Few grand conclusions can be drawn from February NBA games. But in this case, the Celtics' latest disappointing loss only underscored what has been a poorly kept secret among NBA executives for weeks: Ray Allen's time in Boston is likely coming to an end.
Thanks to a non-competitive third quarter, the Celtics fell to Orlando 96-89 on Sunday, dropping them to third in the East behind the Cavs and Magic. The struggling Celtics still have three games against Cleveland to prove they haven't fallen from elite status. But after going 1-3 against Orlando and 0-4 against Atlanta, the Celtics have reached a crossroads in their bid to milk one more championship banner out of the Allen-Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett era.
Don't bet on every member of the Big Three being around beyond the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
Though team president Danny Ainge has publicly ridiculed the Allen trade reports, several NBA executives told CBSSports.com that the Celtics have been actively trying to parlay Allen's $19.7 million expiring contract into an asset that could keep them in the mix during the upcoming playoffs and also help them for the next several seasons. The most recent inquiry, sources say, involved Sacramento sharpshooter Kevin Martin, who'd be a good fit with Boston's remaining core. Kings officials might be talked out of their reluctance to deal Martin if they could pry a prolific big man out of a third team brought into the discussions or in a separate transaction before the deadline.
The bottom line is that Ainge, who saved his job by pulling off the perfect storm of trades that yielded Allen and Garnett three years ago, has made it clear in private conversations that he's "not going back to the abyss," according to one person familiar with the discussions.
If the Celtics kept Allen and let his contract come off the books, they'd still be over the cap this summer with no avenues besides sign-and-trades to acquire a starting shooting guard. That's why Boston also has expressed interest in the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich, an excellent defender and ball-handler who would give the Celtics a starting two guard next season at $9 million and in 2011-12 at $8 million. The Bulls' motivation would be cap relief.
The Kings, who are not planning to be big free-agent shoppers this summer, aren't seeking to acquire cap space alone. They want assets -- and the Celtics don't have a young big man to offer. The Bulls, who almost certainly will move Tyrus Thomas, might need to be invited into that conversation to satisfy everyone's needs.
Whatever avenue they pursue, the Celtics don't want to go into this summer with no cap flexibility and no assets that could be used to keep them among the elite. Before Ainge struck the 2007 draft-related deal for Allen and then plucked Garnett from Minnesota with the help of former teammate Kevin McHale, the Celtics had just endured a 24-win season and hadn't been out of the first round since 2002-03. Ainge and Doc Rivers were on the brink of getting fired until the perfect remedy presented itself -- and the Celtics parlayed the Allen and Garnett deals into their 17th NBA title.
"Kevin McHale's out of the league," one rival executive said, only half-joking. "So they're not going to be able to recreate that deal again."
The period leading up to that was so grim that nobody in the organization wants to revisit it. The best way to avoid such a scenario would be to part ways with Allen. It wouldn't be starting over. Instead, it would be a bold attempt to have a chance against Cleveland, Orlando, and Atlanta in the playoffs and avoid going back to the depths of rebuilding.