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On basketball

Celtics could make a splash next summer

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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WALTHAM - The Summer of LeBron in 2010 was more about the style of his “Decision’’ and the collaboration with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami than a fruitful free agent bonanza.

Next summer might compensate for that. The signatures have yet to be placed on the new collective bargaining agreement, yet teams are vigorously trying to position themselves to acquire Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, two superstars who are eligible to opt out of their contracts after this season.

Deron Williams of the Nets joins that list, along with Chauncey Billups of the Knicks, Steve Nash of the Suns, Jameer Nelson of the Magic, and Gerald Wallace of the Trail Blazers.

Celtics president Danny Ainge has pointed to the summer of 2012 as a landmark moment when his club can attract its first major free agent in some time. The Celtics will no longer be responsible for the salaries of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen - a combined $31 million - leaving Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce as the only major contracts remaining on the salary cap.

Only $29 million is committed to salaries in 2012, giving the Celtics nearly $30 million to attract perhaps two free agents. Doc Rivers’s commitment to the Celtics for five years was essential to making the club a player in free agency, and now the organization won’t be cash-strapped for the first time in several years.

With the new CBA reducing the maximum number of years free agents can sign for and that players under contract can sign extensions for, those who are under an early termination option such as Paul are not expected to agree to any extension if they are traded.

Players who are “Larry Bird’’ free agents can sign five-year extensions (with their own teams) with a 7.5 percent raise per season, while others are limited to four years and 4.5 percent. So Williams, who was traded to the Nets last season, has already indicated he plans to opt out even though he wants to return to New Jersey. He can sign a five-year deal at $100 million as a free agent instead of extending at four years and $74 million.

This makes acquiring any player during this short stretch of free agency tricky. It’s highly unlikely that a premium free agent-to-be is going to decline opting out to re-sign with the Celtics, so they are likely going to have to wait for next summer.

There is significant interest in current free agents such as Tyson Chandler, David West, Nene, Jason Richardson, and Caron Butler, but with this shorter free agent window, teams are less inclined to take risks on long-term deals that could adversely affect the salary cap.

But that free agent class pales in comparison to 2012’s, and that may encourage teams such as the Pacers, who have $22 million to spend in this free agency period, to stash their money until next summer. What the lockout did is push back the league’s calendar so far that teams are now pressed to chase players to get them into training camp next week.

With the season beginning in just 16 days, this free agency period will be an afterthought next summer. Franchise-altering players will be available, and the Celtics have a large stash of money to offer to someone who could team with Rondo (if he is not traded) and Pierce to continue the club’s string of success.

Ainge has been preparing for that summer the past few years, realizing that he needs to eventually cut ties with Garnett and Allen or reduce their salaries dramatically. Since Pierce was younger and a lifetime Celtic, Ainge signed him to a four-year extension, and the available cap space will ensure he is not the team’s primary scorer.

And while Ainge continues to discuss a trade of Rondo to the Hornets for Paul, he will not jeopardize his future salary cap space or add an unwanted long-term contact in exchange for a one-year fix.

While Howard, Paul, Williams, and Wallace are not on LeBron James’s level, that free agent class could have just as much impact on the league, especially if Paul lands in New York with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire while Howard takes on Hollywood with a still-effective Kobe Bryant.

Power teams do not rebuild through the draft and by waiting for prospects to flourish - they do it through free agency and trades. Ainge has learned from the failed Gerald Green experiment; he spun Al Jefferson, Green, and Ryan Gomes into Garnett, and we know what happened after that.

So while he is attempting to get one final title run with the Big Three - with or without Rondo - he is also keeping an eye toward next summer, when he will have the rare opportunity to reconstruct the Celtics roster to compete in the future with a new set of superstars.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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