The sum at hand is sufficiently staggering -- more than $21 million -- to pretty much assure that Paul Pierce will look at the temptation of unfettered free agency this summer and say, "Nah. What's the point?"
The Celtics' captain has an early termination option for the 2010-11 season. To join LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the other glittering free agents this summer, all he has to do is notify the Celtics before July 1 that he wishes to opt out of the final year of his deal. He would forfeit the $21.5 million owed him for next season. He then would be an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with whomever he pleased.
Asked if he has given any thought to what he might do this summer, Pierce said: "Well, at least I know I won't be on the [US world championship-bound] team." He laughed, then continued, "I really haven't given it that much thought. I've always said I wanted to finish my career as a Celtic. And a long as we have the players here to compete [for a title], I want to be here. But really, I haven't given it that much thought. I suppose I will when it's time."
This issue hasn't kept Danny Ainge or ownership from losing any sleep. Asked if he had any idea what Pierce might be thinking, Ainge said, simply, "No." Ownership views Pierce as a Celtic For Life and will do what it can to ensure that happens.
But opting out and being a Celtic For Life might not be mutually exclusive. In fact, Pierce and his agent might look at the NBA landscape over the next couple of years and try to get Pierce a new deal for a number of years. True, he'd be giving up a boatload of cash in the short run. But he might be able to recoup it while (A) still playing until he's 36 or 37 (he turns 33 in October) and (B) still playing for the Celtics. Ownership might jump at that as well, for it would lower the payroll in 2010-11, though not enough to make the Celtics players in free agency.
What makes the situation interesting is that if Pierce does nothing, he would be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2011. And that's when all signs point to a lockout, with the owners once again seeking protection from themselves in the form of tighter salary controls and, perhaps, even a hard salary cap. There even has been talk of removing the midlevel exception.
So suppose Pierce plays next season and finishes out his contract. In July of 2011, he'd be 34, not exactly the ideal age for free agency. And with the prospect of a lockout, he could be out a season and then be looking to sign a new deal at 35. He'd also likely be looking at a completely new set of rules, which could conceivably squeeze him even more.
Therefore, it might be a sound strategy to trade one year for three, even if one of those three years might result in nothing because of a lockout. Or Pierce might simply play out the season and then, like everyone else, get a year's vacation. Under that scenario, he loses nothing because he has no contract. And Kevin Garnett would also be eligible for free agency post-lockout, as his final contract year would be nixed by the work stoppage.
What seems most unlikely of all is Pierce rolling the dice and truly experiencing free agency for the first time at the age of 32. He wouldn't command LeBron money. But if all the marquee guys stay put, there is going to be money out there, and someone is going to spend it.
"You do think about that, getting schmoozed," Pierce said. "You never say never in this business, but it would be very tough for me to do that [leave Boston.]"
This has been a difficult season for Pierce, who has missed 10 games and still isn't close to where he needs to be if the Celtics are to seriously contend for a title.
"It's been frustrating," he said. "You never want to sit out any games, but it's been that kind of a season. You get into a good, comfortable groove, then you sit out a couple weeks. Then you get into a groove and you sit out a couple weeks. It's like going to the race, then starting and stopping, starting and stopping. How do you expect to win if you do that? You have to get into a comfortable pace, especially in a long-distance race."
That was before he went out and dropped 27 on the Bobcats in less than 27 minutes, prompting Charlotte coach Larry Brown to say, "That is the way Paul Pierce plays."
But what if the long-distance race turns into a one-and-done crash-and-burn this spring? What if ownership decides it then needs a new coach? What if Ray Allen is allowed to leave? Might those events, should they occur, prompt Pierce to at least consider free agency, especially if he thinks he has no shot of winning again in Boston?
"A lot will have to do with how he [Pierce] performs and how our team performs," Ainge said.
The Celtics have always taken care of Pierce. They gave a maximum deal at the first opportunity. They then gave him a maximum extension. His No. 34 will never be worn by anyone else. They will want to take care him of again.
So if Pierce does opt out, it will give him the opportunity to explore other situations. But it also will give him the opportunity to sign a fourth contract with the only NBA team he has ever known.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.