Next shoe to drop? Probably Payton

Updated: February 17, 2005, 12:55 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

He has a team that's hovering around first place, even as it tries to stay at .500 in a pathetic division. He has a future Hall of Famer or two to offer, unless he gets directed otherwise.

WWDD? What Will Danny Do?

As next week's trade deadline approaches, a lot of the NBA's eyes will be on Celtics master builder Danny Ainge, who has shown no hesitation whatsoever to pull the trigger on a deal. He made three of them last season, including one in December after the team had won five straight games and another at the trading deadline that led to a world championship -- for the Pistons.

Gary Payton
Payton vowed not to play for the Celtics but became a team leader. Soon he may play the same role for another team.
But with the Celtics underachieving, will Ainge act? He has some bargaining chips in the form of Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta and Michael Stewart, whose contracts are up at the end of the season. He has a couple of first-round picks as well.

Yes, the Celtics might win the Atlantic Division if they don't do anything. And, yes, ownership likes the concept of making the po$t$ea$on and a big, February deal might temporarily set the team back.

But if we go by history, Ainge will do something unless directly ordered from above to cease and desist. Ainge is not the least bit impressed by the prospect of the Celtics' becoming a 42-40 division champion. He wasn't last year, when he blew up the team in mid-December, forcing the eventual exodus of Jim O'Brien. He isn't this year, either.

While some reports have focused on Paul Pierce, and his visible distress over the team's quite evident rebuilding situation, Ainge is not inclined to deal his best player unless he's going to get someone equally good, or even better, in return. Pierce is a sexier name than Payton and he has clashed occasionally this season with Doc Rivers, the coach Ainge brought in. There have been times when you suspected Pierce would welcome a trade, but if he is so inclined, and some think he is, he has not said so publicly.

Pierce not only is valuable to the Celtics, he is, as they say, available. In other words, he doesn't miss games. Ainge puts a premium on such things, which is why he's stomached a lot of Mark Blount's uneven play this season. Blount, like Pierce, doesn't miss games.

For now, it's all about the future in Boston. Ainge has convinced the Celtics' fan base that it was the right thing to do to blow up a team that reached the conference finals in 2001 and the second round in 2002.
Neither does Payton. (He missed one with a sore hamstring, but he could have played.) Neither do any of the other Celtics regulars, which is why a .500 record in their conference has to be unacceptable. The four other teams in their division have been without key people or made coaching changes. The Celtics have been healthy and have a coach in place with Ainge's blessing and support. (By the way, we're not counting Al Jefferson as indispensable -- yet.)

Payton expects to be dealt, although he has been on his best behavior and said All The Right Things. Asked this week about possibly being dealt, he said, "I'm not even thinking about that.'' It was hard to see if his nose was growing as he spoke.

"I'm just going to play and try to keep us in first place,'' he went on. "Whatever happens, happens. I'll take it the way I'm going to take it. Right now, I'm still in Boston, looking forward to being on the [post All-Star Game] road trip and being there.''

Payton recently said he detected interest from Minnesota and Sacramento and, having seen both teams lately, I think either one would benefit from a heady vet like Payton. The Wolves are a mess and the Kings' bench is loaded with players for whom the NBDL may be the future.

Maybe Denver will make a move now that Payton-ophile George Karl is on the bench. Would the Nuggets part with Nikoloz Tskitishvili in a package for Payton? He's the kind of player that intrigues Ainge -- young, with more upside than experience. Ainge hasn't seen much of the kid, but neither has anyone else. Skita never played in Europe, either, and he was the fifth pick in the 2002 draft. Indiana would seem to have a need as well as it tries to get back into the Eastern Conference elite, such as it is. Could Ainge work out something with Seattle, return Gary to the green and gold for seldom-used Robert Swift, whom Danny coveted in last year's draft?

Ainge is not one to let emotion get in the way. Yes, if the Celtics keep Payton they might win the division. But then, after the season, in all probability, he's gonzo. He wants to rejoin his family out west and he wants to be on a contender. Last time I checked, the Celtics were neither.

So, aside from maybe making the playoffs and the brief cheer and financial benefit it will bring, why keep Payton for a modest, short-term return and then get nothing for him when he leaves? It's hard to see Ainge doing that, especially since Payton still can play. If nothing else, Payton has proven that this year. He can help a team. He could bring something in a deal.

Ainge has two point guards in waiting in Marcus Banks and Delonte West, though neither looks ready to lead a team on a 30-35 minute-per-game basis. Ainge's view of that is, So what? Why not give them a shot? Banks is in his second season, and, while he has struggled under Rivers, he remains the heir apparent unless West beats him out. But if Payton is there, those two are going to see spare minutes and one of them might not play at all on a regular basis.

Danny Ainge
Whether working the phone lines or the media, Ainge is always operating.
Don't look for Ainge to deal his pups. He likes all of them, including second-round pick (2004) Justin Reed. The one exception might be Jiri Welsch, who is losing the minutes battle to Tony Allen and Ricky Davis. He's an intriguing talent. Together, he and Payton make around $7 million. Stewart ($4.8 million) and Gugliotta ($2.7 million) might also be attractive to teams looking to trim payroll next season.

Ainge is also partial to draft picks. The main reason he made the deal last February allowing the Pistons to get Rasheed Wallace was to get a pick out of it. He turned that choice into Allen. A pick he received from Dallas in the Antoine Walker trade turned into West (whom Ainge likes better than Ben Gordon). From the Payton trade in August, he'll have a No. 1 pick from the Lakers this year if L.A. makes the playoffs. He got a second-rounder from the Cavs in the Davis deal and a second-rounder from the Suns (via Golden State) for Walter McCarty.

If some behavioral specialist in Langley, Va., were going over Ainge's dossier and history, he or she would come to the unalterable conclusion that Trader Danny would strike once again. Only two players, Pierce and Blount, remain with the team he took over less than two years ago, in May 2003. Those two should still be around on the morning of Feb. 25, but, if history tells us anything, one of their current teammates won't be.

For now, it's all about the future in Boston. Ainge has convinced the Celtics' fan base that it was the right thing to do to blow up a team that reached the conference finals in 2001 and the second round in 2002.

In its place is a work-in-progress and the work is far from done. There are more pieces required and it would be a huge surprise if one of those pieces isn't headed for Boston by 3:01 p.m. on Feb. 24.

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

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com