- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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A year ago at this time, Antoine Walker was a co-captain of the Boston Celtics, deemed by many to be one of the cornerstones of a franchise on the upswing. He was a three-time All-Star, having been voted on the 2002 Eastern Conference team as a starter.
He thought of himself as one of the league's elite players and his hefty paycheck bore out that view. Danny Ainge, however, didn't share that assessment and sent Walker to Dallas in October. The Mavericks this week moved Walker along to Atlanta -- which basically is an NBA dumping ground these days. And if I'm Walker, I'll rent in Atlanta because he may not be there after the trading deadline.
This is not so much a case of "How The Mighty Have Fallen" because Walker was never among the league's true elite, despite his salary and statistics. But it is an undeniable cautionary tale about how quickly things can turn and how a player's value goes from what he can do on the court to what is remaining on his contract.
Walker is a valued property these days not because of his versatile game, but because he is in the final year of his contract. That made him appealing to Atlanta, which, under NBA rules, has to field a team this season. But the under-the-cap Hawks, who have struck out in free agency (although they did acquire Al Harrington for Stephen Jackson) can plug Walker and his high number ($14.6 million) into their rotation and see what gives.
It was hard seeing Walker in Maverick blue and it will be harder seeing him in Atlanta red and gold. (Then again, given the attendance in Atlanta, maybe it won't be so hard to see him.) He wasn't happy with the way things ended in Dallas, losing minutes as the season progressed. He'll likely get plenty of opportunities in Atlanta, where he could put up numbers like the ones he put up in his early days in Boston.
Then, he'll likely join Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the first recipients of the so-called "maximum" contracts who did not sign extensions and thus will learn, first-hand, the sobering lessons of free agency.
The Celtics traded Walker in part because Ainge felt he would not be able to re-sign him. There was a big difference in opinion as to what Walker might be worth. Walker saw players with fewer All-Star appearances and playoff appearances like Stephon Marbury signing long-term extensions. He felt he belonged in that same category. Ainge did not. The Celtics got Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch and a No. 1 pick for Walker -- and Ainge said that was, by far, the best offer he received.
The Mavericks got Jason Terry, a decent guard, and Alan Henderson, a decent guy who has not been able to play because of injuries. That was it. That makes Ainge's acquisition look like outright theft. And you could argue that Walker was even more appealing as trade bait this time around because of his contract. He still didn't fetch much.
Walker has a quirky game which, at times, can be maddening. Leo Papile, the Celtics' director of basketball operations, described Walker as "a power forward without the power." Walker led the NBA in 3-point attempts for two straight seasons, even though he wasn't among the top 50 in 3-point accuracy. His last days in Boston were not good ones; Kenyon Martin kicked his butt in the Nets' four-game sweep of the Celtics in 2003.
The marriage of Walker and Dallas looked like an ideal one. He would be playing for an offensive-minded coach in Don Nelson (the Mike Martz of the NBA) who would make Walker his point-forward. Early on, that's what happened. But as the season progressed, it became apparent that every time Walker had the ball, that meant that Steve Nash didn't have the ball. That is not a good thing.
Although he played in all 82 games -- Walker's durability is one of his main strengths -- it was apparent at the end of the season that he was not in Dallas' plans going forward. Then again, given what's going on in Dallas, who can say what their plans are? The Mavs have lost three of their top seven players -- Nash, Walker and Antawn Jamison -- and basically have Terry and Jerry (Stackhouse) to show for it. Oops, almost forgot. Calvin Booth is back for his second stint in the Big D.
Walker's numbers in Dallas were among the worst of his career, including 14 points (by far his low) as well as horrific shooting percentages from the line (a career-worst 55.4 percent) and from 3-point territory (a career-worst 26.9 percent.) He ended up playing center for the pivot-starved Mavs, a position he also played in his rookie season in Boston.
Walker will get plenty of playing time in Atlanta. He will put up numbers in Atlanta. He will handle the ball in Atlanta. Given the dearth of power forwards in the East, he may even again be mentioned as an All-Star Game participant. But unless the Hawks are the surprise of the NBA, those will be good numbers on a bad team that no one watches or cares about.
The real test for Walker will be next summer, when the whole league will get a chance to weigh in on what they think he is worth. At one point, not too long ago, he was considered one of the top players at his position. Now, he is seen by many as a player without a position on a team being rebuilt from scratch in a city players love to visit for reasons other than easy Ws at Philips Arena.
After being a mainstay in Boston, Walker has now been traded twice in 10 months. He thought he'd remain a Celtic for life. He hoped he'd be the latest to accept Mark Cuban's millions in Dallas. Now, he's a Hawk, which is as close to irrelevant as you can get these days in the NBA.
When Walker looks back on this past year, the words annus horribilis might come to mind if he knew any Latin. Queen Elizabeth used that phrase to describe a bad year for the House of Windsor. But like the royals, Walker is well compensated and isn't going away anytime soon. He'll just be toiling in obscurity until the next move comes along.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Being traded to Atlanta after only a year in Dallas shows just how far Antoine Walker's stock has dropped.