Why Early Playoff Exit Would Be Blessing in Disguise for Boston Celtics

Mike WalshCorrespondent IApril 5, 2013

Will Doc stick around if Danny goes into rebuilding mode?
Will Doc stick around if Danny goes into rebuilding mode?Elsa/Getty Images

Remember that "three-year plan" that the Boston Celtics claimed they were enacting when they brought together Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce and chase championships?

Everyone, the organization included, gave them a three-year window with which to win with that core and then move on. 

That was in the summer of 2007 that those words were spoken. Now, approaching a summer six years later, maybe not enough has changed. The three-year plan became a four-year plan and a five-year plan. Then Ray Allen finally called it quits in Boston, but Kevin Garnett re-upped with the team, and they replaced Allen with similar investments.

Thus, here we are in year six of a three-year plan.

If everything goes as planned, and the Celtics advance a round or two in the postseason, next year will be year seven. Danny Ainge has constructed a roster with little to no flexibility in the short term. Should Pierce remain with the team ($15.3 million partially guaranteed), the only meaningful active player coming off the books would be Chris Wilcox, who makes south of a million dollars.

Right now, the Celtics sit in the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference, which would set them up with an opening-round date against the No. 2 New York Knicks—the same team that pasted the Celtics by 15 and 19 in two games during the final week of March. It has become abundantly clear that, until the team is at least moderately healthy, Boston does not stand a chance against the East's top competition. 

Because of the Milwaukee Bucks' similar ineptitude of late, it is increasingly doubtful that the Celtics will slip into the No. 8 spot and meet the No. 1 Miami Heat in the opening round. They hold a 2.5-game lead over the Bucks with seven to play. Likewise, the Celtics' chances of hopping up 2.5 games to get in front of the No. 6 Atlanta Hawks are slim. 

Barring something extravagant, the Celtics are staring at an opening-round series against either the Knicks or Indiana Pacers, who are within a half game of one another. Boston meets Indiana for its final home game of the regular season on April 16. The Celtics would not have home-court advantage in either playoff series. 

That poses a major problem for the Celtics, who have been dominant at the TD Garden, going 26-11 this year. Their 13-25 road record, however, is worse than any other other current playoff team in the Eastern or Western Conference.

That level of road instability could be disastrous early on for the Celtics. The team got considerably lucky in receiving home-court advantage in the second round last season, after the No. 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers upset the No. 1 Chicago Bulls. Such luck probably won't be the case this year, even if there is an upset. 

So when the inevitable happens, and the Celtics are unable to continue advancing, whether it be from too many road games, injuries, or just being bereft of enough talent, Danny Ainge will enter yet another summer of big decisions. The same decisions he has been postponing for years.

An early exit in the postseason could put the necessary added pressure on Ainge to really do something. Another deep run will only leave the feeling of holding out for another year, with a healthy Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. Paying Pierce and Garnett next year would be easy for him to justify in that case.

However, Ainge has been side-stepping the inevitable for years now. The Celtics continue digging themselves into a deeper and deeper post-"Big Three" hole. Depending on how you feel about the trending-up Jeff Green, how many good moves has Ainge made over the past few years?

The argument can be made that Sullinger was a steal in the draft, but he wound up with an injured back, which was the exact text written on his red flag. Both Courtney Lee and Jason Terry have been disappointments. He may have over paid for Brandon Bass and Green, while letting Ray Allen walk away with plenty left in the tank.

Ainge has been making all these moves with the safety net of Pierce and Garnett, and the recent reputation of repeated postseason runs. He made his best moves from a much more desperate position.

Coming off a 24-58 season, he flipped assets for Garnett and a No. 5 pick for Allen, while grabbing Glen Davis in the second round of the 2007 NBA draft. He found Rondo with the No. 21 overall pick the year before and Avery Bradley at No. 19 in 2010.

Ainge can be a very good decision-maker, but in a way he has been held hostage by the Celtics' continued success. He's dealt with dueling thoughts on what he wants to do and what he's been pressured to do with the team.

An early loss this year could finally push one side of thinking in front of the other. With an eye on the future and the 2013 and 2014 free-agent classes, Ainge could finally make some moves for the future.

Instead of signing the likes of Terry and Jason Collins to be fillers, he can focus on signing and developing youth. He'll have a draft pick in the teens to work with this summer and can rebuild from there.

A major concern with taking that avenue is Doc Rivers' contract. The Celtics head coach inked a five-year extension prior to the 2011-12 season, but it is unclear if he wants to be a part of a rebuilding process after so much success. It isn't like he doesn't have other opportunities waiting for him outside of coaching either.

Still, with Rondo and Green, this team is formidable no matter what. The difference between focusing on next year versus the next few years will stem from what happens in the 2013 playoffs.

Danny Ainge and all of Celtics Nation have to be ready to start a new three-year plan.