Should the Boston Celtics trade Paul Pierce, one of the five best players in their franchise's history, now that their chances of winning a title in 2013 are effectively defunct? Could they possibly hold off on pulling the trigger, transcending business, money and long-term fortune for the sake of allowing a first-ballot Hall of Famer to retire with the team that drafted him?
It's an interesting, difficult question. And in the three weeks ahead, we'll get Danny Ainge's opinion on what the answer should be.
When the Boston Celtics turned themselves into a juggernaut by acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, they did so with a plethora of young talent and draft picks. At the time, they were a really, really bad team. Winners of 24 games, hopeful watchers of ping pong balls powerful enough to grant them either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the NBA draft lottery.
Today's team, and today's situation, is absolutely nothing like that. Boston has no draft picks of worth, and no young assets capable of blossoming into possible cornerstone talents.
To get Allen, Boston dealt the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. To get Garnett, the C's worked an eight-player deal around Al Jefferson, a center talented enough to have a playoff-caliber team's offense revolve around his play in the post.
The Celtics simply don't have those pieces that opposing teams covet (neither Avery Bradley nor Jared Sullinger have Jefferson's ceiling, and no team is going to give up a proven franchise star for either, or both).
Unless a team is sitting on the cusp of title contention and feels Pierce could push them over the top (Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers to name a few), they are not going to give up much in exchange for a 35-year-old forward on the decline who's shooting 41.9 percent from the floor.
Boston's expectations in 2008 weren't to win a championship so much as they were aimed at reclaiming relevance. Relevance was achieved, and annual expectations soared to unrealistic heights. All that mattered coming into the season was raising an 18th banner, but getting to that level now is basically impossible with Rajon Rondo out of the lineup.
Apart from dealing Pierce, the Celtics have two basic options: They could rehabilitate the point guard position with a player like Eric Maynor, Darren Collison or Rodney Stuckey, stubbornly propping up their window of title contention with a twig.
Or they could do absolutely nothing, toil with a point guard-by-committee experiment and continue to run their half-court offense through Pierce and Garnett, with Doc Rivers orchestrating an adjusted system behind it all.
Neither will likely result in an NBA championship.
According to ShamSports, Pierce's contract will likely be $5 million next season because he's played in over 50 percent of Boston's games in the preceding three seasons. The contract then escalates to a fully guaranteed $15.3 million if he isn't waived before June 30, 2013.
If Pierce is serious about retiring as a Celtic, as he's said time and time again, then he has to realize that the best thing for him to do is to hang it up at the end of this season, before Boston's management is faced with the difficult decision of dealing him in the offseason (and don't doubt they won't before overpaying him $15.3 million).
The Celtics aren't winning a title this season. And with Pierce and Garnett another year older and clogging up $27.7 million of cap space next season, they wouldn't be any closer then either.
Should a player like Harrison Barnes, Terrence Ross, Derrick Favors or Eric Bledsoe—or a sure-fire lottery pick—return to Boston in exchange for Pierce, then sure, go ahead, pull the trigger. But such scenarios range from unlikely to virtually impossible (Rudy Gay, no thank you).
Keeping Pierce and allowing him to go out on his own terms would be a wonderful story, one that he undoubtedly deserves. But if a deal including a can't-miss prospect/high lottery pick is placed on Ainge's desk, it wouldn't make any sense to pass it up. Either way, this team's expectations have been drastically softened.