Posted May 12 2011 4:16PM
MIAMI -- With the sound of the final buzzer came a million and one questions. And 20 minutes later, most of them were answered.
On Wednesday, the Boston Celtics' season ended 11 wins short of their goal, a big step backward from last season's run that came five minutes short of a championship. The veteran Celtics are another year older and were unable to win more than one game in the conference semifinals against the Miami Heat's younger, more durable stars.
The Celtics' four All-Stars are all under contract next season (as long as Ray Allen exercises his $10 million player option), but there was still some doubt about their future given their relatively early exit from the postseason. With the Heat primed for several more years atop the Eastern Conference, there was some thought that it may be time for the Celtics to turn the page.
But that won't be happening for at least another year. Doc Rivers made that clear when he spoke at the podium in the wake of Wednesday's 97-87 loss in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"I don't believe this team is done," Rivers said, adding that he's "leaning heavily" toward returning as the Celtics' head coach. "We have to add some people, but other than that, I love the guys in that locker room."
Rivers is the keystone of the Celtics' core. With him back on the bench, we will almost surely see Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce back in his huddle. Garnett has one more year left on his contract, while Pierce has two more guaranteed.
Allen and Garnett were inconsistent against the Heat, but overall, the original big three had strong and relatively healthy seasons. It's very likely that we'll see some dropoff from all three next season. But they're still a strong group to build around.
"Those vets aren't, I think, regular vets," Rajon Rondo, the team's fourth All-Star, said after Game 5. "They do a great job of taking care of their bodies. They're working, probably, the hardest on the team as far as conditioning."
"Ray is probably the most healthy, in-shape guy in the league," Pierce added. "So I have no doubt he'll come back strong for another three or four years."
Whether Allen remains a Celtic for one more year or four, Rondo is the future of the franchise. And Rivers' return ensures that the enigmatic point guard will remain comfortable in green.
"I really want him to come back," Rondo said.
Beyond the four All-Stars, the only Celtics under contract for next season are veteran center Jermaine O'Neal and rookie point guard Avery Bradley. Shaquille O'Neal has a player option at minimum scale, but after playing just 17 minutes over the last 3 ½ months, his career may be over.
"At that age, so many miles, so many flagrant fouls on him," Pierce said. "His body has taken a lot of pounding, more than the average NBA player."
Glen Davis is an unrestricted free agent who had the most disappointing postseason of any Celtic. He doesn't think that the last few weeks should determine his future with the team, but he's had his ups and downs with Rivers over the years and made it clear Wednesday that he wants to spread his wings.
"I want to be a player in this league," Davis said. "I feel like I've got a lot more to offer, so I want to show the world my talents, if it's here in Boston or wherever."
Though the Celtics have just six players under contract, they're well over the salary cap. So they don't have much flexibility when it comes to improving their roster. That's why Jeff Green may be their most critical piece this summer.
Green's performance after coming to the Celtics in the Kendrick Perkins trade was mostly underwhelming. But he's still a better player than Boston would be able to acquire on the open market with no cap space. And unless there are drastic changes to the collective bargaining agreement this summer, he'll be a restricted free agent, and the Celtics will be able to go further over the cap to re-sign him.
Green was rather ineffective in part because he wasn't fully comfortable with his new team. So, with 2 ½ months of experience as a Celtic, some additional playoff experience and a full training camp in Rivers' system, he should be a different player come fall.
"All I'm going to do is get better," Green said Wednesday. "There's a lot to my game a lot of people haven't seen, a lot of dimensions that I can bring to this team."
Green's ability to play multiple positions is another reason why his return is critical. And if he has an expanded role, he can help Allen, Garnett and Pierce stay fresh.
"I'm not really worried about their health," Rondo said. "It's just, obviously, the longevity of the season. So if we can get some young guys that can pick up the load in the regular season, we'll be fine."
Even if Green returns, the Celtics will still need a few more players for their rotation, including a starting center, since Jermaine O'Neal can't be relied on to play a full season. Given their lack of financial flexibility, that will be a challenge for team president Danny Ainge, especially because younger players aren't as likely to accept less money for a chance at a ring. But there will be players who want to play for Rivers and compete for a championship.
And with the right additions, the Celtics might be able to do that once again.
"I think we're capable," Pierce said. "Definitely, you've got to re-evaluate the roster, make a couple of moves, see where we can get better at, and see what happens."
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