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Monday, May 13, 2013
No easy answers for Ainge

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

In the near future -- maybe even this week -- Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will call head coach Doc Rivers and ask him if he has made a decision about next season. With more than a few rounds of golf under his belt and his kids already wondering when Dad's going back to work, Rivers will almost certainly confirm that he's in for the 2013-14 campaign.

Ainge will hang up the phone and dial Kevin Garnett, hoping not to interrupt one of his beach yoga sessions in Malibu, Calif. Garnett will smile when he hears Rivers is on board for next season and might even hint that he's coming back as well. But Garnett will probably leave his options open and he'll quickly be the one asking questions: What's Ainge's plan from here? And what about Paul Pierce?

That's where things get interesting.

Ainge has sounded recently like a general manager who knows the best path for his organization might include making some tough -- and maybe even unpopular -- personnel decisions, the future of Pierce chief among them. After his team was bounced from the playoffs in the first round, Ainge has to consider whether simply putting the band back together and crossing his fingers for better health is a viable plan, or if a larger overhaul is needed. There are no easy answers.

Rivers-Garnett
Doc Rivers is expected to be back next season, but KG's decision could rest on what the Celtics do with Paul Pierce.

One thing Ainge knows is that he has to do what's best for his team, something he has always pledged to do. And if Garnett asks about Pierce, Ainge will have to be brutally honest and note that he's going to examine all options -- whether it's waiving Pierce given that only $5 million is guaranteed on his contract next season, using the amnesty clause to take the final year of that deal completely off the books, or -- the most likely scenario -- examining the trade market for potential swaps that would temper the departure of the face of Boston's franchise, while bringing back talent that could help take the team in a new direction.

Garnett might understand. Or he might not. In this murky offseason, there are few definitive answers. And we shouldn't expect them any time soon. A quick rundown of Ainge's initial offseason to-do list and what we can expect.

The Doctor's In?: Rivers can provide a little bit of stability -- and a little bit of good news for a team whose season ended awfully early -- by doing what most everyone expects him to do and returning for at least one more season. After inking a five-year, $35 million extension following the 2010-11 campaign, Rivers pledged to endure whatever lay ahead, citing the team's loyalty to him during the lean years before the Big Three were assembled.

Just a few weeks ago, Rivers joked about how he always needs time to decompress before making even the most routine decision about his future.

"In the summer, you're sitting around the house, and [wife] Kris is driving me nuts, she wants me out of the house, and the kids want me out and I say, 'I'm going back to work,'" Rivers explained of his offseason decision-making process. "That's how it works."

In N Out with KG: The only thing the Celtics really need to know from Garnett is whether he's planning to play next season, and his body language after Boston's playoff demise suggested he was leaning toward another NBA season. Ainge probably understands that Garnett's future in Boston hinges on how the summer unfolds, but Garnett's loyalty to Rivers would make another year in green the most likely scenario. That said, he seemingly threw down a bit of a gantlet, noting his future might be tied to Pierce.

"I'd be lying to y'all if I said Paul didn't play into that factor," Garnett said while suggesting a desire to keep this core together. Translation: Garnett doesn't want to play out what could be his final NBA season in a transition year and believes that having someone like Pierce alongside ensures the team will at least have a chance to be a contender.

The unanswered question is this: If the Celtics elect to move on from Pierce, will Garnett return if there's still a competitive team in place? Again, Garnett's allergy to change would seemingly aid Boston in keeping him around.

Captain Crunch: As Ainge has acknowledged, the first real domino to fall will be Pierce. The team has until June 30 to decide whether to bring him back at a $15.3 million salary next season, but even that date won't provide a firm answer. The team could explore trading Pierce on draft night, or again over the summer. That's a preferred route if the team desires a makeover because it could bring back younger talent, or at least would absolve Boston from paying any part of Pierce's contract just to move on without him.

The path of least resistance is keeping this veteran core completely intact and hoping a healthy return for Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger is enough to propel Boston further than its first-round playoff exit this season.

But what's the best route? It's like the Routes 1, 2, and 3 options you often get when you query Google Maps for a route. The end destination is always the same, but there are plenty of different ways to travel.

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce
Friends Pierce and Garnett are among the top 20 scorers in NBA history and no doubt would like one last run at a title together.

Ainge seems somewhat leery of taking the familiar route, and with good reason. The Celtics have shown that they need an awful lot to go right to be true contenders. Ainge wasn't bashful recently when he admitted that Boston is more than a single player away from being a title contender, and he might not be willing to roll the dice again on health with these veterans another year older (though it's been Boston's youngest players that have endured the most damning injuries in recent seasons).

All that said, there is a definite value in simply hanging on to Pierce, the least of which is the cap space that will be freed before a potential gold mine of a free-agent market in 2014 (the same year the draft is expected to be well-stocked). As easy as it is to overlook after his playoff struggles against the Knicks, Pierce carried this team at times after Rondo was lost for the season (all while battling through a pinched nerve in his neck that bothered him much of the season). There's plenty of basketball left in Pierce, and -- as Ainge has acknowledged -- a Celtics team that slots him and Garnett as, say, Options 3 and 4 instead of Options 1 and 2 like this season, could absolutely be in the mix.

But even keeping the band together has question marks for a team with 14 of 15 players under contract entering the offseason. Will Rondo be 100 percent next season? (Derrick Rose shows that's no guarantee; even if Ainge remains steadfast that Rondo is on pace to return for training camp.) Can Jeff Green ascend to a top option and further lessen the load on Garnett and Pierce? Beyond that, there are questions about the back half of the roster, like whether Jason Terry and Courtney Lee -- with matching $5.2 million contracts -- can perform better than this past season. Or if Sullinger can get back to playing at a starter level after back surgery, and what that means for Brandon Bass and his $6.5 million salary moving forward.

All of which is to say, don't expect to know much about how the 2013-14 Celtics will look any time soon. This process is going to take time. Every answer will lead only to more questions.