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If you hear an explosion in the near future, J.A., don't be concerned. That will just be the Boston Celtics blowing their team up, with Paul Pierces and Kevin Garnetts and Jeff Greens falling out of the sky and into the grasp of teams everywhere. I would say I was surprised with how quickly the "blow up the Celtics" talk escalated once news of Rajon Rondo's ACL tear got out, but I'm too used to knee-jerk reactions in sports to be truly surprised. To me, and hopefully to the Celtics' front office, a significant injury in the middle of a disappointing season shouldn't be what triggers a decision to change everything about the franchise. Danny Ainge & Co. probably had a pretty good idea of what direction they were going in the trade market even before Rondo went down. That's in large part because this season wasn't going according to plan, and the Celtics had to reconfigure their team anyway if they were going to compete with the East's elite in the near future. But there still seems to be this idea that the Celtics are choosing between holding tight and hoping this group makes a decent run without Rondo (the numbers actually say Boston's been pretty good without him this season), or exchanging everyone but Rondo and introducing him to a whole new group when he returns next season. I'd bet Pierce and Garnett are annoyed they're even being discussed in trade talks, but what do you think? What's the best course of action for Boston now that Rondo is in recovery mode?
The speed of this story surprised me, as well. It seemed like the MRI machine wasn't even switched off before we started hearing trade destinations for every player on the Celtics' roster as well as arguments over who should take Rondo's spot on the All-Star team. That said, it seems like it's impossible to get more than a couple of degrees of separation from this story. For example, I was at Staples Center on Sunday and saw Derek Fisher at the Lakers game. He said he didn't realize how difficult the distance from his family would be when he signed on for his brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks this season. But he's still in shape. So it got me thinking: What if he signed with the Clippers to be their backup point guard and stay close to his family in Los Angeles, then the Clippers sent Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Celtics for Pierce? The Celtics get a young, starting-caliber point guard for at least the next two seasons (which could be how long it takes Rondo to get back to an elite level), the Clippers get another option for their half-court offense, which needs help. The problem is the salaries don't work, so another team would have to get involved. Either way, it's still a good exercise to get the trade engine humming, and it addresses the fundamental decision looming for the Celtics: try to replace Rondo and ride it out with this group, plan for a future with Rondo or play for a future without Rondo. I say they should start to rebuild around Rondo. That's what the Chicago Bulls did after Derrick Rose tore his ACL. The Bulls didn't take on major long-term contracts in an attempt to make a run at a ring this season, so they're not locked into the luxury tax down the road. Rondo isn't Rose, but he's the best player on the Celtics' roster and probably better than anyone they'll be able to acquire via trade. The Big Three era already ended. It was over when Ray Allen left for Miami. Allen was the guy whose arrival made the Celtics a viable destination for Kevin Garnett, so his departure should have officially signaled the breakup and started the Celtics on a new journey. The Rondo injury only accelerates it.
I almost think the injury is a blessing in disguise. Because even though he's one of the elite point guards in the league, Rondo's name kept popping up in trade discussions, even this season. To me, he should be a Celtic throughout his prime, if not for his entire career. Also -- and there probably aren't too many outside of New England who agree with me on this -- I think Garnett should end his career in a Celtics uniform, assuming they can find a way to stay relevant without moving him. Taking away Rondo from the Celtics obviously hurts. But Garnett, believe it or not, is still as important to the C's as Rondo. He's the anchor of that defense, and he's the perfect combination of unselfish and skilled on the offensive end. That's why the Rondo-Garnett-Doc Rivers combination is so vital to that franchise. They just fit. That leaves Pierce. And, for as old as he's looked at times this season, he still has value, especially to a team that's already good. You mentioned the Clippers. At this point, Pierce might want to be there more than he even wants to be in Boston. Think about it. He's a Southern California guy, so even the Celtics can justify trading a Boston fixture to his hometown, championship-contending team. And you'd be amazed how much "younger" Pierce would look on a team that doesn't require so much of him. Even if he doesn't end up in L.A., Pierce deserves to be moved to a winning team, if he is traded. Memphis is another destination being floated, which is reasonable. But just the idea of Pierce in a Raptors uniform makes me sad. Please don't let that happen (no offense, Raptors). Boston, though, needs to find a way to get a true center back, which would make Garnett even more effective, and either an athletic wing or a knock-down shooter. If I'm Ainge, I'd say Pierce, Jason Terry and the sweetener, Jared Sullinger, are all easily movable.
If Hakeem Olajuwon could end his career in a Toronto Raptors uniform then anyone can end his career in a Raptors uniform. Even Paul Pierce. This does bring up an interesting issue, one that Ainge and the Boston head honchos will have to wrestle with: just how "Celticy" are these guys. Only John Havlicek has scored more points in a Celtics uniform than Pierce. Pierce has played more games as a Celtic than Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy -- everyone but Hondo and Robert Parish. Does that give Pierce immunity? I don't think you can think of him the same way we did Russell and Cousy, because they didn't play in an era of salary cap and luxury tax. If they keep Pierce because of the sentimental attachment, his contract could hinder the Celtics more than his play helps them. And why should Garnett retire a Celtic? Is he that ingrained in the franchise history? Yes, he was the driving force behind their 2008 championship, but Russell, Bird, McHale and the Chief look at that ring and say: "Is that all you got?" I don't think a single championship assures you a place among the all-time Celtics greats. Garnett is easily the greatest in the Minnesota Timberwolves pack, but I'm not sure he's done enough in Boston to get his jersey raised to the Garden rafters. And if he isn't rafter material, wouldn't that make him expendable now? The philosophical decision to part with Garnett and Pierce might actually be easier than the logistics of moving them. Their ages and contracts (two years and $24.4 million due to Garnett after this season, another year at $15.3 million for Pierce) will be tough to swallow for teams that are in win-now mode. If they're contending for a championship it means they probably have at least two high-cost players already. It's hard to see teams valuing them over the type of younger, less-expensive talent the Celtics need to rebuild. If I'm Ainge, that doesn't keep me from exhausting every possibility.
It's not that KG "deserves" to end his career as a Celtic. It's that Garnett is critical if the Celtics want to be very good again anytime soon. It's not as if they'll get a better big man on the trade market. Even if they were able to pry away, say, DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento (who's not even really on the market), he still wouldn't be as effective as KG. Even 30 minutes worth of an older Garnett is better than most big men in the NBA. He just needs a true center next to him, a la Kendrick Perkins, to help clean the boards and simply clog the lane. And by the way, Hakeem in a Raptors uniform made me sad, too (I may not be allowed back in Canada). Now, while I am an advocate of building around Rondo, he needs a specific kind of player around him. Garnett is a perfect fit because he'll only shoot if it's a great shot and doesn't spend much time pounding the ball. Allen was an ideal teammate because he accepted and perfected the catch-and-shoot role, and just so happens to be one of the best shooters in league history. Pierce was the lone isolation player who worked because, well, Rondo can't do everything. But if Rondo is going to be at the center of a quick Celtics "rebuild," he can't be surrounded by a bunch of ball-stoppers. Rudy Gay's name has been tossed around, but other than being a good fast-break companion for Rondo, it's doubtful he'd be a good fit next to him. It's a tricky job for Ainge, who found an ideal combination of players in 2007. This time around, it gets a lot more complicated. Everyone's telling him it's time for a major change. But it sounds a lot easier than it actually is.
The irony of the trade you considered is that Cousins would only have value if he could be in the same locker room as Garnett and be subjected to KG's intensity and the way he holds people accountable. Garnett gets so much credit for the culture of that team, a culture of unselfishness and extra effort on defense. We really need to pause and celebrate that 2008 championship team for clicking so quickly (ask the current Lakers squad how hard that is to do). But the Celtics can't get caught up in the sentiment. They also realize that Garnett and Pierce hold more value in Boston than they'd have elsewhere, because of what they've done for that franchise. It's hard to call Garnett a critical part of a very good team when the one he's on isn't even a pretty good team right now. The Celtics have fallen into the worst realm of the NBA: too bad to get a decent playoff seed, too good to get in the lottery. And they had already entered that nether land while Rondo was still playing. So if there's no move that can elevate them they might as well take the plunge. If you look back at the champions of the 1980s -- the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and Pistons -- the Celtics had the longest drought before they returned to the NBA Finals: 21 years. It could be the way that the Celtics avoid another prolonged stretch of futility is to be willing to take a temporary step back. Clear cap space, acquire draft picks. Accept that it will probably be a couple of seasons until Rondo is back in top form, and begin building toward that time. In the meantime, at least they'll have memories like this.