For a player many feel is washed up, Ray Allen sure sounds revved up and raring to go. Allen already has surgery scheduled on his problematic right ankle, which caused him much pain and discomfort throughout much of the regular season and on into the playoffs. In Allen’s mind, that ankle was the primary culprit affecting his magnificent jumper. Age? Surely not. To hear Allen tell it, there is plenty of basketball left in those legs of his, and who is going to doubt him? He’s a physical specimen who watches what he eats and who takes care of his body, which has enabled him to play professional basketball at an elite level well into his thirties.
Allen’s surgery is scheduled for Wednesday morning, and he can’t wait to walk pain-free once again. But there’s more to the rush than eradicating the pain that surges through his ankle whenever he plants and cuts, which, of course, are prerequisites for playing basketball in the NBA. See, Ray Allen is going to return to the league next season. He’s stated that fact simply, unequivocally. And he’s prepared to continue his journey in another uniform if things don’t work out for a return trip to Boston.
Thus begins the battle of nerves between Danny Ainge and Ray Allen. To see who will blink first, and who will set the tone for what happens next. Does Danny really want to see Allen in a Miami Heat uniform, tormenting the Celtics next season and perhaps helping the Heat run away with another NBA Championship or three? Does he want to see Allen launching threes in Lakers purple and gold?
Methinks not, but that may be the road that we’re traveling down. Ray Allen wants to play again, and not just for next season. We’re talking two, at least, given the way he feels outside of that bum ankle. So Mr. Ainge has a dilemma; cut ties with Sugar Ray, one of the classiest guys you’d ever want to meet, or try to convince him to come back for less dollars and a lesser role with the team. The unfortunate thing about this situation? Bringing Allen back may stunt the rebuilding process, as he would be committing valuable cap dollars to a player whose best days are behind him. And yet, in this year of weak free agents, who is Danny going to replace Allen with? And then there’s Allen himself. To continue playing basketball elsewhere would dilute an identity that was clearly enhanced as a part of the Big Three – and as a member of the Celtic Nation family.
It’s an awkward dance that will surely play itself out in slow motion over the summer, unfurling like a Paul Pierce elbow jumper at the top of the key. Allen will need to get through the surgery, which is Step 1 and at the top of his priority list. And then he’ll need to prove that he’s on the road to recovery, and that he’s itching to become the Ray Allen of old, and not an old Ray Allen. Ainge will keep in contact with Allen and his agent, hedging his bets while saying all the right things. There’s the NBA Draft to get through, and his focus will be on that for the immediate future. But there will come a point this off-season where the two sides will either work something out, or they will agree to go their separate ways. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know how this will break, and that any guess I make will probably be wrong. So I’m going to look at the pros and cons of keeping Ray in the fold, and then give you my take on what I think Ainge should do. Ready? Here we go:
Assuming Allen would be amenable to a short-term contract at substantially less that he made last season, and that he would be comfortable with coming off the bench, then the Celtics would have the makings of a great second unit. I say this because it looks like Brandon Bass will exercise his player option to return, and if he does, Mr. Bass will likely return to a reserve role. Bringing players like Bass and Allen off the bench would give the Celtics much-needed depth and more than enough offense to keep the opposition honest. One would think that Allen, playing limited minutes, would shoot a higher percentage, and we all know that Bass has a very good mid-range jumper.
Allen may not be happy coming off the bench. It’s time to groom a new starter at the shooting guard position, whether that’s Avery Bradley or someone else signed vie free agency. If Allen pouts over a diminished role, that could create a cascading series of problems in the locker room and on the court. (And we have heard the rumors that Allen and Rajon Rondo aren’t exactly the best of buddies.)What else? Oh yeah – Sugar Ray may demand more money than Ainge should be reasonably prepared to spend on a player of Allen’s age. Ainge was criticized in some circles for not re-signing James Posey to a 4-year deal after winning the 2008 NBA Championship, but the decision to let Posey sign elsewhere turned out to be the right decision after all. Posey’s production and effectiveness tailed off immediately after leaving Boston for more green. The lesson: Dedicating big money to Allen takes dollars off the table for other potential free agents, and a player Allen’s age can lose his legs overnight.
Ainge will think long and hard about Allen anchoring the second unit, and as tempting as it may appear on paper, my guess is that the two parties will part ways. That’s going to be hard on everyone involved, but it’s going to be better for Boston in the long run.