DENVER -- In a trading deadline shocker, the Celtics reacquired forward Antoine Walker from the Atlanta Hawks yesterday in exchange for Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Michael Stewart, and a first-round draft pick in 2005 or 2006. The deal reunites Walker with Paul Pierce and executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who sent the veteran All-Star to Dallas Oct. 20, 2003, in a move indicative of Boston's new direction. Much to the delight of Walker, that new direction has now taken a familiar turn.
"I wasn't excited about being moved, to be honest with you, but I couldn't ask for a better situation," Walker said from Portland, Ore., where the Hawks will play the Trail Blazers tonight. "I have an opportunity to play with another All-Star and a chance to join a team that's in the thick of the playoff hunt, and I love to play in the postseason. So, I have to thank [Atlanta general manager] Billy Knight for moving me back to a place that I know so well."
Don't expect Payton to remain in Atlanta. The Hawks are likely to waive him or buy out his contract, and he could even end up back with the Celtics.
The Celtics also traded Jiri Welsch to Cleveland for a 2007 first-round pick.
Ainge traded Walker to Dallas because he thought Walker's maximum contract would slow the team's retooling process. Walker believed the deal was motivated by personal reasons. Acrimony and harsh words followed. But the sides appear to have reached detente. The new Celtics look like the old Celtics with the two-pronged attack of Walker and Pierce back in place. But for how long? Walker is in the final year of a six-year contract worth approximately $70 million he signed with the Celtics in 1999.
"I hope Boston isn't just renting me for the last two months of the season to make a playoff run," said Walker. "I spent a lot of years there. I made a lot of friends there. I put my roots there. I'd love to be there for the rest of my career."
When asked whether Walker would be with the Celtics long term, Ainge said he had "no idea" and would not address the issue until this summer. Ainge was not thinking about adding Walker to the roster until yesterday.
"There's been talk with Atlanta for about a month, but it mostly included our young guys, and that wasn't going to happen," said Ainge. "[Yesterday], when it became more serious and [the terms] became a little bit more favorable, we did it. We've had interest in Antoine coming back for a while, but the price was too high. Today, the price was right and we're excited to have him.
"I think Antoine can help us. He's what I refer to as a playmaker in the frontcourt, a passer/ballhandler at the power forward and center positions. That is something we've lacked. His skills and experience can help us."
Coach Doc Rivers met with his staff to discuss how to utilize Walker. There will be times when the Celtics will play Walker at small forward and take Tony Allen out of the starting lineup. But Rivers plans to use Walker at power forward and start Mark Blount or Raef LaFrentz at center, depending on matchups.
Rivers plans to start Delonte West at point guard and use Marcus Banks as a backup.
Ainge refused to consider a scenario in which Payton returned to the Celtics, saying he had "no knowledge of what Atlanta is doing with Gary." Payton also could go elsewhere, such as Miami, a title-contending team in need of a point guard. But Rivers plans to make use of Walker's ballhandling skills, though he admitted the loss of Payton was tough to take.
"Gary came in here and did all the things we asked," said Rivers. "Losing Gary, you need someone else who can handle the ball and help in that role. Antoine adds something like that to our team because he's a big [man] who can score and handle the ball. He stretches the floor and plays into what we were doing. And I know he had great chemistry with Paul. He's very excited to come back and that was good for me to hear.
"I've never coached Antoine, but I know he's a matchup nightmare to coach against. The tough part is the way Antoine plays changes the way we play offense. We're not sure what we're going to do offensively. We want to take advantage of what we have. That's the tough part about trades. I like where we can go. I just don't know how we're going to take advantage of it yet."
With Welsch gone and Walter McCarty traded to Phoenix recently, the Celtics will sign a 12th player from either the pool of NBA players waived after the trading deadline, or from the minor leagues.
Walker, who averaged 20.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game for the Hawks this season, hopes his second stint in a Celtics uniform lasts as long as his first. After being selected No. 6 overall by Boston in the 1996 draft, Walker played seven seasons in the Hub and made the city his second home. He enjoyed his best year during the 2000-01 campaign, when he averaged 23.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. The next season, Walker and Pierce led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
But Ainge never felt the team that reached the conference finals was built on a solid foundation and he made dramatic changes, starting with trading Walker and Tony Delk to Dallas for LaFrentz, Chris Mihm, Welsch, and a first-round pick. That draft choice was West. Ainge sees nothing strange about bringing Walker back at this juncture of the rebuilding process.
"Times are different now," said Ainge. "The biggest thing [when I traded Walker to Dallas] was I felt we needed to move something to get more pieces and to get younger and more athletic. We got Delonte as a result. We've kind of come full circle with a new coaching staff, a different environment, and our needs. I've always felt Antoine was a good basketball player. Now, Antoine is a fit. [Trading him] was something we needed to do then. This is something we needed to do now.
"I don't ever take those things [said by traded players] personally. Even if it wasn't emotional and he still believes it was personal, I don't care if Antoine comes and plays. I have talked to Antoine and it was a much more enjoyable conversation than the last time we talked on the phone. That's the truth. I think Antoine knows [the Dallas] trade wasn't personal."
When the Celtics play the Jazz tonight at the Delta Center, Walker hopes to be on the floor and in his old uniform. (Rookie Al Jefferson, who wears No. 8, looks like he's due for a number change, and a serious bump in his bank account.) Walker returns to a team attempting to win the Atlantic Division. While the jersey may be familiar, a lot of his new teammates won't be. Only Pierce, Marcus Banks, Blount, and Kendrick Perkins played for the Celtics when Walker left. Still, that didn't stop Ricky Davis from offering his take.
"It's a great trade," said Davis. "It helps us on the inside. It's going to be a sight to see."
Although the Celtics surprised many with their big move, division rival Philadelphia made some big changes of its own. In two separate deals (one with Sacramento Wednesday, the other with New Orleans yesterday), the 76ers acquired Chris Webber, Rodney Rogers, Jamal Mashburn, Matt Barnes, and Michael Bradley without giving up their promising young players. The trading deadline radically changed the landscape of the Atlantic, leaving the Celtics and 76ers restocked for a playoff run. Ainge insisted the Walker trade was not in response to the deals made by Philadelphia.
"Even before the trades, it was a race between us, Philly, and New Jersey," said Ainge. "[Deals] don't always work out like you think on paper. There is still a long time left in the season. My opinion of the race hasn't changed. It's still a race to the end."
The newest Celtic couldn't agree more.
"With Webber going to Philly, it's going to be an interesting last two months in the Atlantic Division," said Walker. "The last two months of the season should be really fun."