BOSTON -- For Danny Ainge, this was the easy part. The first stage of rebuilding always is.
Oh, sure, Ainge has done well for himself. Really well. He turned two stars in the winter of their careers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett) into a pair of first-round picks. He turned a coach he was done with (Doc Rivers) into another pick. He plucked Brad Stevens from Butler and watched as Stevens developed into a fine NBA coach. Boston's 57 losses are the third most in the franchise's storied history, but it's hardly a reflection of its first-year head coach, whose massively outmanned team competed almost every night.
Take a look at Boston's losses: The number of competitive games far outnumbers the ones that weren't.
Considering the Celtics expectations, the 2013-14 season was a success. They will wipe Kris Humphries' $12 million contract off the books in the offseason. They will have a top-five pick in a talent-rich draft. They will have another top-20 pick because the additions of Pierce and Garnett didn't turn the Nets into the elite contender they hoped to be. They have two picks apiece in '15, '16 and '18 and could have another if Philadelphia makes the playoffs next season. Ainge parlayed the volume shooting Jordan Crawford into that.
The first stage of the rebuild is over. Now the heavy lifting begins.
It's easier to tear a team down than build one back up, any league executive will tell you, and Ainge will oversee a critical summer for the Celtics. Decisions must be made. Is Rajon Rondo part of the core or a trade asset? Is Avery Bradley worth the $7-9 million per season it is likely going to take to keep him? The upcoming draft is deep and talented but if the Celtics slip out of the top three the choices aren't so obvious. Who will they take?
"I have some ideas and some plans that I'd like to do but there is just no guarantee we can do it," Ainge said. "We need to find good trading partners. Every summer we try to do something unique and special and we will definitely try this summer."
It begins with Rondo, the talented, mercurial guard who at times has as many critics in this town as fans. To some he is a superstar, a top-five playmaker, a critical piece (with a manageable contract) in any rebuilding effort. To others he is too ball dominant and an iffy teammate who compiles far too many selfish assists. Ainge declined to rule out trading Rondo -- "There is no one person that's more important than the whole organization," Ainge said -- but understands Rondo's sluggish play following ACL surgery has diminished his value significantly. s
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"I think that Rondo will have the best year of his career next year," Ainge said. "I think he'll be really healthy and fresher with a summer of strength."
Who Rondo plays with is just as big a question. Boston has never been a destination city for free agents and Ainge correctly points out that there are not a lot of difference making free agents out there anyways. Let's be real, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony aren't coming down Causeway Street, and a class that includes Luol Deng, Chandler Parsons and Pau Gasol isn't worth overpaying for.
Boston's future rests with the draft, where Ainge has a strong track record of success. In recent years Ainge has had some solid picks in the teens (Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley) and 20's (Jared Sullinger), success that will be important to duplicate with the pick that will convey from Brooklyn. Early picks get the attention but the meat of a contender is filled with quality mid- to late- first-round picks, as Indiana (Paul George, Roy Hibbert), San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker) and Oklahoma City (Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson) can attest. Ainge needs to pluck a player from the Gary Harris/Nik Stauskas/Kyle Anderson clutter, and it needs to be a good one.
Seven years ago Ainge was in a similar situation. He had a pocketful of draft picks, a handful of young assets and a superstar in his prime (Pierce) to build around. In a matter of months Ainge turned the players and picks into Garnett and Ray Allen and a new championship era in Boston began. Ainge will have similar assets this summer. He will undoubtedly check in with Minnesota once again about the availability of Kevin Love. He may see if Chicago, should the Bulls chase Anthony, is looking for a soft landing spot for Taj Gibson.
Ainge will be aggressive because, well, Ainge knows no other way.
Boston went out with a whimper on Wednesday night, slapped around in a 118-102 loss to a Washington team that needed a win. No Rondo, no Sullinger and no hope for the Celtics in this one. A nightmare of a season is over, a necessary evil in the books.
The destruction of this team is complete. Now, Ainge begins the process of building it back up.