The Boston Celtics have yet to decide between a complete overhaul and a rapid retooling.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge seems to prefer the latter, which is why the franchise must keep blazing the Kevin Love trail.
The possibility of building an overnight contender exists in the Eastern Conference. Three of the East's eight playoff teams in 2014, including two of the top five seeds, missed out on the festivities the year prior.
The conference field could be further depleted by the free-agency period. Should the Miami Heat (Big Three) or Indiana Pacers (Lance Stephenson) suffer calamitous losses on the open market, the East could be as wide open as ever.
Now, why should that matter to a Celtics team that lost nearly 70 percent of its games last season? Because this group could be bolstered by the addition of two top-tier players this summer: Love and a healthy Rajon Rondo.
Getting Love is obviously the hard part, so that pursuit is a great place for this discussion to start.
The double-double machine informed the Minnesota Timberwolves he plans on opting out of his contract next summer and has no plan on signing an extension to stay, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne in mid-May. The Celtics have been on the front lines of the NBA's Love Affair since, a position strengthened by the big man's visit to Boston and chance encounter with Rondo:
Whether a harmless vacation or a scouting trip, Love's days spent in Boston only increased speculation that the Celtics ranked high on his list of preferred landing spots. Before the visit, they had already been identified as a "sleeper gathering momentum" by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Yet the chatter surrounding Love has quieted considerably since. That's not unique to the Celtics, either. With the basketball world absorbed in the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony pursuits, Love has somehow managed to fall back on the radar.
That shouldn't be possible.
Granted, James and Anthony are both ranking members of the NBA's elite, but so, too, is Love. He finished the 2013-14 campaign fourth in scoring (26.1), third in rebounding (12.5), third in player efficiency rating (26.9) and fourth in win shares (14.3), via Basketball-Reference.com.
Love also won't turn 26 until September 7. His best basketball could still be in front of him.
The Celtics, who have neither the spending money nor the market appeal to chase the big free-agent fish, have never shifted their focus away from Love. Despite reportedly struggling to build an offer that intrigues the Wolves, they have not backed off of their efforts, via Wojnarowski:
"A league source said Monday that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is attempting to gather assets to acquire Kevin Love, convinced he can devise a package that would entice Minnesota Timberwolves president Flip Saunders to move the three-time All-Star," Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe wrote.
There is no motivation for Ainge to approach this any differently.
No, he does not have the "people who can contribute right away" that sources told the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett (subscription required) that Saunders is after. However, Ainge has an intriguing collection of assets—rookies Marcus Smart and James Young, sophomore Kelly Olynyk, third-year forward Jared Sullinger and an army of future picks—that could be cashed in first to strengthen Boston's offer to Minnesota.
According to Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe, Ainge is ready to pursue the trade chips that Saunders wants in return for his ready-made superstar:
That might sound like a long shot, but with a potential reward like this, any odds are ones worth exploring.
If Ainge could pull this off, he'd have a pair of game-changing players in Rondo and Love. Not only that, these players happen to complement each other extremely well.
"There should be no doubt that these two perennial All-Stars can succeed beside one another," Bleacher Report's Michael Pina wrote. "One is a pass-first point guard, and the other is a top-four or five offensive player. Their skills naturally complement each other in an obvious way without any overlap."
With a duo as talented as this, the supporting cast would improve simply by suiting up alongside it.
Jeff Green cannot be a primary scorer. His 41.2 field-goal percentage in 2013-14 hammered that point home. Drop him down the pecking order and let him pick his scoring chances, though, and he's a well-rounded, efficient threat from anywhere on the floor.
The less Avery Bradley needs to do offensively, the more he can focus on being one of the league's premier defensive pests. Brandon Bass has always been defined by his situation. On a good team, he's a glue guy who does a lot of little things well. On a bad club, he's limited and does not stand out in any specific area.
The Celtics would have the pieces in place to make serious noise in the East. If Love and Rondo—who will also hit the open market next summer—both commit to long-term deals, Boston could become the destination franchise for free agents that it has never been.
If the Celtics cannot get something done with Love, they may have no choice other than hitting the self-destruct button.
Rondo would likely be the first to go, and it would take a brilliant sales job for Ainge to get anything better than a pennies-on-the-dollar return. Rondo's trade value still shows the scars left by the torn ACL he suffered in early 2013, and his expiring contract won't make it easy for them to heal quickly.
A healthy Rondo is easily Ainge's best trade chip, but a healthy Rondo is a player worth keeping around. If he leaves, the Celtics would be facing a long road back to relevance.
That mountain of draft picks should help, but Ainge needs to use them on the right player, and the franchise needs to properly develop those prospects. Outside of their own selections, the Celtics won't likely have a top-tier pick until 2016, and that would require the Brooklyn Nets to bottom out before then.
Boston is set up to have some financial flexibility next summer, but free agents who haven't been drawn to the Celtics before won't start flocking to join a Rondo-less core of unproven commodities.
A lengthy rebuild could be hard to avoid, but if there's a way to do it, it's swinging a blockbuster deal for Love.
Until Ainge has completely exhausted this possibility, or Love gets officially taken off the market, the Celtics have every reason to stay in this chase. The worst that can happen is Boston coming up empty; the best is the type of immediate boost that can spring a franchise out of a rebuild.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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