Without getting into a meaningless argument over when exactly it all fell apart, it's now safe to say the Boston Celtics' Big Three era has officially ended.
Whether you think Ray Allen signing with the Miami Heat, Rajon Rondo tearing his ACL, or even LeBron James' historic Game 6 Eastern Conference Finals performance at TD Garden was the straw that broke this rugged camel's back, ultimately all that matters is that this team is no longer a legitimate title contender for the first time in six years.
With serious roster turnover expected/needed in the near future, the decisions Celtics general manager Danny Ainge makes this summer should have a prolonged long term impact on the most successful franchise in NBA history.
Taking a look at Boston's roster, there are three figures who stand out above the rest: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Various contract stipulations, fluctuating trade value and inevitable retirement will all play a major role in figuring out what the Celtics will look like next season.
Let's start with Pierce, the soon-to-be 36-year-old who recently failed to make the All-Star game for just the fifth time in his 14 year career, is playing with a pinched nerve in his neck and putting together one of the least efficient shooting stretches we've seen from him in a while.
Every word that was just used to describe Pierce is negative but true. What's also true is his current usage percentage sitting roughly at his career average, meaning Pierce is still a heavy part of Boston's offense (as poor as it might be).
He's still regularly putting pressure on opposing teams with drives and transition three-pointers, and he's still the team's primary weapon towards the end of quarters and close games. Defensively Pierce is reliable, smart and entirely understanding of Boston's dominant system. He remains one of the most underrated players on this end of the floor in the league, despite his age.
What makes this tricky is his price tag. According to ShamSports, if the Celtics don't waive Pierce by June 30, they'll be forced to pay him the full $15.3 million of his contract, as opposed to $5 million partially guaranteed if they choose to cut ties.
The options, then, go like this: waive him, trade him, keep him or watch him retire. Simply parting ways with Pierce seems unlikely, despite his steep salary. He's still a positive contributor and arguably one of the 30 best players in the game who'd then be operating on an expiring contract with a steadily improving Jeff Green waiting close behind. His value on the open market wasn't all that great at the trade deadline, and there's no reason to believe it'll improve over the summer, so a trade just doesn't seem plausible.
If he retires, well, that's money Boston doesn't have to pay, but it's not enough to meaningfully take them below the salary cap.
Garnett's situation is similar to Pierce's in many ways. Both are aging veterans who're still playing at a high level, and both could say enough is enough and hang up their sneakers for good once the season ends.
Garnett is guaranteed $12.4 million next year, which is more than fair given his overall impact on the organization and his standing as one of the best defensive players in the league. He still has that no-trade clause in his contract, though, so the likelihood of him getting dealt is beyond slim. If he wants play another year the Celtics should be more than thrilled to have him (especially if Fab Melo is ready to play meaningful NBA minutes or Greg Oden decides Boston is the team for him).
Should Garnett and Pierce both retire, the Celtics would find themselves beneath the league's minimum salary cap figure and far out of luxury tax territory. But it's unlikely they'd seek out any more long term deals in free agency despite their sudden increase in money to spend given the multiple questions that'd still cast a long shadow.
Which brings us to the most important player in the Celtics organization, Rajon Rondo, who's owed $24.8 million over the next two years. Given his ceiling as one of the 10 best players in the sport, the contract is as team friendly as any in the league. But once it expires he'll be 30 years old.
And given a variety of factors including skill set and body type, he could still be playing at an All-Star level at that age. But is it worth extending a five-year maximum contract? Probably not. And that's the question Boston needs to ask themselves as they gauge if it'd be smarter to deal Rondo during his prime and place the burden of his third contract on another team.
It makes little sense to trade him this offseason, given the uncertainty that all teams have with how he recovers from a torn ACL, but delicately measuring his value and then moving him for a haul of younger talents and draft picks might end up being the wisest move, even if Pierce and Garnett don't retire until the summer of 2014.
There are no right answers regarding Boston's future right now, but whatever happens with Garnett, Pierce and Rondo in the near future will assuredly have long term effects.
There are other players, of course, but none are good enough to hold meaningful trade value on the current market. (If J.J. Redick wasn't worth a first round pick on his expiring contract at last month's trade deadline, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry and Jeff Green have no chance bringing that back over the summer, with each of them owed guaranteed money through 2015.)
In the end, it'll all come down to whatever Danny Ainge decides to do with Rajon Rondo. And right now nobody knows the answer to that question.
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