The Boston Celtics used to be known for contending for championships. Now they're more known for prolonging the inevitable.
There's something about the Celtics that appeals to the emotional side of basketball. Even those who despise Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and everybody else in green have a conditioned respect for them. The entire NBA knows never to count them out.
Over time, however, it's become clear that their resiliency will only carry them so far. After six seasons of selling a similar blueprint, the time to move on has finally come.
These current Celtics are a respectable bunch, specifically Pierce and Garnett. They've carried the team to a championship and toiled with winning another one for more than half a decade. They've also brought the organization as far as they can take them.
Boston's demise has been expected for quite some time. For the better part of three years, we've watched and waited for the Celtics' day of reckoning. They were operating on borrowed time and would eventually be forced to pursue a future that didn't include their most beloved of fixtures.
Last summer had the makings of that pursuit's inception. Ray Allen and Garnett were free agents. The ties could have been severed so cleanly. Boston could have rode off into the future without looking back.
But the Celtics couldn't. Not after the playoffs. They came within one victory of a third NBA Finals appearance in the past five years. They couldn't just throw all that away. And they didn't. Rather, they tried not to.
Garnett signed on for another three years and the Celtics made an aggressive pitch to Ray-Ray. Allen inevitably spurned Beantown for the comfort South Beach, fleeing the city that made him a champion and ruining whatever relationship he had with Garnett.
Boston isn't one to purposely wallow in its sadness, though. The Celtics quickly went with Plan B, which was signing Jason Terry and acquiring Courtney Lee from the Houston Rockets. Those two would be enough to fill the gaping hole that Allen created.
Led by a new, improved and supposedly self-aware Rajon Rondo, these Celtics were once again contenders. Should they make a title push in 2013, it wouldn't be a surprise. They were supposed to win, because they were still built to win.
Or so they thought.
One season-ending injury to Rondo (and rookie Jared Sullinger) coupled with a slew of other abrasions and underwhelming campaigns from Lee and Terry later, the Celtics were 41-40. It was Boston's worst season (in terms of winning percentage) since it traded for Garnett in 2007.
The Celtics proceeded to limp their way into the playoffs as the seventh seed. Their place in the bracket didn't matter, though. They were built for just this—the postseason
Soon enough, however, it became clear there was no magic potion that would correct Boston's cosmetic woes. Garnett continued to battle injuries while Pierce attempted to stave off inconsistency against the New York Knicks. And then, we blinked. The Celtics were down 3-0 and faced a first-round sweep.
They fought like hell as only the Celtics could, though. They rattled off two straight victories before falling at home in Game 6. It was the first time Boston hadn't advanced past the first round since Garnett came to town, the reality of which was painful.
It wasn't just that the Celtics had lost, it was that they once again had to face the prospect of an uncertain offseason. Both Garnett and Pierce were under contract but a battery of questions remained unanswered.
Would Garnett retire? Would Pierce be traded or released? Would the Celtics finally blow things up?
After the season they had, it would only make sense for the Celtics to start fresh. Only $5 million of Pierce's $15.3 million contract was guaranteed, Garnett could likely be sold on retirement if Pierce left and both still held enough market value to be traded.
A complete overhaul would be more difficult than last summer, but it was still possible. But that didn't make it likely.
General manager Danny Ainge—whose greatest fear has always been holding onto Boston's core for too long—seems to believe that both players, along with Doc Rivers, will be back with the Celtics next season (via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com):
Making his final weekly appearance of the 2012-13 season on Boston sports radio WEEI, Ainge said he is giving both Rivers and Garnett space to make decisions about their futures, but has no reason to believe that, with both under contract with the team next season, they won't return.
"Doc is always unsure [about his future]," Ainge said. "Coaching is very, very draining. Every year with Doc, he's had to go home and sort of recharge and ask himself that question, 'Is this something that I'm passionate about and want to continue doing?' I understand that. And we sorta give him time to unwind and relax, and after a couple of 92s on the golf course, he usually comes back."
Rivers isn't a component the Celtics need to move on from. He may not want to be a part of a rebuilding project, but his future has really only come into question after ESPN's Stephen A. Smith reported that he would wind up with the Los Angeles Clippers—along with Garnett and Pierce.
Whether there be truth to that rumor or not (go with not), Rivers isn't the issue. Garnett and Pierce are. They've done so much for the franchise, but the Celtics can't contend with them as their primary pillars or with them eating up so much cap space ($27 million in 2013--14). This season showed us that much.
Although we'd like to envision a dominant Boston outfit with a healthy Rondo leading into next season, it's unrealistic. Not only will Garnett and Pierce be even older, but the Celtics were 20-23 when their point man went down. They actually fared better without him (21-17), and even that wasn't good enough to contend. And it won't be good enough next season.
So long as a majority of the Celtics' hopes are resting upon the shoulders of Pierce and Garnett, this franchise isn't going to play at a dominant level. There will always be injuries and declines in productions. There will always be something.
Which means it's time to move on. The Celtics can't improve the future outlook of their team unless they commit to moving on. And they can't move on with Garnett and Pierce. This begins with them, just as their championship aspirations ended with them these past six years.
Ainge knows this; he understands it. He always has (via Forsberg):
Ainge admitted the first decision as far as team personnel likely will start with Pierce, who is set to enter the final year of a deal scheduled to pay him $15.3 million for the 2013-14 season. Only $5 million is guaranteed in the deal, and the Celtics have their amnesty clause in play if they wanted to move on without Pierce.
Ainge was asked about what goes into deciding Pierce's future in Boston.
"Conversation with my coach, conversation with Paul and his representatives," Ainge told WEEI. "Opportunities that may present themselves. There's a lot that will go into it, but it hasn't even started yet, we have until June 30 to make any decision.
Cutting all ties won't be easy (emotionally). Again, both have done so much for the city of Boston, Pierce especially. He's spent all 15 of his seasons with the Celtics. Parting ways with him will border on tormenting.
But it has to be done. Boston has fielded the same nucleus for a the better part of a decade, and it's been great. They've won. They've contended. They've had a title-worthy purpose.
Now, as the sun sets on another season, the Celtics are left to lumber through the remnants of another failed season. Because that's what this year was—a failure. They were (supposedly) built for a championship run, not an early playoff exit.
There is no shame to be found in that failure, though. The Celtics saw something in themselves last season; we all did. Given how much they had already invested in Garnett and Pierce, extending the team's shelf life was something that was easy to justify.
The real shame would be not realizing that all they've done is manage prolong the inexorable.
"We love what he's [Paul] done for us, but ultimately we have to do what we think is the best for us from this point forward," Ainge said.
What's best for the Celtics now is finding a way to move on, no matter what it entails and no matter how complicated it may be. This was never going to be painless, after all.
Abandoning the past en route to the future never is.