On the cover of this year's Boston Celtics media guide is a slogan the franchise professes to live by: "It's all about 18."
The 18 speaks to the goal of securing a record 18th NBA championship. For the second season in a row, there will be no championship celebration, no 18th title for the Celtics. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat took care of that by beating the Celts four of five times and knocking them out of the playoffs in the second round.
This is the earliest ticket home punched for this group of Celtics in four years together. The 2009 team also checked out in the Eastern Conference semis but that series against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic lasted seven games.
What's become clear is that this is a time to revaluate the New Big Three era. Thanks to two magical moves by Danny Ainge back in the summer of 2007, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were brought to town to play with Paul Pierce. The two trades reinvigorated Celtics basketball and instantly catapulted the team into the NBA's elite. The 2008 NBA championship -- banner No. 17 -- will be the group's everlasting legacy.
But now is a time for more Ainge magic. The question is: How can the Celtics remain all about 18 if they continue to be a team that revolves around three players who are rapidly nearing retirement? If the last two weeks of playoff basketball taught Celtics fans anything, it's that while their team remains dangerous, it is heading the wrong way.
Allen, Garnett and Pierce were All-Stars this season, but their days as top-20 players in the NBA are over. Rajon Rondo will be the team's centerpiece going forward, yet his inability to improve his jump shot is a hurdle that will keep him from being mentioned among the game's elite point guards.
Allen and Garnett have contracts that expire after next season so the opportunity to make big changes (like making a run at free agent-to-be Dwight Howard perhaps) is a year away. But that does nothing for the 2011-12 campaign and as Ainge conceded in a radio interview Thursday "Father Time never loses." He added that the Big Three's "ability to carry a team night in, night out may be over."
To further compound the problem, the Heat is just getting warmed up. If this year was all about LeBron and Chris Bosh learning how to play with Wade, how good do you think that group will be in the next two to three years? "They're the team that we're going to have to compete with for the next six, seven years," Ainge said.
So what to do? First is peel away all of the broken-down extra parts and move forward. Don't encourage Shaquille O'Neal to come back. He's done. He earned $1.3 million this year, pocket change by NBA standards, but the same is not true for Jermaine O'Neal. He is owed just over $6 million next season. Ainge said J.O. isn't sure if he wants to keep playing and, in retrospect, signing an old backup big man instead of throwing $12 million at a younger piece was a mistake. Ainge said his team's center position "was just a disaster" due to injuries but 30-something big men always seem to break down quickly.
As for free agents, the Celts will clearly re-sign Jeff Green. He is a lightning-rod player in these parts right now, but for the wrong reasons. Fans see him as the player Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins infuriating Perkins' legion of backers. While a stout defensive player, the 27-year-old Perkins was breaking down physically and wanted a bigger contract than Ainge was willing to offer. Green was averaging 15.2 points and 5.6 boards for Oklahoma City but never adjusted to a drastic cut in playing time. We'll see if a full training camp will somehow slice Green a larger role in Boston.
Other free-agent calls need to be made on Delonte West, Nenad Krstic and, most tellingly, Glen Davis. I'd keep only West, and for short money. As Ainge said, this team needs help at center and an influx of athletes with quickness.
A picture in Thursday's Miami Herald spoke to this team's limitations. The photo depicted a small swath of the Celtics' bench. Jermaine O'Neal was lying chest down on the court, easing the pain in his back. Rondo sat with his right hand covering his face, hiding the pain from his injured elbow and creaky back. Shaquille O'Neal was two seats down in a dapper brown suit, watching the end of what could very well be his final NBA game.
Give the Celts a healthy Shaq and Rondo at 100 percent and they'd be LeBron and Wade's worst nightmare. But that Celtics team never materialized and won't next year either. So, does this team really have another run in it before the contracts of Allen and Garnett run out? Sure, if making the playoffs is the goal. But without major changes in the spare parts around the team's four key starters the Celtics are, at-best, the third- or fourth-best team in the East next year and hardly a championship contender.
The good news is Ainge sees these weaknesses. Whether he can summon the magic to do much about them is another matter.