Pierce takes less money to return

Cross another one off Danny Ainge's offseason checklist.

In the days following Boston's Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, suggested his preference was to keep the core of the 2009-10 team together for another run at a world title. That possibility seemed murky at best with coach Doc Rivers pondering retirement to spend more time with his family and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen set to test unrestricted free agency.

But in the past few days, the Celtics have made great strides in ensuring that the Big Three -- and much of the core from the past three seasons -- will be in place next year for a shot at title redemption.

After multiple media reports of a deal Friday, a source confirmed to ESPN.com on Saturday that the Celtics and Pierce agreed to a four-year extension that all but ensures he'll finish his career in green. Coupled with the return of Rivers, who announced Wednesday he'd be back to honor the final year of his contract and take another shot at winning with this group, Boston now has two key leaders back in place just two days into the free-agent period.

Pierce cannot officially sign until July 8, but verbal agreements are commonplace after free agency opens on July 1.

Let's be honest, did we ever expect Pierce to walk away? The 12th-year veteran is synonymous with Boston and even when he opted out of his deal earlier this week, walking away from $21.5 million, it seemed unfathomable that he could end up in any other city.

Sure enough, sources told ESPN.com Thursday night that Pierce was only engaged with the Celtics on the opening day of free agency despite introductory inquiries from a few other teams around the league. Pierce wanted to be back in Boston, Boston wanted Pierce back, it didn't take long to make it happen.

But in what already appears to be a player-friendly market with 23-year-old Rudy Gay agreeing to a five-year, $81 million max contract from the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday, it's almost refreshing to see Pierce show loyalty to Boston. He could have easily let this process play out, then taken top dollar in what could be his final long-term contract in the NBA.

Instead, Pierce's deal averages out at less money than what Gay is making. Regardless of how it escalates, Pierce's salary in 2010-11 will undoubtedly be lower -- much lower -- than the $21.5 million he was set to earn, and will save Boston's ownership twice the difference in luxury tax dollars, a potential huge savings for the team.

And while we all expected Pierce back, the Celtics can breathe a sigh of relief because there was no quality Plan B. If Pierce had walked away, the team would have been bound by the salary cap and it was unlikely they could have secured a player of his talent -- at least without cutting ties with Allen as well -- particularly in this deep-pocketed market where free agents are receiving head-shaking amounts of money early in the process. It might only get worse as the pickings get slimmer for cash-gushing teams that spent much of the past season clearing space to lure a superstar, but could get left scraping for whatever is leftover.

Is Pierce the player he once was? No. But injuries plagued his 2009-10 season as he missed time with a hodgepodge of maladies including a right knee infection, a sprained left midfoot, and a sprained right thumb. Pierce also endured what he dubbed a recurring right shoulder stinger (though some suggested it might be a pinched nerve) that troubled him late in the regular season and into the playoffs.

Pierce compensated by honing his 3-point game this season and won the 3-point Shootout at All-Star weekend. He shot a career-best 41.4 percent from beyond the arc and made the 3-point shot a much more dangerous weapon in his game, particularly as he struggles to get to the rim with the ease he once did.

Pierce's postseason contributions were streaky at best, but he often drew tough defensive assignments (both in terms of who he guarded and who guarded him), including LeBron James in the second-round series against the Cavaliers. He still averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists over 38.8 minutes in the postseason and scored 24 points or more in five of the final 12 postseason games.

The Celtics believe they can be even better than a season ago if they can remain healthy. Pierce certainly labored through his ailments, while teammates suggested Kevin Garnett will bounce back further another year removed from knee surgery that curtailed his 2008-09 campaign.

There's still work to be done in reassembling the core. Ainge must now turn his attention to Allen, the soon-to-be 35-year-old shooting guard who will assuredly receive heightened interest from those hoping to assemble a championship team. He might be the most difficult part of the offseason Big Three -- Rivers, Pierce, and Allen -- to lure back.

But the captain is back and a ship can't have direction without one. Boston's 2010-11 vessel is clearly pointed at a return trip to the NBA Finals and they're loading up the cargo to get there. Can Allen resist the urge to get back on board, even if it's not the best deal out there?

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.