BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics' roster next season could look a lot like the 2012-13 model. Or it might not. Welcome to another murky offseason. Boston's brass has a fresh batch of tough decisions to make, including whether this team needs a summer makeover.
Be honest: With 9½ minutes remaining in Friday's Game 6 loss to the New York Knicks, you were ready to dismantle this team. Another anemic half of playoff basketball left the Celtics staring at a 26-point deficit and an unsightly end to a never pretty first-round exit.
Don't let a furious late-game rally fool you. The Celtics need to tweak this roster to return to true contender form. But here's the sobering reality: Boston has 14 of 15 players from this season under contract for next season, and the path of least resistance is to bring most of the band back and hope that improved health -- particularly with the returns of Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger -- is enough to mask the late-season deficiencies.
Every player on Boston's 15-man roster is inked for next season, save for Chris Wilcox (whom Boston tried to move out at the trade deadline). Some, like Chinese Basketball Association imports Terrence Williams, Shavlik Randolph and D.J. White, are on nonguaranteed deals. But the same goes for Paul Pierce, who has only $5 million guaranteed on the final year of a four-year extension that's scheduled to pay him $15.3 million.
Make no mistake: Pierce is the linchpin to whatever lies ahead for Boston. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he'll take some time to decompress and ponder his future, but there's little reason to believe he won't be back on the Boston bench. Kevin Garnett said it was too early to talk about his future but sounded like a player open to the idea of enduring the rigors of a 19th NBA season.
Pierce knows his own future lies in the hands of Boston's front office and referred questions on his return to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his staff.
"Who knows what the future [holds]? I've been here 15 years, and I've seen a lot of changes each and every year," Pierce said. "So I'm sure there's going to be a lot of changes here, and we'll see what happens."
Don't be so sure, Paul. The easiest thing for Boston to do is bring back much of this season's squad -- adding a few parts with available assets, like the mini midlevel and biannual exceptions -- then looking to the trade market to further tweak the roster.
This road would allow you to gauge what a healthy team is capable of, and an in-season overhaul is always possible before the trade deadline (when some assets on the roster might become more valuable).
Plus, Garnett might have forced Boston's hand a bit when he stressed how Pierce's future might impact his own.
"One of the big reasons I came here was because of Paul," said Garnett, who later added, "I'd be lying to y'all if I said Paul didn't play into that factor."
A summer overhaul is far more daunting, even if the Celtics desire to transition from this Pierce/Garnett core.
For the sake of argument, let's say that Garnett elects to retire and the Celtics amnesty Piece -- as far-fetched as both ideas might seem. Even then, Boston would dip only about $12 million under the projected salary cap. Is that enough to hook another frontline player like, say, free-agent-to-be Al Jefferson (who made $15 million last season)? Does one younger, marquee player make up for the loss of two declining veterans?
Take away just Pierce or Garnett, individually, and it offers virtually no assistance to a team that would still be tiptoeing the salary-cap line. And that's assuming Boston would go the drastic amnesty route with Pierce, something that would erase his $15.3 million from the salary cap but not from ownership's checkbooks (though some of that would be defrayed when he signed elsewhere). Simply absorbing the $5 million guaranteed on his deal while cutting ties would do little more than minimize the team's luxury-tax bill.
There's always the trade market, but matching salaries makes it difficult for Boston to find the right deals, even beyond moving the likes of Pierce and Garnett. The Celtics have to decide whether they desire to keep a guard tandem of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, underachievers for much of the season, who are scheduled to earn $5.3 million apiece next season.
The encouraging news for Boston is that there's a solid, low-cost nucleus consisting of Rondo (assuming he's able to bounce back from ACL surgery), Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Sullinger. All five players were starters at times during the 2012-13 season and will make a combined $31.3 million. The question is whether Rondo and Green can be your 1A and 1B options, while an aging Pierce and Garnett slide to more like 2A and 2B.
The Celtics also have to find the right mix of role players. Williams and Jordan Crawford were low-cost, late-season additions who can help when properly harnessed. Randolph could provide center depth with a focus on rebounding. Fab Melo remains a long-term project. Ultimately, it might come down to roster space and what else Boston can hook with its available assets to determine if the end of the bench will look similar.
But it all starts with Pierce. There's a line of thinking that says it might just be time to move on; the Celtics haven't won a title in five seasons now and should consider moving away from this core.
If only it were that easy.