That is the question that may dictate the direction of the Celtics franchise. Gary is obviously very upset with the Laker organization, and he made some comments to a reporter in frustration and anger that indicate that he would not show up for the Celtics training camp. He even went so far as to say that he wanted to be traded back West to a contender or back to LA to the Clippers. Has he cooled down since then? Have the conversations with Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers helped to smooth things over with him to the point where he’d be excited to be a Boston Celtic? These are the questions that will determine what this year and perhaps the future of the franchise will look like.
One inside source has indicated that Gary has indeed worked things out with the Celtics and will show up for training camp. However, even if that is the case, it can’t be considered a sure thing that he would be 100% happy in a situation where he’s not immediately in position to compete for a championship. Even at his age, Gary would clearly be the best point guard this franchise has seen in quite some time. However, if he’s not happy, he could create a very negative locker room atmosphere and, in a worst case scenario, set a bad example for younger players.
So where does that leave the Celtics? I could see things going in 3 different general directions.
First, if Gary buys what Danny and Doc are selling and shows up with a healthy chip on his shoulder, ready to be a veteran leader and add to the legacy of the Boston franchise, then the Celtics could be very happy with the team that Ainge has put together. Pair Payton with Pierce and Davis at the swing positions and Blount and Raef LaFrentz down low, and you’ve got a solid starting lineup. Of course there is always the caveat of "if Raef is healthy," but adding Googs (another oft-injured big man) provides a little bit of protection. Al Jefferson may be a franchise-type player soon, but a year without the pressure of a full-time starting gig could be beneficial for him. Likewise, the rest of the bench will be quite young. West, Allen, Welsch, and Perkins could all benefit from significant minutes off the bench and all could develop into starters or at least solid role players for years to come.
A second direction would be to keep Payton and roll the dice on a trade for an impact player, either before camp or at the trade deadline. Ainge has done a good job of accumulating tradable assets. Some of which he dealt to acquire Gary Payton, but in the process, he picked up Rick Fox’s expiring contract to go with Yogi Stewart’s. Packaging expiring contracts, players, and perhaps a draft pick, could land someone like Shareef Abdur-Rahim (who has been an object of Danny’s desire for quite some time) or Ray Allen. Rolling the dice on either one would give them a formidable threesome of Payton, Pierce, and Abdur-Rahim or Allen, to go along with Blount and whoever else is not traded. That would seem to be enough to contend in the East. As a bonus, it would still allow Danny to have the flexibility of $20 million in expiring contracts (Gary and Shareef or Allen). If things don’t work out during the season, he’d have the option of trading those contracts at the deadline, or letting them expire at the end of the season and work with much more cap room. If the price is right, I believe Danny would roll the dice on a deal like this.
Of course all of this could be moot if Gary does not want to play nice and demands a trade. He has some leverage in that he could, in fact, retire. The Celtics wouldn’t have to pay his salary, but clearly they’d prefer to get something from their trade. That means the Celtics could convince him to hold off his retirement plans long enough to trade him to another team. The thing is, if Gary did not approve of that team, he could very well veto the deal by telling that team he wouldn’t report to them either. So "he’s mad, but there be method in it."
So what will it be Gary? Danny’s way, or the highway? Personally, I’m rooting for the guy to buy into the Celtic legacy. Give him a tour of the Fleet flanked by Red and Cousey. Point to the rafters, show him the trophies. Explain that if he helped bring another banner to Boston, his legacy would forever be etched in on our hearts. Shoot, even Tommy Heinson might be able to put aside his well-voiced distaste for the guy and give him a big "welcome aboard" hug. If all of that isn’t enough to sweeten up his sour disposition, it won’t take too long for Danny to send him along to his next stop in exchange for some more "tradable assets" and it all starts over again.