The Boston Celtics will take on the Miami Heat this Sunday, the first game in the much anticipated Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
All season long, the mantra of the team has been: "it's all about 18." An 18th championship would not only be the most by any NBA organization, but it would solidify the careers of Boston's big three—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
If they were to win their second title in just four seasons, their place among the NBA's upper echelon would be reserved. A second ring might as well just come with a ticket to Springfield.
But what if they don't win it all? Where do the Celtics go from there? The Celtics have put all their eggs in one basket, and they're banking on winning a title this year.
But if they don't, could trading one of the big three help the team down the line?
Dan is a Boston Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.
Ray Allen is "money" in more than one way.
The NBA's CBA expires after the season is over, and the league could be on the verge of a strike.
One of the main sticking points in the debate is the owners' desire to increase their cut of the profit sharing in the league, while simultaneously setting a hard salary cap for future seasons.
The NBA currently operates on a "soft" salary cap. Essentially, teams are allowed to spend over the salary cap; all they have to do is pay a luxury tax.
A hard cap would set a specific payroll limit, and teams would not be able to spend over that limit.
So how does this impact the big three?
The C's currently have roughly $58 million in salary commitments next year, assuming they retain Jeff Green and neither O'Neals come back for their second season. Kevin Garnett ($21,247,044), Paul Pierce ($15,334,334) and Ray Allen ($10,000,000 player option), makeup nearly 80 percent of those salary commitments.
Depending on if the league sets a hard cap/how high it is, the Celtics might not have much room to add a high impact free agent. If the team isn't good enough to win an NBA title this year, they probably won't be next year unless they can add some key pieces.
Trading one of the big three would allow the team the financial flexibility to bring in another high impact player and some key surrounding pieces.
Ray Allen set career highs from the field (49 percent) and from three (44 percent) this year, while Paul Pierce also shot a career best from the field (50 percent) and posted his highest PER (19.7) of the big three era.
Kevin Garnett is healthy again, and he's rebounding on a similar clip (8.9 RPG) to his '07-'08 mark (9.2 RPG). His defensive rating (95.0) and his defensive win shares (5.6) are both second in the NBA, behind only Dwight Howard in both instances.
The big three might be old, but they aren't playing like it. In my opinion, this has been the finest year of basketball for the big three.
Ray Allen (35) is still the best sniper in the game, and he looks like he could play until he's 40.
Paul Pierce (33) has put forth an unbelievably consistent season. He's maintained a fare share of that trademark explosiveness, while turning himself into one of the craftiest and most diverse scorers in the game today.
While KG (34) might not have that same lift around the basket, he's still a defensive stalwart and one of the better offensive big men in the league.
The big three have proven that age ain't nuthin' but a number.
While the Celtics have been one of the best teams in the league over the last four seasons, they haven't focused much time on developing young players, and understandably so. Young teams rarely win NBA championships.
But there will come a day when the big three retire, and the Celtics will need to rebuild. I doubt that the Celtics want to go another 22 years in between championships, but if they neglect drafting and developing young talent, it could be awhile until another banner is hoisted in Boston.
The Celtics have done a nice job bringing Rajon Rondo along, and Jeff Green (24) could develop into a very good NBA player. But the C's have harvested almost no talent from the NBA draft in recent years, partly because there just isn't any room for rookies to play on the team.
Trading away a member of the big three would change that.
Doc Rivers' future in Boston has been and will remain decidedly iffy. It's not that he doesn't love coaching here, but he loves his family more.
Rivers has four children—including Austin Rivers, the top high school hoops recruit in the country—and a wife who resides in Orlando, Florida. Leaving his family to coach for yet another season weighed on him heavily last offseason, but he ultimately ended up returning for another run.
It's doubtful that Doc jumps ship for another team, but the prospect of him retiring to spend time with his family is very real.
Keeping the big three intact could ultimately help keep Rivers in the fold long term. For Rivers, a sweeter coaching opportunity will never arise again: he has a GM in Danny Ainge who sees along the same lines and who he works well with, and he's unanimously adored by Celtics fans. He has the utmost respect from his squad and he knows exactly how to get the best out of them.
He also happens to be one of the best developers of talent in the league (see: Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Delonte West, Tracy McGrady...). There's really no one better in the league for rebuilding a team or readjusting young talent around aging veterans than Doc.
Kevin Garnett has logged a lot of minutes over his illustrious 16 year career: 47,806 combined regular season/playoff minutes to be exact.
Obviously, there's a concern that Kevin Garnett could completely self-destruct if he reinjures his knee. Depending on a core of aging players obviously isn't the best way to go about maintaining long-term success.
Trading one of the big three for some younger, newer faces would limit the damage in the event that KG's level of production severely dips due to injury or age.
This year, 35 year old Tim Duncan averaged the fewest minutes of any one of his 14 NBA seasons. The Spurs recognized that he was getting old, and that they couldn't count on him for 30+ minutes a night.
By playing Duncan fewer minutes, Greg Popovich was able to maintain high quality production from Duncan while keeping him healthy. In turn, role players like Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner, George Hill, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair were given a greater role. They responded, turning in great seasons.
The Spurs ended the season with the best record in the Western Conference (61-21), despite many fans thinking they were too old to seriously compete.
The 2010-11 Spurs are a prime example of how a team can stay productive by developing a solid core around a group of veterans. If the C's can develop a strong supporting cast for the big three, they won't have to count on them—and KG especially—for as many minutes.
This is just a great photo
If the Celtics don't win a title this year, it will be because they weren't good enough. There are no injuries to their core group of players to blame.
Trading a member of the big three could potentially fetch quite a lot of talent, and potentially some cap space to work with.
Rather than seeing the same dynamic team again next year, the C's could reenergize their squad by adding some new faces and new skillsets. Rarely do you see aging teams with the exact same makeup improve from one year to the next.
Just think about it. What if the Celtics moved Garnett, Allen or Pierce?
The Kendrick Perkins trade sent enough shockwaves around the league. Imagine how a trade of this magnitude would affect the camaraderie of the remaining players.
Paul Pierce—the Captain and "the Truth"—has been the face of the franchise for over a decade. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett have come to embody what it means to truly bleed green.
A change to this identity could send the team in a tailspin that they can't recover from.
Pulling off a large trade might hinder short-term playoff hopes; the same energy that's been there for the last four seasons might not be quite as high for the remaining "big two."
There seem to be two schools of thought on Rondo:
He's a role player who is benefiting from the talent around him, or he's one of the best point guards in the NBA.
If you're like me, you fall in the latter category.
Rondo often gets criticized for his lack of a jumper. Also, while he's deadly around the rim at some points, he's tentative and unwilling to penetrate at others.
But Rondo's job on this team isn't to take the most shots every night. While he should be willing to attack to the rim and to shoot if that's what the defense gives him, his primary role is to keep the big three happily in rhythm (which he does pretty well). His responsibility for running such an unselfish and balanced offense is one of the most difficult, complex and laborious tasks in the NBA.
'Jon has a lot of mouths to feed, and I think this can mess with his aggressiveness at times. Instead of playing with the reckless abandon that he shows us most of the time, he's content with sitting back and "calling a game," which is basketball speak for letting the three Hall of Famers do there thing.
Rondo is at his best when he is creating for others and running an offense, but only when that offense involves him to a certain degree.
Trading a member of the big three will give Rondo more freedom to look for his own offensive game. The more he shoots, the more his confidence will rise, and the rhythm of his game will be better for it.
Kevin Garnett is due one of the highest salaries ($21,247,044) in the league next year. While he may take a pay cut in his next contract, he remains one of the most expensive players in the league.
KG's expensiveness, his health history, and his free agency status (not under contract for 2012-13 season) make him incredibly hard to trade. Not to mention that replacing his defensive tenacity and leadership will be impossible.
Paul Pierce recently signed a three year contract extension that will pay him over $45 million through the 2013-14 season. Not only will his large contract be hard to move, but his sentimental value to the city of Boston is just agonizingly high. He's the captain, and the longest tenured member of the team. He weathered the storm and stuck around just long enough to be considered one of the greatest Celtics ever.
Ray Allen would be the likeliest of the big three to move. His expiring contract (up after next season) would be attractive to almost any team, and his smooth style of play would fit into pretty much every offense.
As previously noted, Ray Allen would be the easiest/most likely member of the big three to get traded. But honestly, why would the Celtics move "Sugar Ray" when he comes with the smallest injury risk and the cheapest contract?
It seems more likely that the Celtics resign Kevin Garnett when he becomes a free agent after next season. He won't be as expensive, and the Celtics will have enough cash to bring in another high impact player.
We'll likely start to see the minutes of the big three go down every year (ideally) but that doesn't mean they can't be productive. All three were All-Stars this season when the youngest among them (Pierce) is sitting at a ripe old age of 33.
I'm less worried about the state of the big three and more worried about the players the Celtics surround them with. We all knew the big three would get old eventually; it's up to Rivers and Ainge to find the right group of guys to surround them with.