The Celtics yesterday sent a clear message to the NBA that they take themselves very seriously in any discussion of Eastern Conference contenders by executing a significant trade with the Phoenix Suns.
The deal almost enters the "too-good-to-be-true" category. Boston gave up rookie forward Joe Johnson, veteran guard Randy Brown, backup point guard Milt Palacio, and their first-round draft pick for 2002. In exchange, they acquired the services of 6-foot-7-inch forward Rodney Rogers and 6-2 shooting guard TonyDelk.
In other words, they traded three people who weren't playing, plus a draft pick that could be in the 20-plus range, for two players who make them a vastly better team than they were 24 hours ago. It's the sports ultimate: addition by addition.
"This is like one of those baseball trades that you see in the second half of the season with the purpose of trying to bolster your team," said Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "We acquired two veterans who are proven scorers. We'll have more offensive punch than we've ever had for the stretch run. Looking at the Eastern Confernce, it's so wide open, why not take a shot?
"Second, we wanted to reduce our overall payroll and put us in a better position to handle the luxury tax in 2002-03."
Celtics coach Jim O'Brien saw many positive aspects to the trade and instantly felt he's now in charge of a deeper team.
"First, for this year we were able to pick up two really great shooters, two perimeter guys," he said. "Our whole strategic plan this year is to space the court, and from that standpoint [the trade makes sense].
"Really, at this point in time it doesn't affect what was last night our top eight players. Tony and Rodney give us considerable additions to what we already have."
A Celtics spokesman said the team hopes to have both available to play tonight against the Mavericks, but they first need to pass physicals.
Rogers, 30, is a rugged, versatile player who won the NBA's Sixth Man Award in 2000. He can score from inside and out, and when he flexes his massive biceps small mountains in neighboring states have been known to move. He was averaging 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds for the Suns.
Delk, 28, is the answer to a prayer Celtics fans have been aiming skyward for anywhere from 12 to 20 years. One of the great ongoing team needs has been a man who can come off the bench and provide instant offense. This is Delk's game. He is a jump shooter supreme. He is a tweener size with the reputation of being "a shooting guard in a point guard's body." But a shooting guard is what he is. Delkonce scored 53 points in an NBA game.
"I've known Tony Delk since 1994, I coached him at Kentucky," said O'Brien. "He's a wonderful guy, an instant shooter, and a tough defender. His role is to be determined."
Rogers came into the NBA following his junior year at Wake Forest. He was one of the eight collegiate players selected to provide opposition for the original Dream Team when their practices commenced in La Jolla, Calif., 10 years ago this June. Delk started for Rick Pitino's 1996 NCAA championship Kentucky Wildcats. He was originally property of the Golden State Warriors.
"Delk is a very potent outside shooter," said Wallace. "He primarily plays off-guard but he can play the point and he's a very good defender. He's a proven commodity in the league. Rodney Rogers is someone that we've never had before. He's a power forward with a tremendous outside shot. And he's a big-body type."
O'Brien has some definite plans for Rogers. "Rodney is a big, strong guy who plays in a similar fashion to Antoine [Walker]," he said. "In my mind, he can play anywhere from the 5 [center] to the 3 [small forward]."
Rogers earns $2.6 million and is a free agent at the end of the season. Delk is in the second year of a six-year deal. He earns $2.475 million this year and will make $2.7 million next year. He has a termination option before the final year of the deal, which is 2005-06.
The trade lowers the Celtics' payroll next season to avoid a luxury tax at the end of the 2002-03 season. It allows them to save more than $2.4 million when all the salaries are added in and, probably, another $1 million by not having to draft a player. (The pick is protected through the first eight and then through the first five for five years. Barring a Celtics collapse, the Suns will get the pick this year.) It also could give the Celtics some room to re-sign Erick Strickland, who is the only free agent they are likely to want to re-sign.
They are on the books next year for around $41 million. That covers eight players. A new contract for Paul Pierce will add another $10-plus million. The luxury tax is expected to kick in in the low $50-million range. Next season should be the only year they'll be close to the luxury tax cutoff. After the 02-03 season, Kenny Anderson comes off the books, so they will have some wiggle room.
Johnson, the Celtics' first of three first-round draft picks in 2001, started the season in tremendous fashion but ran into problems before the month of November was concluded and before long was surpassed in the eyes of Celtic brass by fellow rookie Kedrick Brown. The 6-7 Johnson entered the NBA with the reputation of being a passive young man who is too polite and deferential for his own good. That scouting report now looks pretty sound.
Palacio gave the team some useful service last season, but the arrival this season of Strickland made him completely expendable. The only thing that has to be said about the effects of losing Randy Brown is that he played in one (1) game this season.
Why would the Suns do this? M-o-n-e-y. They aren't going anywhere this year, and they unload a couple of veteran salaries. They may have an opinion on Johnson, who is skilled, and they will get a draft pick. But this is a deal so one-sided that Eastern rivals such as New Jersey, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and a few others must be livid. SIDEBAR 1: GRADING POINTS PLEASE REFER TO MICROFILM FOR CHART DATA. SIDEBAR 2: TRADE STATISTICS PLEASE REFER TO MICROFILM FOR CHART DATA.