging Jeff Green continuing to track toward stardom, Boston wouldn't be able to compete with one of the truly elite teams in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are in a different class now, and they will be once more in 2013-14. With a healthy Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls may be as well.
That means it's time to pull the plug and start over.
Although ridding themselves of Pierce and KG doesn't allow the C's to gain too much cap room, it does allow the franchise to be handed over to Rondo, Green and the other young players in Boston uniforms.
It's a natural step if and when Rivers decides to move on. Of course, it all hinges on what the legendary head coach does, because this roster is very much worth keeping together if the gravelly voiced clipboard-holder can continue serving as a stabilizing presence.
Broussard is readily willing to admit that Rivers hasn't made up his mind yet, even if he appears to be leaning toward a change:
Rivers, who has been attending the Celtics' pre-draft workouts, is unsure of what he wants to do and has not yet ruled out returning to Boston for a 10th season. He has a very close relationship with Ainge, and the source said that is one factor that is making his decision so difficult.
This is confirmed by CSNNE's A. Sherrod Blakely, who basically says that we're not very close to clarity in this ongoing saga:
ESPN reported on Wednesday that Rivers believes "it may be time for a change" in his status as Celtics head coach.
But a league source contacted by CSNNE.com on Wednesday indicated that Rivers continues to mull over whether he will return to Boston, and he hasn't made a decision one way or the other.
"He's really torn up about this," the source said.
It is unclear if he has given his players any indication of his plans for next season.
One player contacted Wednesday said, "We're waiting just like you guys."
Regardless of what Rivers does, this is going to be a difficult offseason for Boston. There are a number of choices that Ainge and the rest of the front office must make, and none of them is an easy call.
But once one domino starts to fall, the rest will follow suit.
And if Rivers is indeed that first domino, Boston fans can start preparing their farewell speeches to the two legends who helped earn the latest banner that decorates the rafters of the TD Garden.