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Ainge deals C's another loss

12/17/2003 - Boston Celtics

When Antoine Walker met his former team for the first time Wednesday, it must have been a bit of a shock. He had to wonder: Who are these guys?

His former boss Danny Ainge, the man Walker called a "snake," has pretty much blown up the 2003-04 Boston Celtics. Only two players, Paul Pierce and Walter McCarty, have been playing with the team, non-stop, over the last 14 months.

Ainge promised he'd shake things up. He said more than once that he didn't think the Celtics were anywhere close to being a championship team and that it would take time, patience and, yes, good moves, for them to get there. But what he has done is basically write off this season -- unless he honestly believes his latest trade will help in the short run -- when his team was atop the Atlantic Division.

You could understand the Walker move, to a point. (The Celtics' fans are less understanding, particularly when 'Toine puts up one of his 24-12-7 games.) Ainge felt the Celtics had hit their peak at 44 to 46 wins -- not good enough. So he got rid of Walker, whom he knew he was going to be unable to re-sign, and landed Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch and a No. 1 draft pick. But he also said he'd be disappointed if the new Celtics team wasn't as good, or better, than the old one.

Would he have allowed it to be.

The Walker trade was the first sign that Ainge was willing to put this season in the recycle bin. Sign No. 2 came when he insisted that LaFrentz undergo knee surgery, effectively shelving him for the season. Was LaFrentz ailing? Unquestionably. Was surgery an absolute necessity? At some point. Did the coaching staff feel that LaFrentz could play a limited role and get them four or five extra wins? Absolutely. Did Ainge care about those extra four or five wins? Not a whit.

Then Ainge pulled out his flamethrower and went to work on the rest of the team. Gone were two mainstays, Eric Williams and Tony Battie, and one human pogo stick, Kedrick Brown. Williams and Battie by themselves weren't great players. But they embodied what the Celtics of this season -- the season Ainge doesn't care about -- were all about. They were resilient. They played hurt. They defended. And, in Williams, coach Jim O'Brien had an invaluable second in the locker room and on the court.

In their place comes the undeniably talented Ricky Davis. To describe him also as selfish would be generous. Chris Mihm may be about to blossom in his fourth year, but he's a restricted free agent. Michael Stewart gives Boston its own Yogi, but not a lot more.

That O'Brien and the rest of the coaching staff pleaded with Ainge not to make the deal speaks volumes about where the Celtics are and where they might be going. Let's face it; they are what they are -- a decent team in a consolation bracket.

But -- and this is where Ainge's timing can be questioned -- these same, pre-trade Celtics were tied for first place in the division and, in theory, had as good an opportunity as any other team to win the division. Why not let it ride? Have you noticed what's going in New Jersey? Philadelphia is banged up, and not that good anyway. Who's left? The Knicks? The Magic, Heat or Wizards? Please.

That's why there was such an in-house divide on this deal. Why do you rip the heart and soul out of a first-place team? O'Brien's Celtics had won five straight games. They had started to score a lot and shoot well. They were fun to watch. And Ainge blew it all apart -- for, basically, Davis, who has more baggage than Gloria Swanson.

We know why Ainge did it. He feels that LaFrentz, Pierce and Davis may be the three-headed monster he needs for the Celtics to be a serious championship contender in 2009. And he may be right. It's his job to think long-term and to build. But at what cost?

It's wonderful to build for the future. That's generally what bad teams do. The Celtics are not a bad team. They're not a great team, but they're not that bad. And, unless the NBA changes the rules (which it should, by the way), one team from the Eastern Conference is going to play in the NBA Finals.

Think that's farfetched? Maybe. Think Indiana is a lock? Check out the results of their first meeting with the Celtics, back when the Celtics couldn't score. The game was in Indiana. Boston won. O'Brien has beaten two teams -- Detroit and Indiana, teams he wasn't supposed to beat -- in the playoffs the last two years. The only team the Celtics have lost to in the playoffs in the last two years was the Nets.

So what's the rush? If Ainge really believes that this new team, with Davis, Mihm and Stewart, will pick up where the old one left off, he is not listening to his coaches. But Ainge is listening to his own muse. He is willing to lose the battle to win the war. The problem is that the war may not be winnable for years, if at all.

In the meantime, there are games to be played. There are tickets to be sold. (The Celtics didn't even sell out on Monday, when Cedric Maxwell had his number retired. Those that did attend booed Ainge.)

Ainge has the same problem 26 other teams have -- he doesn't have Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal. And unless Chris Webber comes back better than ever, either Duncan or Shaq is going to win another ring this year.

So Ainge is trying to build a championship team for, what? 2007? 2008? And building it with players (LaFrentz, Davis) who, fair or unfair, have their own set of concerns and have yet to play in an All-Star Game (excluding Pierce). LaFrentz was supposed to be the guy in Dallas who pulled Shaq away and opened things up inside, remember? Didn't happen. His next game won't be until November 2004. Davis has a well-deserved reputation as a knucklehead.

Right now, Ainge is closer to bringing back memories of Rick Pitino than Red Auerbach. Pitino was restless, impulsive and, in the end, clueless. He finally, mercifully, left when the players wouldn't play for him. O'Brien picked up the mess and has been successful since with all kinds of teams and personnel.

Ainge has given him yet another team to coach. The problem is that it might not be as good as the one O'Brien was coaching. To Ainge, that represents progress. To O'Brien and his players, it represents something entirely different.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.