Add one more marquee name to the most anticipated free-agent class in NBA history: Paul Pierce.
The All-Star forward has notified the Boston Celtics that he will opt out of the final year of his contract before Wednesday's deadline, which will make Pierce an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
Pierce's agent, Jeff Schwartz, confirmed the decision in a text message to ESPN.com.
By opting out, Pierce forfeits next season's $21.5 million salary and adds another layer of uncertainty to Boston's general outlook in the wake of a wholly unexpected playoff run that took them to within one win of the championship.
Multiple sources close to the Celtics told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that the team expects to re-sign Pierce. According to the sources, the Celtics expect the Pierce deal to be wrapped up sooner than later but free agent Ray Allen could take longer into the summer. The Celtics also have to decide what to do with free agents/reserves Tony Allen, Nate Robinson, Shelden Williams, Marquis Daniels and Brian Scalabrine.
Pierce's name has scarcely been mentioned in the buildup to the summer 2010 free-agent bonanza because, as with Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, most rival executives believe that the Celtics would never allow the 2008 NBA Finals MVP -- who has maintained for some time that he wants to retire a Celtic -- to leave the only team he's ever known.
Pierce, though, could wind up emerging as one of the more interesting big names to track. Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Pierce will begin free agency by talking first to the Celtics when the market opens at 12:01 a.m. ET Thursday, but the 32-year-old is prepared to field other offers.
External interest in Pierce is hard to forecast because his potential free agency has been widely regarded as a formality for so long and because of the heavy load he has carried for the Celtics in recent seasons. But with so many teams stockpiling significant salary-cap space for this offseason, it's conceivable that Pierce will wind up attracting multiple suitors looking for a title-tested scoring option.
Pierce just played a pivotal role in helping Boston to extend the Los Angeles Lakers to a grueling seven games in the NBA Finals, after the Celtics had previously eliminated Dwyane Wade's Miami Heat, LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic as the No. 4 seed in the East.
Yet it remains to be seen how much money he can command, from the Celtics or anyone else, with his 33rd birthday looming in October and the mileage he's racked up.
The most Boston can give Pierce is a four-year deal worth a maximum of $96 million, although the Celtics are naturally hoping to re-sign him for less than that as they seek to start restoring financial flexibility to infuse the roster with some youth. The maximum Pierce could receive from other teams is a four-year deal worth $93 million.
Asked to gauge the likelihood of re-signing Pierce, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said last week on WEEI radio in Boston: "I don't know because he may be able to get a long-term contract somewhere else. It may be better than what we have [to offer]."
It seems unlikely that Pierce would receive a contract longer than four years, because a fifth season would begin when Pierce was 37, which would have costly salary-cap implications for any team signing him because of the NBA's over-36 rule.
Pierce, though, is eligible to secure a rare no-trade clause if he stays with the Celtics. Players with at least eight years of service time and at least four seasons with the same team can negotiate a no-trade provision into new contracts, which would not have been possible had Pierce agreed to an extension to his current contract before Thursday.
If it winds up re-signing Pierce for less than the maximum, as the team hopes, Boston will inevitably wind up pleased that its captain took this step. Any amount below the $21.5 million that Pierce was scheduled to earn in 2010-11 will net a savings of twice that amount because the Celtics are a luxury-tax team.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan was used in this report.