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On March 15th, Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics came ever so close to finally moving on from the Big 3.
In the final hours of this season’s trade deadline, the Celtics had a trade in place to send the aging, injured Ray Allen to the Memphis Grizzlies for O.J. Mayo and a draft pick. In addition, they also had a trade in place that would send Paul Pierce to the New Jersey Nets for Mehmet Okur, his expiring contract, and, most important of all, a lottery pick.
The Celtics were so close to a deal, in fact, that Doc Rivers reportedly called Ray Allen to tell him he was traded, and then minutes later called back to inform Allen of just the opposite: the Big 3 had one more chance (but haven’t we heard that before?).
Since the All-Star break, the Celtics have gone 21-9, a far cry from their mediocre first half. That record has turned many fans into believers. That record has fooled many into believing that this team could actually make another run deep into the playoffs and perhaps even to the NBA Finals.
During the lockout shortened off-season, Danny Ainge seemed to have an insatiable need to trade his best player, Rajon Rondo, even if it was for lesser value. But nobody was buying what Ainge was selling, and the old, grey Celtics were set to return for another season unchanged and running out of fuel.
Then a team decided to give Ainge a gift. The Memphis Grizzlies were willing to give up a young, athletic, natural scorer for a player in Ray Allen who was soon to be phased out by Avery Bradley anyway. Then, if that wasn’t enough, the New Jersey Nets were going to alleviate the Celtics of Paul Pierce’s contract, and give them a lottery pick.
A lottery pick! Clearly Ainge has not been able to deliver another blockbuster trade to the Celtics, and there hasn’t been a major free agent signing in Boston since, well, Vin Baker (if that even counts), so the draft was the next logical place to rebuild. In the NBA, the lottery is the only place to find franchise players, and the Nets were going to give one up.
Now towards the end of the 2011-2012 season, the Big 3 enter their fifth year together on a team that was only supposed to sustain success for three. That was the plan. Put together a team that would compete for a title in the short term. The plan worked – but Ainge couldn’t seem to let go.
So now the Celtics, 10 games over .500, look toward the playoffs. Whether they run into Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Atlanta, or even Orlando, they are bound to lose to younger, more athletic teams. Why can’t they win?
There has not been a team in over a decade (or two) that has won a championship with a point guard as their best player, and Rondo has been, without a doubt, their best player this season. Sure, Pierce is good for 40 points once or twice a season, and maybe once in a seven-game series, but he also tends to disappear against big, strong, quick defenders (i.e. LeBron James). Ray Allen hasn’t contributed in months, and Avery Bradley has been impressive, but has not developed into a game changer quite yet.
Kevin Garnett is playing his best basketball in two years, but it took him until mid-season to do so. What’s to say he won’t fade back into the less than intimidating Garnett we’ve been used to since 2010 – the Garnett Chris Bosh dominated in the playoffs last season?
The Celtics and Danny Ainge missed a golden opportunity to move the Boston Celtics into a new era, into a true rebuilding process, and away from a Big 3 that is destined for a second round loss to what is, quite simply, a better team. In Boston, lately, that’s not good enough. In Boston, it’s either title contending or rebuilding to get to a title. The Celtics may be preparing to make one more run, but it’s not for lack of their General Manager trying to break them up.
Danny Ainge knows something maybe the rest of the team doesn’t: the Celtics have been and will forever be in basketball limbo as long as the Big 3 are still playing together. It’s just too bad he’s become stuck in the middle.