There's a story Danny Ainge is fond of telling, one he repeated last week: In 1988, then Celtics president Red Auerbach let Ainge, at the time a feisty guard on an aging Boston team, in on a little trade talk. Auerbach confided that he could deal Larry Bird, then 32, to Indiana for a package that would include Chuck Person, Herb Williams and Steve Stipanovich, and flip Kevin McHale, 31, to Dallas for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. Says Ainge, "I told Red, 'Why are you waiting?'"
More than 20 years later, Ainge is now in Auerbach's role, and he finds himself in a comparable situation. The Celtics have stumbled out of the gate and have all the hallmarks of a team on the decline. Turnovers (15.6 per game) have plagued the offense, and a once rock-solid defense has allowed 101.6 points per 100 possessions. "They just look old," says a scout. "They don't move well, they don't finish well. That used to be a really intimidating team. Now they look soft."
With the trade deadline less than two months away, Ainge must make some tough choices. Shooting guard Ray Allen and power forward Kevin Garnett are appealing assets to contenders. Allen, 36, is averaging career-high shooting percentages from the field (50.4%) and the three-point line (56.3%). Garnett, 35, is on pace for his lowest scoring and rebounding averages since his rookie season, but he is still a menacing defensive presence, albeit in a more limited role. Yet Allen and Garnett have value for the Celtics too: After the season, Allen, Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal will all be free agents, clearing $37.4 million off Boston's books.
That leaves the other, more complicated pillar of the Celtics' roster, Paul Pierce. The 34-year-old forward's production has dipped this season (a career-low 14.6 points per game), and if Ainge decides to rebuild around 25-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo and salary cap space, trading Pierce and the remaining two years and $32.1 million on his contract makes sense. But Ainge has been adamant that he won't give any of the Big Three away. "If Danny is looking for young talent and draft picks, forget it," says an Eastern Conference G.M. "[Pierce] is not worth that kind of package."
When Garnett and Allen joined the Celtics in 2007, everyone knew the Big Three had an expiration date. It appears that date has come. Ainge could keep the core together and hope this proud team can catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs. Or he can do what Auerbach could not: make cold decisions to help Boston get a jump start on its future.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL
If the Celtics decide to trade Paul Pierce (below), these potential swaps make sense
GOLDEN STATE: MONTA ELLIS
Ellis is an All-Star candidate, but his backcourt partnership with Stephen Curry has yet to yield results. The star-starved Warriors could use Pierce to stabilize an inconsistent half-court offense.
ATLANTA: JOSH SMITH
Smith has had an uneven eight years in Atlanta. But he is a young (26), athletic power forward who would mesh well with Rajon Rondo. Pierce would give Atlanta a go-to scorer, shifting Joe Johnson to a complementary role.
HOUSTON: KEVIN MARTIN
Martin (who should come with a first-round pick) is a consistent scorer who could replace Ray Allen at shooting guard next season. Pierce's polished post game would help a team in need of options in the paint.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
KEVIN SENT? Garnett (5) would bolster a contender with his low-post presence, but keeping his expiring contract would give Boston the cap space it needs to rebuild next season.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER