Age and uncertainty for Celtics

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a week-long series looking at the next decade in Boston sports.

When the Celtics united the Big Three during the summer of 2007, the team openly acknowledged it was dealing with a limited window of opportunity by putting the future of the franchise into the hands of three aging superstars.

Even still, it appeared that window would remain open for a minimum of three years and had the potential to extend for another couple of seasons after that, meaning the team likely wouldn't arrive at a true crossroads until the summer of 2012.

Yet, here we are in the winter of 2010, and even with banner No. 17 in tow, the Celtics find themselves at a crossroads that will dictate in large part how the start of this new decade will play out.

It could be an overreaction based on the fact that the Celtics have lost 11 of their past 18 games, but the injury woes of 33-year-old Kevin Garnett and inconsistency of 34-year-old Ray Allen have accelerated the need to examine exactly where the franchise is headed, including for the remainder of the 2009-10 season.

As early as two months ago, the Celtics looked like world-beaters, maybe even more so than their 2007-08 counterparts. Boston started the season strong, and lofty expectations -- including challenging the NBA record of 72 wins in a season and being the greatest defensive team in NBA history -- were bestowed upon the team.

Now it all seems a bit premature. And maybe the panic from the Celtics' recent struggles is as well. But any moves the Celtics make between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline will start the process by which they'll move forward in the early part of the '10s.

The Celtics are riddled with injuries, inconsistent play and their first losing month (6-8 in January) since the Big Three united, and rumors have swirled that they are shopping Allen and his $18.8 million contract, a move that would bring an abrupt end to the run of the Big Three.

Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge finds his team at a crossroads far earlier than most expected, but all indications are there's no plan to change the charted path.

Should Ray stay?

Allen's numbers are down across the board in his 14th NBA season. He's averaging 15.7 points and 2.8 assists per game, his worst numbers since his rookie campaign (13.4 points and 2.6 assists). What's more, his 3-point percentage (34.1 percent) is at a career low, which seemingly has driven down his number of attempts per game from behind the arc (nearly half his average of 8.4 in 2005-06), and he's shooting 45 percent from the floor overall (down from 48 percent last season).

Allen already has missed 16 free throws this season after missing just 12 in all of 2008-09. His free throw percentage has dipped from 95.2 percent to 89 percent.

When an aging player underachieves, the typical overreaction is to put him out to pasture. (Just ask Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.)

But amid all the seemingly unsubstantiated reports of the Celtics trying to trade Allen, there's been far more indication that Allen could be back next season with a deal that's reasonable in length and money (two years, $20 million?), thereby keeping the Celtics' nucleus together through the end of Kevin Garnett's deal (presuming, of course, that Paul Pierce is extended when his current deal expires next year).

"I'd like to be here," said Allen, who will turn 35 in July.

"There's no reason to be any other place. I'd love to retire with this organization. [But] that's up to the team. I want to be here. This team has proven over the decades to be a winner, one of the best in sports, and that's what this organization plans to do. I'm committed to it."

Allen's struggles might only make it easier for Boston to retain his services, particularly if others are leery of his declining production. The Celtics certainly don't have to worry about his conditioning, as he can still run circles around rookies who are nearly half his age.

As Ainge told the Boston Herald before Monday's win in Washington, "Let me just put it this way: We're doing everything we can to win a championship now. We're not going to do anything that might hurt our chances of winning. There's no question we need to play better, but we're not going to panic."

All of which seems to suggest the Celtics understand the value of chemistry and continuity, which should keep Allen in Boston. But if the Celtics are to bring back Allen, that begs the question: How does a veteran team begin the process of building toward the next generation?

The challenges of success

The Celtics' biggest opponent in remaining successful is themselves. Unlike sports such as football or baseball in which restocking is possible through late-round draft picks, rarely do NBA superstars emerge from anything but the draft lottery (and very rarely from later than the middle of the first round).

The Celtics won 66 games in 2007-08 and 62 in 2008-09. Despite their recent struggles, they're still on pace to challenge for nearly 60 wins this season. (They have 30 through 46 games.) Coupled with their playoff success, the Celtics have been positioned 28th and 30th in draft order in recent seasons.

What's more, the Celtics had to mortgage some of their highest remaining picks to bring Garnett and Allen to Boston.

In 2009, the Celtics boasted only one draft pick, a second-round selection (58th overall), which ended up being University of Tennessee at Martin guard Lester Hudson. He was waived before contracts became guaranteed last month.

Not only were the odds stacked against Hudson being a late-round pick, but he also was playing on a Celtics team so loaded with talent that there wasn't room for him to develop.

It's a familiar story for J.R. Giddens, whom the Celtics tabbed with the 30th pick after winning the NBA title in 2008. He's appeared in just 27 games and also could be headed out of town after the season given that the Celtics declined to pick up his modest ($1.1 million) team option for 2010-11.

The Celtics also landed Bill Walker (second round, 47th overall via
trade) and Semih Erden (second round, 60th overall) in that 2008 draft. Walker remains an end-of-the-bench presence unable to crack the rotation, while Erden plays professionally in Turkey, and it seems unlikely he'll play stateside.

NBA history shows that sometimes a team has to hit rock bottom in order to rebuild. The Cleveland Cavaliers supposedly tanked in the 2002-03 season to snare LeBron James in the 2003 draft. The Orlando Magic netted Dwight Howard with the first pick the following year. The Atlanta Hawks have built their roster largely through the draft (even enduring swings and misses such as former first-round pick Shelden Williams) -- and, ironically, boast a former Celtics first-round pick as their centerpiece in Joe Johnson.

The only player drafted by the Celtics since 2005 to make a sustained impact is Rajon Rondo, whom the team snagged in 2006 after trading up to the 21st pick.

Since then, the Celtics don't have a player in the top 10 of their rotation who came via the draft. (The Celtics did get Glen Davis via draft trade.) You'd have to go back to the 2004 draft to find a serious impact, with the team hauling in both Al Jefferson (the key chip in acquiring Garnett), Delonte West (a chip in the Allen
deal) and Tony Allen, who, despite his highs and lows, remains a key part of the Celtics' bench.

Although success hurts a team's long-term ability to grow, it does have its benefits. The Celtics are able to offset their inability to restock in the draft by luring aging veterans and underrated role players to Boston for a chance at a ring.

Rasheed Wallace, Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown came to Boston for a chance to end their careers as champions. James Posey and Marquis Daniels flocked here on what amounted to one-year deals to join talented rosters in hopes of winning a title and increasing their individual values.

But even that detours the future. After the 2007-08 season, Posey cashed in with New Orleans after opting out of the second year of his deal, and Daniels is likely to command a salary next season that will price him out of Boston.

Closing one window of opportunity, opening another

When the Celtics inked Rondo to a five-year, $55 million extension earlier this season, the team essentially noted that he will be the cornerstone upon which the next generation of the Celtics franchise will be built.

Asked whether Rondo is the next Paul Pierce, Boston's captain said, "Not really, he's going to be the next Rondo. He's grown up right before our eyes, and pretty soon he's going to be here, the face of the franchise when we're all gone and in our rocking chairs."

Regardless of whether the Celtics bring back Allen, there's work to be done to keep this team competitive. Pierce is priority No. 1, and it might behoove Boston to work out an extension before his $21.5 million player option is triggered next season. (One possibility is lowering his number with a long-term deal to ensure he retires in Boston.)

Priority No. 2 is Kendrick Perkins, the seventh-year center who is blossoming this season. Perkins is scheduled to make a mere $4.39 million in the final season of his deal in 2010-11, and the Celtics will need to lock him up because he's become one of the top young big men at both ends of the floor.

Garnett will be 36 years old when his current deal ends after the 2011-12 season (the same year Wallace is scheduled to come off the books). The Celtics currently have only Rondo under contract for the 2012-13 season. It would seem then that, regardless of what remains of the Big Three, that's when the Celtics will toss the keys to Rondo and, potentially, Perkins.

Where the team goes from there is anyone's guess. If age catches up with the Celtics in coming seasons, maybe they will be forced to blow it up. If they remain title contenders, maybe the money freed as the current Big Three move on will allow them to lure a new superstar to Boston, potentially forming a new version of the Big Three with Rondo and Perkins.

And, considering the age of their youngest stars, that window has the potential to stay open into the next decade.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.