We've all known that this day was going to come. We just didn't know when. But now that the 2012 season is over, and Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett stand to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 (as does two-thirds of the Boston Celtics' team), the guessing game can begin in earnest.
This much we do know. When all the Celtics' free-agent contracts come off the books, general manager Danny Ainge is going to be sitting on a pile of cash. Just how much he'll be able to spend won't be known until the new salary cap is announced (it was $58.044 million this season). We also know that only four members of the team -- Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and JaJuan Johnson -- have guaranteed deals for next season. Those four deals amount to about $30 million (E'Twaun Moore and Sean Williams have non-guaranteed deals). You can add another $2 million for the two first-round picks and another $4.25 million if Brandon Bass accepts his player option for 2012-13.
So Ainge could be looking at about $25 million of free-agency loot. There isn't a whole lot to distinguish the Class of 2012 free agents once you get beyond Deron Williams. There are a few interesting restricted free agents, topped by New Orleans' Eric Gordon and Memphis' O.J. Mayo.
Where it gets a little tricky is how Ainge decides to disperse his motherlode. If he chooses to spend most or all of it on other teams' free agents, then that would pretty much eliminate any chance of either Garnett or Allen coming back. The only available salary exception would start at $2.5 million a year, which might work for someone such as Mickael Pietrus.
Could some of the $25 million go to Garnett or Allen? Sure it could. Did you see KG and Doc Rivers at the end of the game Saturday night?
I have no insight into what Garnett may be thinking, but my guess is that if he does play next season, it's going to be in Boston. He's comfortable there. He likes Rivers. Pierce and Rondo are still there. And, let's face it, despite his play over the second half of the season, is there a team out there that has the money and is willing to spend it on a 36-year-old free agent? The only unknown is how much KG would accept to stay, assuming, of course, that Ainge wants him back. If he does come back, it would likely be for a one-year deal.
Allen, I think, is more likely to go, even though he has become a fixture in the Wellesley community, has a son who gets juvenile diabetes treatment at a top-notch facility in Boston and embodies what the Celtics are all about. His health will be a concern to any suitor, especially after surgery. So he may not be late-summer signee once he gets medical clearance.
The Celtics nearly traded Allen in March for Mayo, so there's no reason to think Ainge will get sentimental this time. The same goes for Allen. He will be looking around, as is his right.
Bass? Most people think he will decline his option and try to get a long-term deal. But if he wants to stay and the feeling is mutual, that could cost another $5 million.
Then there's Jeff Green. He may be an unrestricted free agent, but he has been a Celtic in mind and spirit all season. Assuming he's OK, I can't see him not signing with Boston, probably for something in the neighborhood of what he had agreed to before his heart condition ($9 million). Or maybe he'd take a little less annually in return for more years.
It's hard to see Ainge letting him go anywhere else, especially since he's all that's left (along with the No. 22 pick in this year's draft) from the Kendrick Perkins deal. The Celtics did everything right with Green, including withdrawing their qualifying offer to give him more flexibility. While that gives Green a lot of options, the Celtics should be at the top of his list.
As far as available free agents go, the names you are likely to hear are Carl Landry, a power forward for the New Orleans Hornets who excels in the low post. There's Kris Humphries, who we know can rebound, a glaring Celtics weakness. There's a raw big man from Dallas, Ian Mahinmi, who has potential. The Celtics need size as well and the Mavericks are focusing on Williams, a Dallas native.
Mayo is a restricted free agent; maybe Ainge takes a run at him again and the Grizzlies decide to let him go. Having money also gives Ainge flexibility in adding a player already under contract. He also could save a bulk of the money for 2013.
With eight unrestricted free agents and Bass being potentially a ninth, there's a good chance that the 2012-13 Celtics will look a lot different from the team that just made an unanticipated drive to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. But if you re-sign Bass and Garnett and add Green, you're going to use up most of the loot you've spent years waiting to spend. Is that what Ainge wants to do?
All of which makes this summer a fascinating time for the Celtics. They got five rewarding years out of the new Big Three, and Rivers can't be faulted for lamenting that he wished they'd been healthier. It's not inconceivable to think they could have won a couple more titles with this group.
Now, for really the first time in more than a decade, the Celtics stand to be serious players in free agency. But it has to be a two-way street. Players have to want to come to Boston. David West wanted no part of the Celtics in December.
The last time the Celtics had lots of spending money and lots of room, Rick Pitino dumped it on Travis Knight and Chris Mills. Ainge won't do anything like that, we suspect, but what he does and how he does it is going to be the Celtics' story of the summer of 2012. It all begins in three weeks.