In his quest to restore the Boston Celtics to glory, president Danny Ainge has a handful of options in front of him. It's just too bad that none of them are any good.
The efficacy of tanking is still up for debate. But for the Celtics, who currently have one star-quality player in Rajon Rondo and no clear pathways to getting another (more on that later), piling up losses on purpose certainly seems like the best available approach.
But Ainge has long refused to entertain the notion of deliberate failure. Even though his decision to trade away Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers clearly signaled that the team was headed for a rebuilding period, Ainge has never conceded that Boston is gunning for a lottery pick.
Quite the opposite, actually. Per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
Danny Ainge to Globe: "We are not tanking. Thats ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics." #celtics— gary washburn (@GwashNBAGlobe) July 1, 2013
As pompous as the last half of that statement sounds, there's actually some logic to it. Tanking is unpalatable anywhere, but Ainge recognizes that the practice could be especially difficult in Boston. Celtics fans spend their home games gazing up at 17 championship banners, so it's uniquely tough for them to stomach the idea of losing on purpose.
Interestingly, Ainge's tanking rhetoric has softened since his quote to The Boston Globe.
According to Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated, Ainge conceded that he might be willing to change his position on bottoming out if it appears that it's the only option. "If all of a sudden Rondo's out for the year and a couple other key guys, and maybe goals change over the course of the year. But starting the season out, we're starting out full blazes. And see what we can do."
Far from an all-out admission that the Celtics are planning to give up on the season, at least Ainge has provided a qualifier. It'd be foolish for him to stick to his anti-tanking guns if circumstances changed to the degree he described in his quote.
At the same time, Ainge disparaged the quality of the 2014 draft during that same interview with Thomsen. "If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story. I don't see that player out there."
Maybe he's blowing smoke in an effort to assure fans that the Celtics aren't interested in "Riggin' for Wiggins." Or perhaps he's the one man on the planet who doesn't think this year's draft is remarkably deep and laden with a handful of transformative stars.
Ultimately, it's hard to know what Ainge's true feelings are. Outwardly, he's projecting a curious unwillingness to consider what could be the best of his bad options.
So, What's Plan B?
Ainge doesn't have to rebuild the Celtics through the draft, but if he opts to start the construction process through trades or free agency, he won't find the job any easier.
Despite constantly swirling rumors, Ainge has held firm to his position that the Celtics have no interest in trading Rondo. There's plenty of sense in that, as the point guard might still be capable of reaching another level in his game when he takes over as Boston's undisputed focal point. Plus, he's only due about $23 million over the final two years of his contract.
That's a bargain for a player with Rondo's skills, and it'd be extremely difficult for the Celtics to get fair value for him in any potential trade.
But what if Rondo's not the kind of franchise cornerstone Boston needs? What if his torn ACL prevents him from returning to full strength until the 2014-15 season, when he'll already be 28 years old? Is that the kind of player the Celtics can really build around?
If Ainge is to have any hope of securing a star via trade, he almost has to give up Rondo. But according to everything we've heard out of Boston over the past year, Rondo's not going anywhere.
It's true that the Celtics have a few other desirable commodities. Kris Humphries' deal expires after this season, and Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley might draw some interest around the league. Even Gerald Wallace and his albatross of a contract (he'll collect more than $10 million annually over the next three seasons) could be moved if Boston were willing to throw in one of its many first-round picks.
But no combination of those players is going to bring back anything like the haul the Celtics got in 2007, the last time they rebuilt the franchise.
Toss Out the Blueprint
Then Ainge was able to snatch up Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves shortly after bringing Ray Allen aboard from the Seattle Sonics. To get those deals done, Boston surrendered a handful of first-round selections, young talent like Al Jefferson and Jeff Green, and established pros like Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West.
It's arguable that Boston could put together a package from its current assets that might come close to being as valuable as the one they surrendered in 2007. But there's not another pair of stars out there like Garnett and Allen right now.
Remember, the Celtics were able to get KG as a result of a nearly perfect storm of circumstances. He wanted out of Minnesota, and the team felt as though it owed its loyal superstar the chance to win elsewhere. In addition, the Celtics already had Pierce and Rondo on the roster, making the team a desirable destination to vets seeking a title.
Boston also had Jefferson, an asset that Wolves president Kevin McHale coveted. And though it'd be hard to prove, there's still a lingering feeling that McHale may have been willing to move Garnett to Boston out of some sense of loyalty to the franchise with which he had played his entire career.
Those circumstances simply don't exist for the Celtics today.
There is no available megastar like Garnett, and Boston probably doesn't have the assets to acquire one even if there were.
It'd be nice if Ainge could simply look back six years and reuse the blueprint he followed when he last rebuilt the franchise. But history can't be his guide this time around because the circumstances—both within the team and across the league at large—are too different.
Free Agency? Hey, Why Are You Laughing?
So if Ainge isn't keen on building through the draft and he can't swing a trade like the one that saved the franchise in 2007, that leaves free agency as his only other option.
Unfortunately, Boston has always been a notoriously undesirable free-agent destination. Things won't be any more attractive now that there's a brand new, unproven coach at the helm. Toss in a motley cast of unspectacular young players and over-the-hill veterans, and it's going to be more difficult than ever to attract talent.
And then there's the ugly financial reality the Celtics are facing.
Barring any significant moves to free up money, the team will be over the salary cap both this year and next, which could silence any talk of potential free-agent moves before it starts. If Ainge is going to build the Celtics by signing players, he'll have to make a few moves on the trade market before that can happen.
Of all the available routes Boston could take to in its effort to start over, free agency seems to be the least likely.
Is There Any Hope?
We've painted an awfully grim picture of the Celtics' rebuilding options. And while there's certainly no easy way for Ainge to snare the player that could help get Boston back on a championship track, it's also not going to be impossible.
For what it's worth, he may have already completed the most difficult step in the process.
What's Danny Ainge's best option to snag a franchise-altering player?
Trading Pierce and Garnett must have been excruciating, but it was a critical first move, and Ainge made it boldly. In a way, that decision might have been a sign. For all of Ainge's outward resistance to change and his adherence to principle, he's willing to make an unpopular move when he has to.
But as willing as Ainge is to make difficult and sometimes unsavory choices to better the team, he's also smart enough to know that there's no benefit in publicizing his plans to do so. So don't be surprised as he continues to outwardly grimace whenever the issue of tanking comes up.
He'll do that to appease fans and keep the idea of "Celtic Pride" alive. But deep down, he knows bottoming out is Boston's best option.