The Celtics are quickly becoming a gerontologist's dream - as well as an even better team and a more serious championship threat. Tonight, the final piece of the puzzle tumbled out of Waiver Heaven at 6 p.m. as Sam Cassell became a free agent. He has signed a contract with the Celtics, according to his agent, and will bring the paperwork up with him tomorrow from Baltimore to join his new team.
"He had some personal business he had to attend to in Baltimore. There was a death in the family," agent David Falk said last night. "But he will be on his way up there and everything is done. He is really excited."
The Celtics don't expect Cassell to be available at practice tomorrow. It's more likely that his first session with the team will be at Wednesday morning's shootaround. It's not known whether he'll be able to play against Detroit Wednesday night; he has been out with a sore wrist.
Cassell, 38, a 15-year veteran with two championship rings (Houston, '94, '95), joins a team already featuring fellow 38-year-old P.J. Brown, signed last week, as well 30-somethings Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Scot Pollard, James Posey, and soon-to-be 30-somethings Eddie House and Brian Scalabrine.
Cassell played with both Allen (Milwaukee) and Garnett (Minnesota) and has 115 games of playoff experience, one of the main reasons for the signing. He also has some gas left in his tank; this season, he's had games of 35 and 32 points (the 32-pointer came Jan. 15 against the Suns) and six other games where he has scored 20 or more points. He is averaging 12.8 and is almost automatic (89.1 percent) from the free throw line.
"He's a proven player," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We're just going to wait and see where he fits in on our team. He's coming in with the right frame of mind and he just wants to help. He knows how to play. He's terrific at the end of games. He can still really play."
Cassell has appeared in only 38 games this season and has not played since Feb. 20, when he injured his wrist. He nearly was dealt to Memphis at the trading deadline, but when that fell through, he sought a buyout from the Clippers so that he could join a contending team. After a few days of what Falk called "sometimes hairy" negotiations, the buyout was completed last Thursday. Because the NBA is closed on weekends, the 48-hour period for him to clear waivers did not end until last night.
The Celtics are Cassell's eighth NBA team. In addition to the Clippers, Rockets, Bucks, and Timberwolves, he has played for the Suns, Mavericks, and Nets. He's been involved in deals for Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd, and Stephon Marbury - as well as Shawn Bradley. Boston became the logical destination once the buyout was worked out, although there also was interest from Dallas and Denver. But the chance to rejoin Garnett and Allen, as well as play in the Eastern Conference, was too good to turn down.
He also fills a demonstrable need - an experienced, quality backup to Rajon Rondo. Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge has maintained all season that the team was fine at the point guard position, but the opportunity to get a battle-tested Cassell to help out Rondo was a no-brainer. Even Rondo himself thinks it's a good move.
"He coming in only helps me," Rondo said. "He's been playing a long time. He knows a lot about the game. In that aspect, he can help me as well. He can help more with leadership. He's been to the conference finals. He knows what it takes to get there. He can groom me and help me along."
Garnett and Cassell teamed with Latrell Sprewell to lead the 2004 Timberwolves within two games of the NBA Finals. The coach of that team, Flip Saunders, will be in town Wednesday night with the Pistons, perhaps facing his old point guard. Saunders has been effusive in his praise for Garnett this season - and is happy at the way things turned out - and he's saying the same things about Cassell.
"Anytime you can add a veteran guy, that's always a positive," Saunders told Detroit reporters earlier this week. "One thing about Sam - he's not afraid to take big shots. He's probably going to a perfect situation. At his age, when you get in those type of playoff situations, you probably need to have your minutes monitored a little bit. He's not going to have to play 30 minutes a game.
"I'm happy for him. He wants to finish with a ring, because he started with a ring. That's always been his ambition."
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org