Watching the Boston Celtics' first-round loss to the New York Knicks was reminiscent of watching an aging champion boxer. The grit and desire still burned strong, as evidenced by their miraculous near-comeback in Game 6, but they simply did not have enough talent or athleticism to keep up with their younger competitors.
Boston's earliest playoff exit since 2005 has many Celtics fans calling for a teardown. The "three-year window" has now dragged out to six full seasons, and it is clear the team no longer has the ingredients of a contender.
But as the sting of defeat wears off, it is time to once again consider the pros and cons of keeping the core together.
However, unlike past years, when the goal was to reload, Danny Ainge is now equipped with the task of transitioning Celtics basketball into a new era.
As painful as it is to concede so early, the Celtics will not come close to hanging banner No. 18 next season. Nonetheless, here are four reasons why keeping the team largely intact will improve the Celtics' championship aspirations in the long run.
Salary Cap Relief
Getting rid of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is not as easy as it sounds. The two are on the hook for nearly $28 million combined next season, and any trade would likely involve the Celtics taking back long-term salaries.
That's fine, of course, if they can nab a worthy long-term piece. But a player like Harrison Barnes or Paul Millsap (in a sign-and-trade) would likely require Boston to take back an albatross contract like Richard Jefferson or trade away a young asset like Avery Bradley or Jared Sullinger.
What do you want to see the Celtics do this offseason?
Because of the multi-year deals given to Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, the Celtics will be over the cap next year, perhaps even flirting with the estimated luxury tax apron of $71.6. Even if they waived Pierce and Garnett retired, the team would still be a little over $1 million over the salary cap, as pointed out by Sloan Piva.
The worst thing the front office could do would be to take on more long-term contracts in hopes of improving next year's team. That would only raise the Celtics' ceiling to a second-round waxing at the hands of the Miami Heat.
After next season, the Celtics will have just $41,664,251 on the books, not factoring in a couple mid-first-round picks and a possible extension for Rondo (Garnett's deal is not guaranteed, and he may well retire by then).
Even then, they would still likely have room for a max contact with some minor maintenance.
A More Comprehensive Rebuild
With that kind of salary cap flexibility, the Celtics could use next season as a bridge year into a more natural rebuild.
While it is unlikely a mega-free agent like LeBron James or Chris Bosh would sign, there are plenty of second-tier options like Rudy Gay, Marcin Gortat, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward that could speed up the rebuilding process.
And if you happen to stumble across a Paul George or James Harden, then you can become a true contender again.
Some fans, even if they won't admit it, advocate trading away Pierce and Garnett in order to tank for a loaded 2014 draft. While either Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle would look great in green, history hasn't exactly been kind to the Celtics' tanking efforts:
For a team that only hangs championship banners, tanking would be a singularly humiliating fate. Some franchises simply do not tolerate losing, and the Celtics are one of those.
Besides, a horrible team next year would likely cost Boston its best long-term asset.
With all the uncertainty surrounding Rivers' future with the Celtics, a complete teardown would likely be disheartening enough to end Doc's nine-year tenure in Boston. In light of the recent mutual interest between Rivers and the Clippers as reported by Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, the Celtics will probably have to play the loyalty card to keep Rivers around.
Last season was undoubtedly the coach's most taxing year since the "Fire Doc" chants ran rampant prior to the Big Three era. Still, given the relationship he has with Pierce and Garnett, it's hard to imagine Doc leaving them at the end of their careers to coach a second-tier Western Conference team.
When Rivers signed a five-year, $35 million dollar extension after the end of the 2011 season, he did so fully aware that this day would come. As he said to Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston back in 2011:
I've had a group that has been very loyal to me, and I think it would have been very easy for me to just run, and go somewhere else and chase something else. Who says that we still can't do that, with free agency and adding the right pieces while our Big Three are getting older? We have to add the right supporting cast to them, and in that transition, hopefully we can still chase what we want. But it would have been easier to do it the other way. I just don't think it's the right thing to do. Coaches talk about loyalty and team all the time and I just thought it was time to show it, and that's what I did.
Of course, things change, and that was over two years ago. But if Ainge gave a definitive promise to keep Pierce and Garnett at least to start the year, it would certainly improve Rivers' chances of staying. Additionally, it would buy more time for the two to map out a mutually agreeable rebuilding plan, as the two have not always been on the same page.
Rivers is arguably the most popular coach in the league, and given Boston's putrid history of attracting marquee free agents, he is the only real chip they can sell to incoming free agents. Additionally, if/when Rajon Rondo becomes the new face of the franchise, it would certainly help if the mercurial point guard had some connection to the glory days.
In a transition era, most pieces are expendable. But Rivers is as close to a must-keep as the Celtics have.
Pierce and KG
Admittedly, this is the weakest reason to keep the core together. As the regional football team has shown, sentimentality should not get in the way of winning.
Keeping the two vets around isn't necessarily an entirely sentimental decision. At the trade deadline, it's more likely an injured or desperate contender would be more willing to overpay for a chance at a championship. Teams have done it before.
Still, something just isn't right about allowing Pierce to finish off his career in a Pelicans jersey or Garnett in a Jazz one. No one enjoyed the Johnny Unitas Chargers era or Michael Jordan's Wizards run.
Ultimately, loyalty is almost nonexistent in professional sports, as it should be if teams want to maximize their potential. That Pierce, Garnett and Rivers have stayed together this long is truly a rare example of pride and allegiance trumping all else. When Nos. 34 and 5 are raised to the Garden rafters, everyone will remember them as the embodiment of Celtics Pride. It should end that way.
*Unless otherwise cited, stats from Basketball-Reference.