At the very least, Paul Pierce wants to sample the market, to see what’s out there, to use every ounce of leverage he might possess at perhaps the final crossroads of his career. At the most, Pierce wants to leave Boston and terminate his relationship with the Celtics, a most ironic twist in the recent, operatic history of the most storied franchise in basketball.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, folks. The Celtics weren’t likely to get much more out of this group anyway. Earlier than anyone might have anticipated, maybe Danny Ainge now can begin the process of reinventing the Celtics again, this time around a dynamic young point guard who is indisputably their future.
At the moment, in the immediate aftermath of last night’s news that Pierce has elected to opt out of the final year of his contract, there is obviously a great deal to consider. Three years ago, the Celtics opted to keep Pierce rather than trade him, triggering the events that brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, among others, to Boston. Now Pierce is opting out. Allen is a free agent. Only Garnett, who angled for a contract extension before coming here, remains from the new Big Three, two years remaining on his deal for an average salary of about $20 million.
All of this will prompt the inevitable discussions about the cruel realities of professional sports, of right and wrong, of one of the most downright idiotic concepts in sports: loyalty. Is there really anyone out there who believes that such a dinosaur exists anymore? Today, undoubtedly, there will be those who label Pierce as disingenuous and lambaste him for claiming, over and over again, that he wanted to be a lifelong Celtic. Shame on them for believing it in the first place. At the end of the day, the only leverage any employee really has is to walk out the door, and so good for Pierce if he has decided to use it.
That said, neither the Celtics nor their fans should shed any tears over this, particularly when it might be an enormous stroke of good fortune. With Pierce and potentially Rasheed Wallace subtracted from the mix, the Celtics suddenly have money to spend on what is arguably the greatest free agent class in the history of professional sports, a collection of NBA stars as impressive as any succession of boutiques on Rodeo Drive. Maybe Ainge can make some waves in this market; maybe he can’t. But depending on the Wallace outcome, the Celtics could have flexibility in the form of nearly $25 million in cap space, an invaluable asset given what we learned about this team in the most recently completed season.
The Celtics were old, people. Combined, Pierce, Allen and Wallace gave the Celtics 101 reasons (and years) to reflect on. Things were far more likely to get worse than get better. Doc Rivers had to go to such extraordinary lengths to milk every last drop out of this group that the required effort likely nudged him out the door, too. From Rivers to Wallace to now Pierce, people can’t seem to jump off the big green duck boats fast enough, suggesting that everyone involved knew this was strictly a short-term endeavor.
Let’s be honest. These Celtics were essentially a troop of Hessians from the start. Mercenaries frequently disband just as quickly as they assemble once the checks clear. Kendrick Perkins has as much experience in a Celtic uniform as Garnett, Allen, and Wallace combined. If you don’t like the presence of Wallace on that list, feel free to substitute James Posey. Or Nate Robinson. Or P.J. Brown. Or Sam Cassell.
When you get right down to it, the one real exception in this group was Pierce, who has spent more years in a Celtic uniform than all of those men combined. If Pierce follows through now and leaves the organization, you should consider it his final significant contribution to the Celtics legacy. At times in the most recently completed season, Pierce seemed to have aged as much as or more than Garnett or Allen. In Game 7 of the Finals, Ron Artest completely outplayed him – and on both ends of the floor. Pierce’s No. 34 eventually will end up in the rafters of the TD Garden, which is where it ultimately belongs. None of that changes if the number happens to be out of circulation for the 2010-11 season.
For Ainge, the challenge now is considerable, though he has faced far more daunting scenarios than this. Slightly more than three years ago at this time, after losing out again in the draft lottery, the Celtics looked downright hopeless. They have since won one title and made two trips to the Finals, going 8-2 in playoff series in the process. At the moment, assuming the departures of Wallace and Pierce, the Celtics have only Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis, and Perkins under contract for 2010-11 – and Perkins will miss at least a chunk of the season due to a knee injury. The return of Allen might make some sense, but only at a small fraction of his current contract.
Whether a foursome of Garnett, Rondo, Allen, and Davis is appealing to prospective free agents remains to be seen – does Garnett still have the lure he once did? – but that is hardly the point. The Celtics were faced with ripping this all apart sooner or later. Pierce knew that as well as anyone, which is undoubtedly part of the reason he has opted out. The prospect of a new collective bargaining agreement was a factor, too. The Celtics may suffer some from Pierce’s decision in the short term, but let there be no doubt about the potential gains.
In the longer term, the Celtics will be far, far better off.
Tony's Top 5
Favorite blog entries