- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Back when Danny Ainge was negotiating his first contract with the Boston Celtics, his agent and the team's management met in Boston over the Fourth of July holiday to finalize the deal. It didn't happen.
Ainge wanted more money than the Celtics were paying Larry Bird. The Celtics were thinking something dramatically cheaper, although they never even bothered to come back with a counter-proposal. As then Harry Mangurian told Ainge's people, "If that's what you feel you need, then I'm not going to insult you with what we think it should be because, frankly, it's quite a bit different."
That little piece of Celtics history is relevant now because Ainge is now on the other side and had the same response prepared in anticipation of Antoine Walker's request for a maximum contract extension. While Walker and his people never specifically articulated what the former Celtics' co-captain wanted, Ainge has not recently started taking stupid pills. He knew.
Walker, like several of his Class of '96 draft mates (Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and perhaps Ray Allen), would want what they got. Walker could point to the same number of All-Star game appearances as Allen -- one more than Marbury. He could point out that he took his team to the conference finals, something Marbury has never done. He could point out that he was coming off a maximum contract, just as they were. (He would not, however, want to send tapes of his play against Kenyon Martin from last spring's conference semifinals.) Ainge had no reason to expect anything less.
That's one large reason why Walker is in Dallas now. Ainge was never a big fan of Walker's quirky game and, Ainge quickly discovered, neither is most of the rest of the NBA. Sure he got offers: How does Marcus Camby sound? Or Austin Croshere? Or Kurt Thomas and Charlie Ward? Those were the best until, Ainge felt, he received the latest offer from Dallas. He conferred with his owners and with his coaches and everyone basically said, "Do it." So he did. As Ainge later put it, he talked to every team and was convinced that most didn't want Walker even if Walker was a 20-and-10 guy.
And, in doing so, he avoided what surely would have been a contractual bloodbath, not to mention the likelihood that the offended Walker would pack up and leave, the Celtics getting nothing in return. Ainge didn't want to face that in February 2004, in July 2004 or in February 2005. So he cut to the chase in October 2003.
That's life in the NBA these days. How many trades are made strictly for basketball reasons? Sure, Ainge didn't like Walker's shot selection or Walker's shooting percentage. But the more he looked at this team, the more he began to realize that not pulling the trigger on this deal would mean another ho-hum 42-to-45 win season in the pathetic East and a likely early playoff exit. And he'd still have the Walker contract extension to deal with.
Does this deal help the Celtics? In the short term, it's probably a step backward, especially given the curious timing of the deal. (The deal could not be made until Oct. 18 because two of the principals, Chris Mills and Jiri Welsch, had been traded on Aug. 18. Because they were combined in a deal, the deal could not be done until two months had passed from their previous deal. Don't go there; it's a rule simply to keep the NBA capologists employed.)
Walker was a critical part of the Celtics and to state otherwise is simply to ignore reality. But he also was not indispensable, contrary to the many public pronouncements by coach Jim O'Brien. (He's forgiven. We understand.) How Walker was allowed to continue to hoist up 3-pointers at a league-leading rate and also at a horrible percentage remains one of the more implausible chapters in recent Celtics history. The Celtics will be a different team now, although they might not be a better team or even as good as last year's impossible-to-watch assemblage.
But here's the good news for Celtics fans. LaFrentz is a known commodity and he does have skills. He can pop out and shoot the three. He can block shots. If he can do that on a semi-regular basis, that will be a plus, although he's yet to do it on a regular basis to date. He never really fit in with the Mavs, but he'll have to fit in with the Celtics. There's no alternative. And he's going to be around for a while -- he's got six more years left on his current deal.
But Ainge knows LaFrentz's game, warts and all, and he is not trumpeting this as a fair exchange. What tips the balance to Boston, in his mind, is that there are three other players who are a part of this deal, although we only know the identity of one of them: Welsch. Ainge has coveted the kid for a while and he could be -- could be -- a 6-foot-7 version of Peja Stojakovic. Every team that has had Welsch (the Warriors last season and the Mavs this preseason) has raved about the kid. But the Warriors didn't play him -- Ainge said that was due to internal politics (read: the pressure to play Mike Dunleavy) -- and while the Mavs liked him, they had no place for him in their high-octane lineup. Dallas is trying to win the thing now. The Celtics have no such illusion.
The first round pick in 2004 will, in all likelihood, be in the high 20s. All that means is Ainge will draft a Kendrick Perkins-like project, either out of high school or, perhaps, from Europe. It's a chance to take a flyer on someone who might pan out but will be allowed time to develop.
The other mystery man will, Ainge assures, come next summer via free agency. The Celtics stayed out of the free agency hunt this summer, a ludicrous and cowardly act by management even as it blew ticket prices through the roof of the FleetCenter. Ainge said the savings on this deal will allow the team to go after a free agent with the mid-level exception next summer. In these NBA times, you can get a decent player in that pool.
So, basically, Ainge decided to get what he could for Walker, even if in the minds of some, it might not have been enough. Surely, in the mind of Walker, it wasn't enough. But those two conflicting views over Walker's talent and abilities basically led to the blockbuster deal.
Walker wasn't going to get what he felt he was worth. He may be able to convince Mark Cuban to open the vault (again), but there was no way that was happening in Boston. Walker was going, sooner or later. Ainge simply made the "sooner" selection and, in so doing, figures he did about the best he could.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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