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Wednesday, 09 July 2014 23:45

NBA Offseason Musical Chairs

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Will Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics have a seat when the music stops?

The NBA offseason version of musical chairs is in full frenzy.  The music started at the stroke of midnight on July 1st.  At its best, the melody is woven of legitimate inside information expertly played by maestros of the NBA media like Adrian Wojnarowski, Mark Stein, and David Aldridge.   Most often, it is a din of questionable rumor and baseless speculation resembling the pointless meanderings of a Jam band.  The cacophony is completed by the occasional off-note of a false scoop served up by a fake twitter account like the one earlier this week that had Celtics fans thinking that the team had a deal in place for Lance Stephenson.

The stops in the music and the ensuing scramble for seats begin tomorrow when deals can be officially signed.  While there are a few deals seemingly in place, landing lesser lights like Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat in lower-rent locales like Orlando and Washington, the choice seats, in the form of Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh are still up for grabs.  Once we know which squads are securing those stars, a slew of other dominoes will also soon fall; Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, Greg Monroe, Lance Stephenson, etc.

The Boston Celtics are on the outside looking in when it comes to the Free Agent market.  GM Danny Ainge has little to no cap room to work with this offseason but the comings and goings across the league are already having an impact on Causeway Street.

The Celtics completed a three-way deal today; helping the Cleveland Cavaliers free up the cap room necessary to make a max offer to Lebron James by taking on the contract of Marcus Thornton from the Brooklyn Nets.  Not only does the move potentially hasten the demise of the Miami Heat, the Celtics picked up another future first round pick to add the their trove, along with a young big man in Tyler Zeller, for their trouble.

The deal further positions Danny Ainge as the one-stop shop for teams looking to acquire young, cheap future assets.  The Celtics possess 8, possibly 9 first-round draft picks over the next 4 years (as well as a potentially valuable pick swap with Brooklyn in 2017).  In addition to picks, the Celtics can offer Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and James Young as young, cheap players with varying degrees of upside, as well as significant financial flexibility in the form of the expiring or non-guaranteed deals of Thornton, Brandon Bass, and Keith Bogans, and two veteran wild-cards in Avery Bradley and Jeff Green who could prove to be intriguing to certain teams.

The presumed prize is, of course, Kevin Love the erstwhile Timberwolf.  Unfortunately, Danny Ainge’s Pu Pu platter of assets hasn’t yet whet the appetite of Minnesota President Flip Saunders.  Increasingly, the play seems to be for Ainge to flip (no pun intended) some of these assets for a more established talent to center a deal that better suits Minnesota’s needs around.  This opportunities to execute this type of maneuver become a lot clearer once the market logjam created by James, Anthony and Bosh has been cleared and that appears to be imminent.

It is still anyone’s guess as to whether Saunders is ultimately willing to pull the trigger on a deal that sends away his best player (and probably the second-best in franchise history) and puts his job on the line.  If there is no deal to be made that lands Love in Boston, the big question is what is Plan B for the Celtics.

The working assumption for many of the local and national media, and among a significant segment of Celtics Nation, is that the only available alternative is a full rebuild spearheaded by a deal that sends Rajon Rondo packing.  The thought process goes; if you can’t bring in Love to complement Rondo, he will assuredly leave the Celtics when his contract expires next offseason so you might as well get what you can for him now.

The logic seems sound on the surface, but is needlessly and superficially binary.  First, while Kevin Love is the most visible name on the market, it is entirely possible that other impact players might become available once the free agent market becomes clarified and the teams that miss out on their targets have to reassess their plans.

Second, while the risk of losing Rondo to free agency goes up significantly when the 2015 offseason commences so do the Celtics chances of landing another impact player through free agency.  If the Celtics stay relatively pat the rest of this offseason, Ainge will be flush with available cap room next offseason to resign Rondo and bring in another max-level free agent such as, there’s that name again, Kevin Love.

Finally, the calculus behind the “trade Rondo and rebuild” argument significantly overstates the risk of Rondo hitting the free agent market in several ways.  It is true he hasn’t signed an extension and that increases the risk, but the reality is, under the current CBA, it behooves both Rondo and the Celtics to wait, let him become a free agent, and then resign him next offseason.

If Rondo extends his deal, he’s only eligible for a maximum of 4 years on the next deal versus 5 years if the current deal expires before resigning.  For the Celtics, waiting to resign him creates greater flexibility next offeason.

The risk of Rondo leaving is also overstated in the sense that, dealing him away fundamentally means that the team is committing to a longer rebuild of 3-4 years minimum.  Given the number of future picks and young players they already have on the roster, how much incremental value is there really in another pick or a young player that has yet to establish himself like Ben McLemore?

It seems inconsistent to be willing to commit to a multi-year rebuilding process by trading away your one chance at attracting an impact player to Boston but yet not willing to roll the dice on another transitional season that affords the opportunity to fast track the rebuild by bringing in another star.

In the end, we can’t know WHAT Danny Ainge is thinking,, but we can be certain that he IS thinking.  If there is anything to be learned from the incessant chatter of the NBA rumor mill, it’s that Ainge and the Celtics are tirelessly examining the marketplace and pursuing opportunities to restore the franchise to contention as soon as is possible.

Over the next few days, we will see whether any viable opportunities materialize.  Even if they don’t, it is entirely likely that the Celtics will continue to let this saga play out into next offseason. 

Rich Conte

Rich Conte has been passionately following the Boston Celtics and the NBA for almost 40 years.  That interest began with the classic Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Final, blossomed during the original Big Three era, and persisted through the lean years of the 90s and the "Thanksdad" Gaston era.  Rich has been blogging and podcasting through CLNS Radio for the past two years  and also hosts a technology podcast; The Tech Life on the Beats and Eats network.  You can follow him on Twitter @richconte and find him as a frequent contributor to the Celtics Beat Podcast discussion group on Facebook.