News that Doc Rivers will return to the Boston bench next season sends the Celtics into free agency with renewed confidence that they can reassemble and strengthen a championship-caliber roster.
But unless the 48-year-old Rivers plans to dust off his high-tops, he's going to need bodies -- as many as 11 players to fill the voids left by free agency and (potential) retirement -- in order to make a run at another world title. So there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how exactly the Celtics' offseason will play out.
Can Boston bring back the core that's made the team so successful the past three seasons? And is that the best course of action moving forward?
It's an offseason full of questions, and only time will bring answers.
Identity in flux?
For the past 12 months, the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham, Mass., bustled with activity. Players often described how teammates flocked to the gym at all hours of the day, regardless of whether the team had a scheduled session, to get in the extra work that ultimately lifted Boston to a berth in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Two weeks after Boston lost Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers, and with an unprecedented free-agency period opening at 12:01 a.m. ET Thursday that could alter not only the look of the Celtics but the entire NBA landscape, Brian Scalabrine -- one of the team's eight impending free agents -- described the facility recently as "a ghost town."
The idea of tumbleweeds bouncing through the Sports Authority Training Center in Waltham just about sums up an offseason of uncertainty for the Celtics.
With Rivers agreeing to return to the sideline and honor the final year of his contract, the sheriff is back in town and the posse could be close behind. But plenty of questions remain.
Can the team re-sign key unrestricted free agents Paul Pierce, who Tuesday night declared his intention to opt out of his contract, and Ray Allen? When will Kendrick Perkins be healthy enough to return from surgery to repair a torn ACL?
Rivers and his players prided themselves on the fact that when Boston's starting five of the past three seasons -- Pierce, Allen, Perkins, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett -- were all healthy, they had not lost a playoff series. That led the team to one world title and put it on the cusp of another.
But the Celtics now face the very real possibility of starting the 2010-11 season with only Rondo and Garnett in the opening-night lineup. What's more, Boston currently has only five players under contract for next season, and one of them -- Rasheed Wallace -- is, by all indications, set to hang up his headband after a 15-year career.
A group that stood little more than six minutes from a second world title in three years -- a championship that would have cemented its legacy as one of Boston's finest assemblages of talent -- now finds itself with a potential identity crisis less than two weeks after letting Banner 18 slip away.
The Celtics are at a fork in the road. To one side, a chance to keep the core intact and make another run at a title, albeit with concerns about the ability to remain competitive with an aging roster. On the other side, a rebuilding process that breaks up the core and offers no promise of immediate success, but brings the potential to add a superstar free agent. In between is a hazy middle ground.
About the only thing that's certain is that the next few weeks will be rather turbulent for the Celtics.
The first shoe dropped Tuesday night when Pierce's agent confirmed that his client will opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. This is not necessarily a bad thing for Boston, but it clouds the future that much more, particularly by introducing the prospect of another team wooing Pierce away at a price tag the Celtics are not willing to match.
Pierce is merely looking out for himself by exercising an option that allows him to seek a long-term deal and a hefty payday now, which takes on added importance with an uncertain labor situation looming after this season.
While both Pierce and the Celtics remain steadfast in their desire to see No. 34 retire in a Boston uniform, the team must examine whether it's willing to extend Pierce for as many as four years, which would take him to the backside of 36.
With Garnett under contract through the 2011-12 season, it stands to reason the Celtics would prefer to ride this incarnation of the Big Three through that season, then begin the youth movement around Rondo.
But with Pierce and Allen on the open market, can they make that happen? With so many deep-pocketed potential suitors out there, will the Celtics be able (and/or willing) to match the contracts -- in both length and value -- that others might offer? The market might force Boston to sign both Pierce and Allen to deals that aren't exactly team friendly.
For instance, the Celtics probably would prefer a two-year deal for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Allen but might need to add a third year, hindering a potential reworking of the team after the 2011-12 season.
Boston doesn't have to worry too much about sticker shock. With "Larry Bird rights" to both players, the Celtics can fly over the salary cap in order to retain their own free agents. But the team still has to be diligent to avoid dooming itself in future seasons, especially if the salary cap dips under a new collective bargaining agreement.
Can this core keep Boston at a championship level for two seasons or more? Can Boston afford that core and still supplement with the parts needed to truly be a championship contender?
There's no definitive answer to these questions. And that's just part of the reason Boston's future is so cloudy.
While Pierce and Allen will be priorities 1A and 1B when free agency opens Thursday morning, Danny Ainge and the Celtics' front-office staff cannot afford to become overly consumed with those negotiations.
There is, after all, the need to fill as many as 11 roster spots. Scalabrine, Nate Robinson, Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels, Shelden Williams and Michael Finley all are set to become unrestricted free agents. Boston could fill two voids by signing rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody, while late-season additions Tony Gaffney and Oliver Lafayette could be part of the puzzle as well.
But the Celtics undoubtedly have interest in retaining the services of some of their impending free agents not named Paul and Ray, and that could be dictated by what their needs become. Boston is most certainly in the market for an impact big man with Wallace's expected retirement and Perkins set to be sidelined into the 2011 calendar year. The C's might have to look outside the organization for that type of player.
Does Boston have the resources to lure an impact big man? Can Boston afford to bring back Tony Allen as a defensive stopper off the bench? Does the team bring back Scalabrine at the veteran minimum?
Again, questions without immediate answers -- the story of Boston's offseason.
So how does it all play out for Boston? No one can know for sure.
The best-case scenario appears to be keeping the core intact. If Boston can re-sign Pierce and Ray Allen, those successful starting five should be in place for the 2011 postseason (if they remain healthy, always a concern with an aging group, coupled with Perkins' knee surgery).
Boston then could utilize any remaining cap space, which might be aided (even slightly) by a lower cap number for Pierce next season, to re-sign bench players or solidify its roster through free agency.
The Celtics also could cut ties with Allen and seek a cheaper or younger alternative in the free-agent market, although the ability to re-sign him with Bird rights seems to make Allen the more economical -- and certainly more proven -- option.
The most unlikely scenario would appear to be losing both Pierce and Allen, although both are sure to see competitive offers on the open market. If that situation arises, Boston could renounce its rights to both players, thereby gaining about $15 million in total cap space (depending on how much money Wallace requests to ride off into the sunset) and making the Green possible players in signing a max-contract free agent like LeBron James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.
But the competition for those guys would be stiff, and Boston would be handcuffed by cap holds of nearly $40 million at the start of free agency. So landing a top prize would be a long shot at best. And while signing a max player would give Boston a retooled Big Three of Rondo-Garnett-Player X, it would leave very little wiggle room to supplement the team's depth, much less fill the roster with warm bodies.
Leave it to Perkins, the straightest shooter in the Boston locker room, to sum up how this will all play out.
"Every day it's been different for me -- different trade rumors, guys may opt out or whatever it may be, [and] worried if your coach is coming back," Perkins said Tuesday. "Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to speak up, whatever it may be. It's going to have to come to an end sooner or later; that's how I feel about it."
Rivers spoke up Wednesday. His presence undoubtedly will help the team in its quest to keep Pierce and Allen, and might help lure other veteran players looking for a shot at a title, knowing Boston is serious about making another championship charge.
But this offseason quiz has multiple questions, and the Celtics need more answers than what Rivers provided. Only time will tell whether Ainge & Co. ace this test.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.