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On basketball

Starting to put game plan in motion

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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With a bright smile and that vintage strut, Doc Rivers showed his hand last night as he addressed the media at TD Garden.

He remains undecided on whether he will return as coach next season but he signed off on the Celtics taking Texas freshman Avery Bradley with the 19th pick of the draft, the first move in what could be a myriad of shuffles to prepare for another title run.

Against my strong suggestion — and I have been wrong before, believe it or not — the Celtics chose youth, a Russell Westbrook-clone who can play both guard positions but is the athlete the Celtics desperately need.

Bradley is not a reach here, and the pick displays some long-range thinking from president Danny Ainge and Rivers. Instead of taking a player short on potential but who could help immediately, the Celtics brass decided to take the best on-ball defender available — Bradley — and deal with their shortage of big men in free agency.

Ainge and Rivers decided their frontcourt needs couldn’t be met with the 19th pick and they were right, so they decided to give Rajon Rondo some relief, break in Bradley at shooting guard to spell Ray Allen, and then slyly use the salary cap to their advantage to sign a premium free agent.

We’re not talking about LeBron James, but if the Celtics encourage Paul Pierce to opt out of his contract with the promise of a three-year deal in the $40 million range, they could use the available cap space and the money created by Rasheed Wallace’s likely retirement to sign a big man.

Should Wallace retire — and his agent said he is leaning toward that decision — the Celtics would not be off the hook for the $13 million-plus owed to him over the next two seasons. The sides have to reach a settlement and a portion of that will count against the cap. However, there will be more money for the Celtics to pursue a productive center, so Wallace leaves Boston by slipping a $20 bill under the proverbial hotel door.

Timing is everything for the Celtics. They can use their Larry Bird Rights to re-sign Pierce to an extension if he opts out of his contract, which would put them an estimated $6 million under the salary cap along with an additional estimated $3 million from Wallace’s contract settlement. Then they can re-sign Pierce to a longer-term, lower-priced contract.

The chance the Celtics would take is allowing Pierce to be wowed by other interested clubs, but if Pierce wants to retire a Celtic, then an agreement can be reached on when to sign an extension, which is really what Pierce desires.

Ainge could also re-sign Allen — the Celtics also own his Bird Rights — then add two solid frontcourt players, one of whom would start as Kendrick Perkins recovers from right knee surgery.

Such a plan may entice Rivers to return and he couldn’t hide his approval of the Bradley pick. Maneuvering the salary cap will allow the Celtics to keep their core players and get younger at the same time.

“I love his speed, I can tell you that,’’ Rivers said of Bradley. “He has unbelievable speed. He’s an NBA defender right now and he can play point-guard defense right now and that’s huge for us.’’

Rivers said he is close to a decision and will go back to his headquarters in Orlando and discuss the matter with his family. He noted that he wanted to make a decision by July 1, which would allow Ray Allen and Tony Allen to make a free agent choice knowing whether Rivers would be back. If he does make a decision by next week, free agents interested in coming to Boston won’t be unsettled by his situation.

There is no guarantee Rivers will return, but there is more hope that the Celtics will indeed be a strong team next season and easier to coach.

Ainge could have easily drafted for immediate need or brought in a player not ready for prime time to attempt to appease Rivers. Instead, the two figured the best way to get young is to draft young and fill those immediate needs with proven players.

There will be players such as Carlos Boozer on the market, and the Celtics won’t have loads of money to offer, but enough to entice players who want to win immediately. If Pierce opts in, the whole landscape changes, but he indicated earlier in the season that he would sacrifice money for long-term security.

Ainge’s biggest fear is for the Big Three to age like their predecessors, but if he and Rivers carry out their expected plan, that won’t happen. And Rivers’s bright smile was a hint that he may be here for another season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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