They must decide whether to maintain the old formula of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo or break it up after six largely successful seasons. Much will depend on the decision of the 6-foot-11 Garnett, who will be 37 next season. Garnett was struggling physically toward the end of the season and has been hinting at retirement for the last two years, so it would be no surprise if he were to stop playing. The Celtics could receive some cap relief from the remaining two years of his contract (worth $24.4 million altogether) depending on whether they negotiated a buyout at a reduced rate or he officially retired, in which case the money would come off entirely.
The Celtics should happily welcome the return of Garnett if he wants to continue for another season. He remains one of the NBA's most influential defenders and leaders, a veteran who continues to set the ultimate example of professionalism for younger teammates.
The other decision involves Pierce, whose expiring contract (worth $15.3 million next year) can be bought out for $5 million by June 30. The Celtics could package Pierce's contract with one or more current teammates in a draft-day trade for a younger player, with the understanding that the team receiving Pierce would then buy him out. That would liberate Pierce to sign with a contender as a free agent -- perhaps the Clippers, who would enable Pierce to return to his native Los Angeles. Pierce, who turns 36 in October, wants to play at least one more year, and he has little interest in finishing his career with a rebuilding team.
If there is no strong trade available for Pierce, the Celtics will face a decision that team president Danny Ainge has characterized as "very hard." Will they buy him out to move on to a new era and force-feed a larger role to Jeff Green and others, or will they bring him back for another year? If the Celtics redesign themselves as a younger, rebuilding team, they may be doing Pierce a favor by setting him free.
There will also be the annual question over the future of coach Doc Rivers, who has not sounded as if he'll be leaving the Celtics this summer.
The draft will be a big point of emphasis. At No. 16, they'll be picking higher than any year since 2007 (when they traded the No. 5 pick, who turned out to be Green, for Ray Allen on their way to winning the championship that season). The draft lacks star talent at the top, but the Celtics will be optimistic of finding a player to join their younger rotation of Rondo (27 years old), Green (26), Avery Bradley (22), Brandon Bass (28), Jared Sullinger (21) and Courtney Lee (27). But they'll have to enter the draft without assistant GM Ryan McDonough, who left Tuesday to become the Suns' GM.
If Garnett's money were to come off the books and Pierce were to be bought out, the Celtics could have a limited amount of cap space -- not enough to bring in an expensive free agent, but helpful in a potential trade.
The truth is that the Celtics don't have a lot of assets to deal. This is not like the summer of 2007, when they had built up enough young talent to complete trades for both Allen and Garnett while holding on to Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. The Celtics endured a lot of pain to acquire those young assets; they're nowhere near that position now after six years of contention.
Ainge can be expected to investigate all potential trades, including those that may involve Rondo, who is expected to return from ACL surgery by early next season. The goal for the Celtics is to recycle their roster as quickly as possible while avoiding multiple years in the lottery. If there isn't an opportunity for them to pull off a sign-and-trade for someone like Paul Millsap or Kevin Martin, the likely move will be to focus on the draft and continuing to develop their young talent with the goal of making a big move in 2014 or beyond.