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The Calculus of the Celtics' Near-Detonation at the Trade Deadline

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterApril 18, 2012

Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Danny Ainge's willingness to trade just about any member of his roster has functioned as trade-rumor undercurrent for the better part of this season, but today, courtesy of Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, we finally catch wind of what may have nearly transpired with the Celtics at this year's trade deadline.

As the NBA trade deadline lurched into its final hour a month ago, league sources say the call Ray Allen long feared had come: Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was on the line, telling him he had been traded. Allen had been sent to the Memphis Grizzlies for a package including O.J. Mayo and a draft pick, and the Celtics' Big Three had come to a most brusque ending.For 20 minutes or so, Allen had to process the information. They traded me to Memphis? And yet, as the disappointment dissolved to anger, Rivers returned with a messenger’s nightmare: Never mind. The deal fell apart. Take a deep breath and let’s go back to work again.

Before the Big Three could make it past the trade deadline, Allen-to-the-Grizzlies had to fall apart and discussions on a deal that would have sent Paul Pierce to the New Jersey Nets for an expiring Mehmet Okur contract and a lottery pick never reached completion, league sources said. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge loves the talent in the 2012 NBA draft, but he still gets one more run, one more chance with this group in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Realistically, these Celtics -- even with their completely asphyxiating defense -- don't have more than a puncher's chance of even making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They have the D and the theoretical offensive pieces, but their scoring has been woeful over the course of the entire season (Boston ranks 24th in offensive efficiency) and even worse over their last 20 games (per NBA.com, the Celtics have been the 26th ranked offensive team in that stretch). The disinterest in offensive rebounding (as a concession for defensive purposes), problematic turnovers, and lack of free throw attempts have finally caught up with them; the defense in Boston is great, but no defense is great enough to consistently overcome that level of offensive deficit against elite competition.

So what Ainge has essentially bought with his trade deadline balking is not a legitimate contending run, but a chance at a proper conclusion, somewhat futile though it may be. Boston will take one more swing before they begin to retool (Allen and Kevin Garnett will both be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season), and try as they can to throw a wrench into the plans of the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

But this particular course by Ainge doubles as an interesting launch pad for theoretical debate; with an understanding that the Celtics are a long shot at best to contend for the Eastern Conference crown (much less the Larry O'Brien trophy), is there value in retaining this core for the sake of, among other things, an appropriately climactic finish?

Or, by extension: How does the opportunity cost of gunning for a title this season stack up against allowing this era of Celtics basketball to draw to a more natural close? And, if a rebuild is something of an inevitability, how does retaining Pierce (at the reported cost of a lottery pick, which would be assumed to be New Jersey's) and Allen (who could have netted a younger piece and a future pick) serve to bridge the gap between constructive stages? We can look at salary cap implications and talent ingress vs. egress, but ultimately general managers and owners in professional sports are expected to weigh elements that exist on completely different terms to one another. The tools of contention and of rebuilding are weighed in highly different and nearly incompatible scales; they're all just basketball players with contracts and draft picks tagged with promises of future assets, but the difference in framework between a rebuilding club and a competing one make precision and accuracy in this kind of valuation almost impossible.

Put simply: As challenging enough as it is to know when to rebuild, teams on that cusp are also left to weigh their assets against those of a completely different type without any real means of evaluative translation.

All Ainge could do is go by whatever internal calculus made the most intuitive sense, and invest in the notion that while stealing a title is the goal, it isn't the only payoff. It's possible to invest heavily in winning while still taking away value in every stage of the process -- be it a step toward renewed contention or the muted finale of a winning core.

The choices made at this year's deadline may ultimately come to make a a profound difference on the trajectory of the Celtics organization, but contrary to any second-guessing that may occur, there's no "right" choice when it comes to a self-wired detonation. There's merely an inexact science of best-guessing, and regardless of what developments may come, no NBA decision-maker (or fan who fancies himself clever enough to be one) is blessed with the full foresight of knowing when and how to disassemble a juggernaut.

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