Celtics Get a Glove

August 7, 2004

In a sign-and-trade deal completed yesterday with an eye beyond next season, the Celtics sent forward/center Chris Mihm, point guards Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks, and a 2005 second-round draft pick to the Lakers for point guard Gary Payton, forward Rick Fox, a conditional 2005 first-round pick, and $2 million.

Payton and Fox arrive in Boston with one year remaining on their contracts, which could translate to greater roster and financial flexibility starting with the 2005-06 season.

   The transaction reunites Fox with the team that drafted him 24th overall in 1991. Payton heads to the Celtics with serious reservations.

As the teams announced the deal yesterday afternoon pending the outcome of physicals and league approval, Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge met with Payton in Los Angeles. Coach Doc Rivers talked with Payton over the phone. The Celtics' side sought to place the franchise in as positive a light as possible for Payton, who signed with the Lakers last summer in hopes of winning a championship. Clearly, he will not have a similar opportunity with the Celtics next season, as the team simply hopes to contend for a playoff berth. And the trade for two veterans nearing retirement did nothing to markedly improve the odds of a postseason appearance.

"We had a good conversation," said Ainge. "Gary was very respectful and very excited that we had so much interest in him. But it's a difficult situation. He has a 16-year-old daughter starting high school and he's 36 years old and thought he was finishing [his career] in LA. He's very shocked that the Lakers traded him."

All the players involved sounded equally shocked by the news, though the Lakers and Celtics began discussing a deal two weeks ago. Still, Payton and Fox, 35, may have been caught more off guard than the Celtics in the transaction.

When asked if Payton was unhappy with the trade, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said: "Well, I spoke to Rick Fox and Rick wasn't very happy, either. I don't think any player, when they're at a place where they're comfortable, likes to get a phone call that says they were traded. Some players are more emotional than others. As far as Gary's concerned, Gary's always worn his emotions on his sleeve. So, I would imagine that would not be any different right now. And Rick's emotional, too.

"I don't think either player wanted to be traded. It's not something that we wanted to do. This is just a part of the business."

Ainge declined to comment on the Celtics' motivation for making the deal. But clearly, the financial side factored heavily into his decision. Boston stands to save $6 million during the 2005-06 season when Banks, 22, would have earned $1.4 million and the 29-year-old Atkins $4.5 million. But that does not get the Celtics under the salary cap. It also assumes the team will not make any additions next offseason, an unlikely prospect considering the way Ainge operates.

More immediate payroll relief could come if Fox decides to retire. The Celtics are slated to pay Fox $5.1 million next season, while Payton will earn $5.4 million. After the Lakers lost to the Pistons in the NBA Finals, Fox told the Los Angeles Times he would rather retire than play for a team other than the Lakers. If Fox retires, the Celtics would not only save money, they would also gain a roster spot.

The 13-year veteran endured an injury-riddled season last year, missing 44 games after undergoing foot-tendon surgery in May 2003 and suffering a thumb injury late in the 2003-04 season that hampered him during the playoffs and cost him his starting job. Fox averaged 4.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game last season.

If Fox does not retire but suffers from chronic injuries that keep him from playing, the Celtics may be able to receive some financial relief through insurance. Since the trade caught Fox by surprise, his spokesperson said Fox wouldn't address the deal and his future until next week. A buyout remains another strong possibility. Ainge did not sound optimistic about seeing Fox in uniform next season.

"Rick's career is in jeopardy because he's just not healthy enough to play," said Ainge.

On the other hand, Ainge believes Payton will step in and make the kind of immediate impact expected of a nine-time All-Star and "a premier point guard in the league." But after struggling to adapt to the Lakers' offense last season, a problem pronounced during the playoffs, many basketball pundits believe Payton left his best years behind in Seattle. Last season, he averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists in 34.5 minutes per game. Over his 14-year career, Payton boasts averages of 18 points, 7.2 assists, and 36.8 minutes per game.

"To give up on guys like Rick Fox and Gary Payton is not an easy decision for us," said Kupchak. "Based on Rick's contributions over the years, we always thought he would retire a Laker. He helped us win three championships . . . Gary had only been with us a year, but I don't want to even think where we would have been without him last year, particularly November through March when most of our players were injured. He kept the team together. There's an excellent chance that Gary will end up in the Hall of Fame."

Payton could also provide the Celtics another box office draw in addition to Paul Pierce. Meanwhile, the prospect of playing beside Kobe Bryant has Atkins excited.

"My heart and soul was set on coming back," said Atkins. "I've been working hard, trying to get myself right and get my game right and be a leader of the team. When I got the news, I was kind of shocked, but not because they moved me. We were so deep on the perimeter that I figured if they were going to move a perimeter [player] it was either going to be me or Paul. The surprise was that it was to the Lakers.

"I'm overly excited. It's been well documented how badly Kobe wants to win. I want to win. And I know since Shaq [O'Neal] left, everybody is putting the Lakers off as far as not making the playoffs. We want to be a team that says, 'Hey man, we can play against anybody and beat anybody.' I'm excited for a new beginning with a new team that also has a lot of tradition. I just want to go there and make a contribution."

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