BOSTON — Six years ago, the fans here celebrated the Celtics’ steal of Kevin Garnett. A half-dozen years later, they were experiencing the other end of the era, and the sad feeling that they were the victim now, instead of the lucky thieves.
Not only was Garnett leaving the Celtics in the trade that was finalized late Thursday night, but Paul Pierce was also going with him. The departure of Pierce is going to be felt most deeply of all here. He was a Celtic for 15 years and 24,021 points, the team captain who sobbed as he raised the 17th banner above the parquet court. Dealing him was the next worst thing to trading away Larry Bird.
Danny Ainge, the president of the Celtics, has often recalled the conversation he had as an All-Star shooting guard in the 1980s when he urged his predecessor, Red Auerbach, to forget sentiment and trade away Bird and Kevin McHale for outstanding offers that were on the table toward the ends of their careers. Auerbach responded a few months later with a stunning trade: He sent Ainge to Sacramento.
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Now Ainge finds himself making the hard choice that Auerbach didn’t make, and doing it for much less than the offers for Bird and McHale would have earned three decades ago. Fans are going to look at this deal with disappointment: Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry were sent to Brooklyn for three first-round picks (in 2014, 2016 and 2018) and a bunch of contracts, including a year of Kris Humphries at $12 million, and three years worth $10.1 million annually for Gerald Wallace, who turns 31 next month.
In the new collective bargaining agreement, first-round picks are more valuable and harder to come by than ever. There were few options for trading Garnett, who has two years and $24.4 million remaining on a contract with a no-trade clause that was negotiated when the Celtics hoped to extend the era around the tight relationship of Garnett and coach Doc Rivers. When Rivers left, the plan of employing Garnett as a mentor for young players left with him.
The Celtics realized they were going to endure the pain eventually, and so it was best to have the teeth pulled as soon as possible. Don’t let it drag on, as Ainge counseled Auerbach years ago.
It made no sense to keep Pierce on a losing team, especially when he had already said he couldn’t muster the inspiration to participate in another rebuilding program, and his inclusion might help convince Garnett to assent to this trade. If the Celtics must be bad for a season, then at least their timing is good, because the draft of 2014 promises to be excellent, beginning with projected No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.
This isn’t going to be the last deal the Celtics make to acquire assets and position themselves for a new era. Ainge insisted Thursday that he was planning to rebuild around 27-year-old Rajon Rondo, an exceptional talent who can do just about everything but lead. The Celtics improved after Rondo suffered a torn ACL in January; they were 18-20 in games he started, and that was when he was surrounded by Garnett, Pierce and Terry. Now he’ll be supported by Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace and Avery Bradley, and who knows who the head coach will be.
The Nets have improved a roster that appeared to have no promising future after losing a Game 7 at home in the first round to the undermanned Bulls. They figure to be impressive in the regular season, when healthy. But how, at the end of the long year, are they going to be able to run with the younger legs of Miami, Indiana and Chicago when four of their top half-dozen players will be Garnett (who will be 37), Pierce (36), Terry (36) and Joe Johnson (32)? They have little depth to support a starting five that is going to demand caution in terms of minutes, and their only young contributor is Brook Lopez, who isn’t athletic.
Rivers was gone on Sunday, and by the end of the week, the six years of contention had been crated up and packaged off to Brooklyn. Rivers, Pierce and Garnett were links to the championship tradition of the 1980s and beyond. Garnett, in particular, was cited by Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck with elevating the standards of the franchise across the board.
Can they find a coach who believes in the proud traditions and who is capable of developing a new era? Will Rondo participate, or will he be the next to go? There are hard questions left for the Celtics to answer, but the most painful week is behind them. They and their fans now have some sense of what it was like to be on the wrong side of that trade for Garnett in 2007. The celebration in Brooklyn is happening at the expense of the Celtics now.