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Premature to break them up

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 8, 2012
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ATLANTA - As the Big Three readies for what appears to be another long playoff run, continuing to perform at a high level despite their ages, team president Danny Ainge might have an interesting predicament this summer, when he apparently is supposed to break up the trio and move forward.

This is the salary cap summer Ainge has waited for, with Kevin Garnett’s $21 million salary and Ray Allen’s $10 million off the books, putting the Celtics approximately $25 million under the cap. And the transition to the post-Big Three era was supposed to begin with Garnett and Allen departing and a couple of heavy-hitting, prime free agents taking the Duck Boat ride.

Although money would be plentiful this summer, the free agent crop that once appeared fruitful is now rather grim, and as the Red Sox are learning the hard way with Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey, and Carl Crawford, filling your payroll with high-priced players doesn’t necessarily result in championship appearances.

In other words, change for the sake of change could be fruitless. If the Celtics are going to move on to the post-Big Three Era, the new era has to appear brighter and with more upside, and that may hardly be the case.

Paul Pierce has two more years on his contract and is showing no signs of slowing down, Garnett is enjoying a second-half renaissance after looking haggard at times in the first 30 games, and Ray Allen is still draining 3-pointers without the same defensive demands because of Avery Bradley’s emergence. And Rajon Rondo has three more years on his contract and is turning in a career season, so there is little reason the Celtics could not bring the Big Three back for at least another season.

Of course, Ainge can’t possibly pay Garnett and Allen the same salaries, but would both return on reduced contracts to stay in the same positive environment? Likely. And there appears to be no premium free agent for the Celtics to pursue this summer.

Beyond Nets guard Deron Williams, the available players (such as Tim Duncan, Antawn Jamison, and Chauncey Billups) are past their prime or average, and there is no maximum contract player that would significantly foster the progress of the post-Big Three era - unless Ainge jars his roster by making a trade. The development of Bradley has changed matters considerably for the Celtics.

He has catapulted from unheralded to potential contributor to cornerstone in about three months. His presence takes the pressure off Allen, who can come off the bench (even though it’s not a role he’s crazy about) and score against reserves. He’ll be 37 in July and perhaps a slightly lesser role will reduce the wear on his ankles.

Ainge could postpone the breakup and move forward because the Celtics hold two first-round draft picks (Nos. 21 and 22) in one of the more potentially talented drafts in recent years. If he gets two potential rotation players while Bradley, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson continue to develop with a full summer league - something they were denied because of the lockout - and Jeff Green returns on a one-year contract, suddenly the Celtics have major depth.

And Ainge will have invested little of that available salary cap space, perhaps money he can save for the summer of 2013, when he’s really ready to move on from Garnett and Allen. The two first-round picks allow Ainge to rebuild without wasting money on bust free agents who would gladly take the Celtics money and then under-perform (see Red Sox, Boston).

The key is to get Garnett and Allen to return on shorter contracts and reduced money. It’s difficult to believe Garnett would eagerly pursue playing for another club if the Celtics wanted him to return. He has become an icon here. The public deeply respects his privacy and has embraced his style.

For Allen, it’s been an admittedly difficult season and he has prepared for offseason ankle surgery to improve his free agent marketability. But perhaps one more run, a chance to play completely healthy and with the same core, would encourage him to come back.

Also, the Celtics have the money to entice Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus to return on longer-term deals and match offers for Greg Stiemsma. Bass has a player option next season at $4 million, but has outplayed that contract. Pietrus said last Friday he wants to return. What the post-All-Star break and playoffs has proven is the current Celtics have something left.

The Dallas Mavericks learned the hard way about breaking up a team for the sake of breaking up when they allowed Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea to walk. If the only reason to jettison Garnett and Allen is that their contracts are expiring, then Ainge has to find a better reason.

The Celtics are consistently beating and outfoxing younger and more athletic teams, and if Ainge can add more athleticism and youth this summer - and he has three of the first 51 picks next month - then he can blend together old and new without completely tearing up the fabric established the past five years. And they can do this whole title-contending thing all over against next year.

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

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