For those who called for this at various points the past couple of seasons, well, here you go. This is what blowing it up looks like.
It’s messy, abrupt, uncertain, sad, jarring, final, and all of that wallops you before the most blunt realization of all: there’s no guarantee whether or when it will actually pay off.
Did I mention sad? I mentioned sad, right? Well, excuse me while I mention it again.
The deal won’t be official until July 10, when the league’s moratorium on trades and signings is lifted. But it’s already bluntly final. Because it was the right thing to do — and it absolutely was, which I’ll elaborate on after the proper eulogy — doesn’t make it any easier to take.
Ray Allen took his sweet shot to Miami a year ago. Doc Rivers made his slippery exit west a few days ago. But the formal end of the new Big Three Era — a franchise-reviving three-year plan that lasted six mostly rewarding and always entertaining seasons — came with the news that Pierce and Garnett would no longer be wearing green and white.
It’s hard to imagine Pierce wearing a jersey other than one that says CELTICS 34. He’s been one of ours since June 24, 1998, when he slid down the draft all the way the Celtics at 10. It was such a gift — I remember the headline read “Luck of the Irish” the next day — that not even Rick Pitino could mess it up.
Pierce’s arrival and the thought of him joining forces with Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer brought hope, which tells you just how bleak it was prior. It felt like the first break they’d caught in years.
The 15 years weren’t always smooth. There’s still occasional retroactive finger-wagging about his ejection from Game 6 of the Indiana series in 2005 …
… and the goofy sock chinstrap he wore to the postgame press conference afterward. But those growing pains made the reward all the more enjoyable, and it must be remembered that he had his moments of postseason brilliance long before Allen and Garnett arrived.
Pierce thrived here, literally survived here, using his old man’s game and genius for basketball geometry to score the second-most points in franchise history. He’s in the top five in franchise history in games, points, assists, threes, steals, blocks, pump-fakes and step-back jumpers, and while his jersey may say Nets for another season or three, you’d damn well better believe he’s a Celtic lifer. Hey, Dave Cowens played for the Bucks, you know?
Garnett didn’t begin his career a Celtic. But he was born one in spirit, a worthy descendant of Bill Russell, the rare modern player who prioritized winning and defense and all-out, on-the-fringe effort rather than getting his shots. KG changed the culture here, as the fulcrum of the defense and Ubuntu, and that 17th banner would not be hanging from the Garden rafters without him. It was a pleasure to watch him for these six years and you’d better believe his No. 5 belongs in the rafters.
Every Celtics fan is bummed to see Pierce and Garnett go. Their former teammates surely are as well — I can just imagine Rajon Rondo heaving his Connect 4 game across the room upon hearing the news. But you can mourn their departure — and I’m right there with you — while still recognizing that hitting the reset button is the right thing to do.
Danny Ainge was true to his word, that he wouldn’t let sentimentality decide the fate of the New Big Three as it had with his old buddies Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. I’m glad he didn’t do this sooner, but make no mistake: he did have to do it. There are only a couple of paths to becoming a championship contender in the NBA.
— Sign elite free agents.
— Collect assets and trade them for disgruntled or no longer affordable stars who were established elsewhere.
— Hit the jackpot in the lottery for a true franchise player and build around him.
The first route isn’t happening here unless there’s a sudden climate change. The second route is how they acquired Garnett and Allen, and they did that only after missing out on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. The third route is what they are trying to do now, and it’s the one that comes with the highest risk/reward. It’s also the one that asks the most of the fanbase.
The Celtics are going to stink this year. They’ll be brutal, and you’d better believe it is by design. And you know what? You should want them to be brutal, even if that means trading Rondo and anyone else who might “help” them end up in that 35-win purgatory. (This is also one more reason why you never, ever pursue Josh Smith, the ultimate stuck-in-the-middle-with-you player.) Heck, bring back M.L. Carr as coach, give Antoine Walker his dream job, whatever it takes.
Because the reward could be worth it.
The 2014 draft is potentially stacked. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins — get used to hearing that name — is the best prospect since Kevin Durant, and Duke’s Jabari Parker isn’t far behind. It will not be a draft in which the team with the top pick shrugs, yawns, and takes an Anthony Bennett. Franchises will be rejuvenated and revived next season. And in case you were too busy mourning the end of an era to notice — a totally justifiable defense — Ainge has loaded up on assets, acquiring four first-round picks for Rivers, Garnett and Pierce. (Right … and Terry.)
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh did a superb job in his column last night explaining how Ainge has deftly set the Celtics up to rebuild this thing faster than anyone might expect:
To recap, the Celtics … have their own pick in 2014 — which promises to be, at worst, in the top five (more on this later) — and they would also have another likely non-lottery first-rounder, whichever is the worse pick between the Nets and the Hawks as a result of the Joe Johnson deal in 2012. Furthermore, the Celtics would have a pair of first-rounders in 2015 (their own and the Rivers pick) and a pair of first-rounders in 2016 and ’18 (their own and Brooklyn’s). If the deal gets done, the Celtics will have a pair of first-rounders in four of the next five drafts. I repeat: four of the next five drafts.
Nine first-rounders over five drafts — and remember, there’s no guarantee the aging Nets are going to be any good two years from now, let alone four. C’mon, you’re intrigued and a little encouraged now, right? Again: They have stockpiled assets. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Ainge cashes them in.
I know, it’s not going to be easy watching this team this year, with Fab Melo playing the role of Brett Szabo and who knows which former Maine Red Claw starring as the new Nate Driggers. It’ll be painful. There will be nights when we’d much rather watch our old friends in Brooklyn.
Emotionally, it hurts. But starting over, blowing it up, and moving on from two of the most admirable Celtics you’ll ever see was the right thing to do.
Remember Pierce and Garnett for who they were and all that they meant. Of course. But amid all the appropriate tributes and warm flashbacks, try to judge this deal on what they are now, and what it means for the Celtics’ future.
And should you need a reminder, or should you not be able to take loss after Celtics loss, a suggestion: there might be a lot of optimism to be found in watching Kansas games in the season ahead. Yes, sort of like when Pierce himself was a Jayhawk, 16 rewarding years ago.