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Team shows that it really means business

The word "business" was used a lot yesterday. Danny Ainge mentioned it on several occasions. Paul Pierce said the word came up in his phone conversation with Antoine Walker. Jim O'Brien said the same thing. That's what yesterday's five-player trade between the Celtics and Mavericks was at the foundation: a business deal. It was a business deal necessitated in part by the Celtics' belief -- though never specifically articulated by Walker -- that the cocaptain would be seeking a lot of money in the summer of 2005, a lot more than the team thought he was worth or would be willing to pay him.

Over the past few months, it must have been at least somewhat unsettling to Walker to watch Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson, and Kevin Garnett all agree to max-level extensions. Ray Allen may soon do the same with Seattle. The Lakers have had one ready for Kobe Bryant to sign for more than a year. Walker has been in three All-Star Games, one more than Marbury and the same number as Allen.

The Celtics, however, had no such offer forthcoming. As a baseline, a max-level extension for Walker would have started at $16,435,125. Any subsequent year could be increased by as much as $1,828,125. So, for instance, a three-year extension would cost the Celtics more than $54 million. There is no way they were going to pay that, and there also was no way they could think that Walker wouldn't demand that.

So, as Ainge noted, "We decided to go in a different direction." In other words, they decided that they were facing a tough, contentious, and possibly hopeless negotiation with Walker and there was a real possibility he might simply play out his contract and leave. The Celtics would have gotten nothing in return. Why not be proactive?

That is the business side of this deal. Even though the Celtics are taking on some $37 million more in salary through 2009, principal owner Wyc Grousbeck said the deal was "a no-brainer from the business side." Here's the other reason: This deal, with Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills, and a No. 1 pick, was about as good as Boston could expect for Walker.

The leaguewide view of Walker as a player leans much more to the Celtics' perspective -- good but not great -- than to the fact that Walker may be perceived as an elite player because he has made three All-Star teams, taken his team to the conference finals, and is on a maximum salary. Forget what O'Brien said in public about how great and irreplaceable Walker was. O'Brien praises all his players; maybe he saw what belittling them (Rick Pitino) did.

You would rather have Kurt Thomas and Charlie Ward? You would rather have Austin Croshere? Those were the kinds of names the Celtics were seeing in Walker offers. Rather than let this thing drag on until next summer, Ainge decided that what Dallas offered was as good as anything he was going to get -- and there was just as strong a chance that any future offer might be worse. And he felt that the Celtics would not be appreciably better if they did nothing.

LaFrentz is what he is. The Mavericks wanted him to be a center and his game is on the outside, not the inside. He can block shots. He was anything but a difference maker in Dallas; the word "soft" comes to mind. He will be scrutinized here because he immediately becomes the third-highest-paid player on the team. He can shoot threes -- much better than Walker -- and there was some concern in the Dallas organization yesterday that LaFrentz would prosper in the centerless, power forwardless East and come back to bite the Mavs in the you-know-where.

Welsch is the X-factor. Technically, this is his fourth team in 17 months. The Sixers drafted him, traded him to Golden State on draft night, then the Warriors shipped him in August to Dallas in the Nick Van Exel deal. So the only team that had him for any length of time was Golden State.

"Dallas liked him a lot," Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean said yesterday. "So did we. And Boston has been after him for a while. He has a great upside. He just needs to calm down and get comfortable. When you're young, everything is quick."

Mills won't play this season; he is, incredibly, on the final year of the seven-year deal he signed with Boston Aug. 22, 1997. Since then, he's been with the Knicks, Warriors, and Mavs -- making a lot of money thanks to Pitino.

But there are two potential finds for the Celtics in this. The first is the draft pick. Sure, it will be in the mid to late 20s, but that's a perfect spot for Ainge to take another Kendrick Perkins-like project or perhaps some European who may be a year or two away. Finally, the deal will, or so the Celtics are saying now, cut their payroll sufficiently next summer (by around $7 million) that they will be able to use their mid-level exception.

That's the company line now, anyway. It was an absolute disgrace that ownership tied Ainge's hands this past summer, all the while sending ticket prices through the roof and talking about a 17th championship. Ainge now says he'll have the green light to sign a decent free agent next summer.

If that's the case, then this can be seen as a four-for-two deal. LaFrentz, Welsch, Mr. Draft Choice, and Mr. Free Agent for Walker and Tony Delk. Given the Celtics' suspicions about Walker's future, you even could make a case that this is a four-for-one deal. That looks like an excellent business deal from their side. Now all they have to do is draft and sign the right players -- and hope that the two they acquired yesterday will make them a better team.

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