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ON BASKETBALL

Pistons have Ainge to thank

Who says Danny Ainge isn't committed to building a championship team? He took a big step in that direction yesterday -- for the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons owe Our Danny big time.

Ainge not only helped midwife the deal that enabled Detroit to land Rasheed Wallace, he also took on backup point guard Chucky Atkins, giving the Pistons the financial flexibility the team needs to re-sign Mehmet Okur next summer. Oh, and just for good measure, Ainge also threw in Mike James, who, lest we forget, was the only Celtic not named Paul Pierce to have started every game this season.

A few hours before yesterday's big, three-team, multiplayer deal involving Detroit, Atlanta, and the Celtics, there was concern among the Pistons that their pursuit of Wallace would be fruitless. Simply, they needed a third team to get involved because the Hawks refused to accept players for Wallace whose contracts extended beyond this season.

The Pistons had some guys whose deals did not go beyond this year -- Bobby Sura, Lindsey Hunter, and Zeljko Rebraca. But those guys did not square up financially with the outrageously compensated Wallace, and anyone else the Pistons might have wanted to include (Atkins, Corliss Williamson) had deals that went on beyond the season.

"We needed a third team," said Joe Dumars, the Pistons' hoop boss. "Danny helped us out. But Danny is a negotiator. He did what he had to do. He got a first-round pick and some cash."

Ainge had two players who had expiring contracts who would make up the difference. Presto -- Chris Mills and his deadweight deal of $6.6 million went to the Hawks and then James was packaged to the Pistons to make the numbers work. Ainge also took Hunter, but he is a short-termer.

We know what Detroit is thinking: win now. There are no guarantees they'll hang on to Wallace after this season; this could be the equivalent of Randy Johnson going to the Astros. Wallace apparently has a desire to play in New York and you can be sure Isiah Thomas will do his utmost to make that happen. But until then, Wallace is a Piston and he gives Detroit desperately needed scoring. The Pistons also got a serviceable rotation guy in James -- who has played at least as well as Atkins this season at one-sixth the cost -- and the needed flexibility to re-sign Okur, who is developing into their starting center. That was significant.

We know what Atlanta is thinking: dump, dump, dump. Much of what's left of the Hawks -- and it ain't much -- will be elsewhere next season, giving the new owners (assuming they're approved by then) and the new basketball people a chance to literally build from the ground up. If Bowie Kuhn were running the NBA, he might have thwarted this one. Atlanta is basically disassembling -- on purpose.

We know what Boston is thinking: on to Secaucus. If you need any further evidence that this season is in the rearview mirror, yesterday had to be the clincher. Sure, the Celtics now have three No. 1 picks in what Ainge deems to be a deep draft. If the season ended today, only Boston's pick would be in the top half; the others would be in the 20s. The Pistons also forked over some of Bill Davidson's private stash, which undoubtedly pleased ownership. But Ainge also took on $8.7 million in salary (the two years of Atkins's contract) for a player who pretty much defines the term "backup." Atkins hit some big shots for the Pistons over the last few years and can be a sneaky, streaky scorer. But he also was manhandled in the 2002 playoffs by Kenny Anderson, which prompted the Pistons to go out and sign Chauncey Billups.

"Danny did what he felt he had to do for his team and for his owners," Dumars said. You can understand the Celtics' jettisoning of Mills -- "a piece of paper," Dumars said. That alone would have made the deal for Wallace work. But the Pistons wanted more. They wanted out of Atkins's deal ($4.2 million/$4.5 million) to use that money to re-sign Okur. That's the only way it was going to be a win-win for Detroit.

Dumars got the deal only so far. He then turned to the guy against whom he played so many memorable games in the 1980s for that final push. If politics makes strange bedfellows, then what does this deal say?

It says that the 2003-04 Celtics are a footnote. It says Ainge is banking heavily on the 2004 draft to rebuild the team. And it says the Pistons are one of the East's favorites now and for years to come.

Maybe someone else could have stepped into the breach to save the deal. We'll never know because, in the end, Ainge did the honors.

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