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Celtics deal Walker to Dallas

5-player trade nets LaFrentz, Welsch, a No. 1

WALTHAM -- The Celtics traded Antoine Walker yesterday in a move many thought inevitable once Danny Ainge became director of basketball operations. The five-player deal sent Walker and guard Tony Delk to Dallas in exchange for power forward/center Raef LaFrentz, guard Jiri Welsch, forward Chris Mills, and a 2004 first-round draft pick.

The Celtics and Mavericks agreed on the deal late Sunday night, and Ainge promptly called Walker with the news. According to Walker, the conversation was brief, no more than a couple of minutes. Ainge told Walker he was headed to a very good team that really wanted him. In response, Walker simply said, "All right." Ainge wished Walker good luck. Then, Walker hung up.

The Celtics cocaptain did not ask for any explanations. During a press conference at the Celtics' training facility, Ainge said he "needed to go a different direction with this team."

Ainge views LaFrentz, a former teammate of Paul Pierce at Kansas, as "a quality center in this league" with "a post-up game that has not been utilized to its full extent in Dallas." Welsch impressed Ainge in summer league play with his ability to play both guard positions. Despite Welsch's limited NBA experience (one year), Ainge believes he can "develop into a nice, nice NBA player." Injured forward Mills was thrown into the deal to make the numbers work.

Walker believes the move was motivated by more than basketball.

"I didn't have a relationship with [Ainge], period," said Walker, reached by phone yesterday afternoon. "They're going to say cap reasons and this and that. But anybody who knows basketball knows this was a personal situation. He didn't like me. It's either him or the owners. Somebody didn't like me.

"I figured I had too much power for them. I think I had too many friendships off the court. I think he felt he couldn't have a relationship with me. And I just think he never had a high regard for my game. He's entitled to that opinion. I'm 99 percent sure coach [Jim] O'Brien didn't want me to leave."

Ainge denied that the move was personal but did not dispute that Walker's strong personality was a factor. Ainge places a lot of importance on chemistry and character, and he believes the Celtics ultimately will be better off in both categories. He believes Walker may have "stifled" the leadership of other players.

"Antoine had a grasp on our franchise," said Ainge. "If Antoine is Michael Jordan, it's OK to have a grasp. If Antoine is Larry Bird, it's OK to have a grasp, or Bill Russell. I think those players had grasps on their franchises. Shaquille O'Neal has a grasp on the Los Angeles Lakers. But I didn't perceive Antoine's grasp on us as a positive thing."

As a broadcast analyst for NBA games, Ainge had been critical of Walker's fondness for 3-pointers and failure to rebound more. Then, this summer, there was the matter of a contract extension. Walker actually asked to be traded when it was clear an extension would not be forthcoming. But he did not expect a deal to be done as quickly as it was.

"That's life, man," said Walker. "It's one man's opinion, but it's tough when that one man is head of basketball operations. When he called me [Sunday] night, part of me was surprised and part of me wasn't.

"Everyone wanted to come in and say they were changing things. They said we needed one guy or two guys. I guess they didn't really feel that way. I guess the second round wasn't good enough.

"I don't know if they feel this was a step forward or backward, but we'll see. I would have loved the opportunity to fight for No. 17. But I saw the team from 15 wins to the Eastern Conference finals. I've seen the highs and the lows. I feel my career in Boston is complete." Meanwhile, Ainge remains far from finished in his efforts to remake the Celtics and leave his imprint on the franchise. He did not rule out the possibility of another trade in the near future, but he knows he cannot "blow it up" and turn the Celtics back into a lottery team. Ainge believes yesterday's trade allows the team to rebuild without falling far off pace in the Eastern Conference. The Walker deal was merely the beginning of a grander plan."I think Antoine Walker is an excellent player and he's done an excellent job in this organization," said Ainge. "This is simply basketball. This has nothing to do with anything personal. I don't know Antoine except from basketball observation, from a fan, coaching, and general managing perspective. Maybe I didn't have as high a regard for his game as he had for his game, but I certainly respect Antoine Walker as a player." Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck added, "It was a unanimous recommendation from everybody involved in basketball. The two people that [owner] Steve Pagliuca and I met with on Saturday, Jim O'Brien and Danny Ainge, both recommended the deal. The coaching staff, the scouts, player personnel, and Danny unanimously backed the deal. It was not personal. We're going to miss Antoine on and off the court."

But Ainge, Grousbeck, and others also saw some financial benefit in the deal. Walker had two years left on his current maximum contract totaling $28.125 million, while Delk had three years remaining for $9.45 million. Boston inherits LaFrentz's salary of $62.7 million through 2009, along with Mills's $6.6 million and Welsch's roughly $5 million over the next three years.

The Celtics will save about $320,000 this year, and next summer, the team payroll drops from the $57 million range to the $51 million range, allowing it to use the mid-level exception (around $5 million) to sign a free agent.

Other aspects of the deal aren't as easily quantified. All parties involved agreed that the timing was awkward since the regular season begins next Tuesday (the Celtics open next Wednesday). There will be a natural period of adjustment that could last well into December.

But O'Brien said he will go ahead as planned, with defense remaining the priority.

"We're bringing in a long guy, a shot blocker [LaFrentz], and we're going to be able to keep fresher legs on the court at the defensive end," said O'Brien. "I would actually think, as a result of that, that we might be able to become a better defensive team, just because I had to play Antoine too many minutes.

"Offensively, clearly everything is going to revolve around Paul. Paul is a guy who can put up mega-numbers. And every decision that has ever been made since I've been here with Paul on the basketball team is always designed with the idea of `Can we make Paul Pierce better through this deal?' or `Would this deal hurt Paul?' I don't think this deal hurts Paul. Whether or not it makes his situation better remains to be seen."

Pierce is familiar with LaFrentz, having played with him in college. The Celtics still will be able to put good 3-point shooters on the floor and space the court. And O'Brien believes he won't need to use any one player, including Pierce, for 42 minutes or more. That should translate to a fresher squad. With fresher bodies and greater depth, O'Brien hopes the Celtics can break away from the grind-it-out style that often characterized their play last season.

It remains to be seen how team chemistry is affected by the absence of Walker, who was the Celtics' most vocal leader. The defining moment of Walker's captaincy came during the 2002 Eastern Conference finals when he gave an animated pep talk that spurred his teammates on to the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history.

Walker will join his new teammates today in Dallas and hopes to see some time in an exhibition game tonight against the Jazz. He said he looks forward to a fresh start but promises he will not forget the friendships made during his seven years with the Celtics.

"The biggest thing is I've built a lot of great relationships off the court here, and those friendships will be missed greatly," said Walker. "I'm looking forward to building new relationships in Dallas, but I'm very close to my teammates and it's tough to leave those guys and what we've established here. I'm excited, but it's tough when you've been in one uniform for seven years.

"We all know the business and respect the business. Obviously, I'll miss Coach O'Brien. We've grown close. Hopefully, we can continue to be close. It's very rare that you find a coach-player relationship like that. He had a lot of respect for my game and for my opinion of the game. I just want to thank all the fans and people who supported me over the seven years. They know who they are."

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