Commentary

History repeating itself with Big Three?

Ainge doesn't see current core breaking down the way Bird-Parish-McHale trio did

Updated: February 12, 2010, 7:14 AM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

There is not a trace of concern in the voice of Danny Ainge. A week before the Feb. 18 trading deadline, the Boston Celtics' GM insists he is not trying to trade Ray Allen. That's his story, and he's sticking to it. But, he added, if it came to that, if a deal crossed his desk that he liked, he'd do so in a nanosecond.

Danny Ainge The difference then is that you could see that there wasn't a lot of hope for that team. I see hope for our team right now. But back then, Larry [Bird] was in a cast. Kevin [McHale] was slowing down. Robert [Parish] was, what, 36? You didn't think that team had a realistic chance of winning the championship.

-- Danny Ainge on comparisons between the current Big Three and the Bird-McHale-Parish version

Off the court, Ainge runs the Celtics the same way he ran them on the court -- in an utterly fearless fashion. After all, this is the man who traded for Ricky Davis when the coaching staff begged him not to do it. This is the man who traded for Antoine Walker after Walker called him "a snake" for dealing him away the first time.

So you think Ainge is losing any sleep over what he might do with Allen? Is he worried about getting value for this likely Hall of Famer before he leaves via free agency or simply breaks down? It's a conundrum all teams face when their core players get old -- remember the Bulls? -- and this one is perhaps a bit harder because Ainge brought Allen to Boston, and Allen has been a consummate professional. "Sentimentality does play a role," Ainge admitted. "But my obligation is to put the best team I can on the floor."

Allen, 34, is in the final year of his contract and earns a hefty $19.7 million. The so-called "expiring contract" has been a big asset in recent years, particularly to teams looking for cap room heading into free agency. And with a luminous cast of free agents available this summer, a number of teams might be interested in taking Allen on for the short run and then jettisoning him at the end of the season. Allen clearly wants to keep playing, and Ainge said he thinks the shooting guard has "more basketball in him." He's also acutely aware that Allen would like to stay in Boston.

"Any way you look at it, Ray is an asset," Ainge said. "He's an asset to us as a player right now and, if we don't trade him, for the rest of the season. If we do trade him, he's an asset in that we will get back equal talent. If he ends up as a free agent, he's an asset because maybe we can use him in a sign-and-trade deal. And if he just leaves, he's an asset because his salary comes off our books. We can use some of that to go out and get someone with the midlevel exception."

Kevin McHale/Larry Bird/Robert Parish
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty ImagesDanny Ainge thinks Red Auerbach should have broken up the trio of Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish before it was too late ...

It is those varying scenarios that make this situation much different from 20 years ago, when Celtics icon Red Auerbach decided he would not trade any of that era's Big Three (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish). Back then, there were no sign-and-trade deals. There was no midlevel exception for teams over the cap (as the Celtics uniformly were). There was a much more punitive -- and never-ending -- form of base-year compensation that essentially made all three untradable. There was no unrestricted free agency.

Auerbach and his successor, Dave Gavitt, resisted efforts to trade any of the Big Three mainly because it would have been suicidal in terms of what they would have gotten in return had they even been able to move them. Two retired as Celtics, and Parish was allowed to sign with Charlotte as a free agent. Under the rules at the time, the Celtics could sign a player to put in the salary slot created by the retirements or free agents, and that is how they ended up signing Xavier McDaniel, Dino Radja and Dominique Wilkins. The franchise also went into a nosedive for the next decade, making the playoffs only once after McHale left in 1993, and that as a 35-win No. 8 seed.

If Ainge had been in Auerbach's shoes back then, he said, he would have actively sought to trade any or all of the Big Three.

"I said it then, and I told Red that, too," Ainge said. "But Red went his own way. The difference then is that you could see that there wasn't a lot of hope for that team. I see hope for our team right now. But back then, Larry was in a cast. Kevin was slowing down. Robert was, what, 36? You didn't think that team had a realistic chance of winning the championship."

Ray Allen/Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images... but he doesn't see a direct parallel to his current Big Three -- Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- which he says is still able to contend for a title if healthy.

Well, the Celtics from back then would dispute that. They felt, rightly or wrongly, at the beginning of every season that they had a realistic chance of competing for a title through 1991-92. In retrospect, maybe that was wishful thinking. But, at the time, it was the mission statement of the organization. And, in 1990-91, the team started 29-5. Then Bird hurt his back, and everything went south.

Might we look back on this season's team and say the same thing? Didn't Ainge see the obvious, injury-induced decline in Kevin Garnett, who is the backbone of this team? Didn't Ainge see Allen's shooting woes? Didn't Ainge see that the team's trademark defensive play had slipped and that there was no discernible sense of urgency on a regular basis? Didn't Ainge see that his signature offseason signee, Rasheed Wallace, was playing with all the enthusiasm of a corpse?

In the here and now, Ainge might see some of that, but it hasn't changed his thinking. He still sees the Celtics through the lens of their fantastic first seven weeks, not the underwhelming underachievers they've been since Christmas. (They've already lost more games this season than they did all of 2007-08.) Thus, he said he doesn't sense the same urgency to shake things up and move Allen that others might feel.

"We were 23-5 [at Christmas], and that's the team I still think we can be," Ainge said. "We've had a number of key injuries, and a lot of guys have played hurt. But I still think if we get everyone back and healthy, this is a team that can win a championship."

Ainge said he doesn't think he's going to move Allen because nothing has presented itself to make him seriously consider a trade. That might change in the next several days. But even though he looks back and wonders why Auerbach did what he did, he is following a similar course.

Then again, his hands aren't tied like Auerbach's were. He knows he'll have options for Allen no matter what happens. Auerbach's only option was basically to get what he could get out of three aging players and hope to avert the inevitable slide. Even Red couldn't pull that one off.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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