Walker returns to Celtics in shocker

Updated: February 25, 2005, 9:13 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Antoine Walker is coming back to Boston after the Celtics traded Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta and Michael Stewart and a first-round draft pick to the Hawks.

Atlanta is working on a buyout that would clear Payton to shop his services in search of a new team, ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher is repotring. One of the potential options Payton is considering, according to Bucher, is a return to the Celtics.

"We think the addition of Antoine Walker brings needed presence under the boards and a proven winner back to Boston," owner Wyc Grousbeck said. "We are making a playoff push and are focused on becoming a better, bigger team down the stretch."

Walker spent seven years with the Celtics from 1996-2003, helping them reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2001-02. But basketball boss Danny Ainge decided after taking over the team during the '03 postseason that it would be better off without its strongest all-around player and its strongest personality.

On Thursday, Ainge changed his mind.

"I think Antoine improves our team right now, and it doesn't jeopardize our future," Ainge said. "We've been in discussions with Atlanta for about a month. They were looking at taking some of my pieces for the future. Today the price came right and the risk came low."

Antoine Walker
Atlanta Hawks
53 20.4 9.4 3.7 .415 .534

Everyone involved in the trade has a contract that expires after this season, including Walker's deal that is paying him $14.6 million. Ainge said discussions of an extension would wait until the summer and were not a part of the trade.

Nine days before the 2003 season opener, Ainge traded Walker along with guard Tony Delk to the Dallas Mavericks for center Raef LaFrentz, guard Jiri Welsch and a first-round draft pick. Welsch was traded to the Cavaliers on Thursday for a 2007 first-round draft pick.

The move reunites Walker with Paul Pierce, a duo that took Boston to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals and gave the franchise its best years since the Big Three era of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- along with Ainge -- won the last two of a record 16 NBA titles.

Ainge said he spoke to Walker on Thursday and any bad feelings are in the past. Walker is trying to get to Salt Lake City in time for Friday night's game, Ainge said.

"I think Antoine's ego was hurt a little bit. He's a prideful guy, but I think he knows that it wasn't personal," Ainge said. "I told him it was a lot more pleasant calling him this time. It's never fun making that (other) call.

"But, to be honest, I don't care what he thinks of me. I'm just glad he's excited to come to Boston."

As a TV analyst before he took over the Celtics, Ainge made no secret of his distaste for Walker's game. When Walker was traded, Ainge commented less on his play than on his influence on the locker room, saying the player "had a grasp on the franchise."

"He's been the best player here for quite a while. He's been a vocal leader in the locker room," Ainge said at the time. "Now we're going in a different direction."

Walker leads Atlanta with 20.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 40.2 minutes per game. In his career, Walker is averaging 20 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Payton, who reluctantly came to the Celtics in a summer trade from the Lakers, reportedly was in talks with the Celtics about a contract extension. Payton is eligible to become a free agent after this season.

Payton, in his 15th season in the NBA, has started all 54 games this season for the Celtics averaging 32.8 minutes a game. He is averaging 12.1 points and 6.1 assists this season, below his career averages of 17.7 and 7.2.

At 36, Payton was seen as a possible mentor for 23-year-old Marcus Banks. But with the trade of Payton and Welsch, the Celtics will now give Banks a chance to learn on the court.

As part of the trade, Atlanta cut disgruntled point guard Kenny Anderson and forward Chris Crawford, who has missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.