WALTHAM - Ex-Celtics point guard Gary Payton watched on television from his Las Vegas home Wednesday night as his former team lost to the Pistons. And once Chauncey Billups hit the winning free throws with a tenth of a second remaining, Payton called his agent.
"He called me and said, 'Hey, I'm reminding you that the Celtics are a team I feel like I can help,"' said agent Aaron Goodwin.
The Celtics have been pleased with the play of second-year point guard Rajon Rondo. But there has been a feeling that Boston still needs a veteran backup at the position.
The Celtics have Eddie House, a 3-point threat who isn't considered a true point guard, and rookie Gabe Pruitt. And when the Celtics struggled to bring the ball up the court because of the Pistons' pressure defense when Rondo was out in the fourth quarter, the issue again presented itself. The Celtics also had trouble stopping Billups, a big point guard, who scored 28 points.
Coach Doc Rivers said the Celtics "would be in trouble" if Rondo got hurt, but he also likes his roster. Rivers said he hasn't talked to anyone in Celtics management about Payton. Goodwin said that while he has talked to Danny Ainge several times about Payton, the Celtics' basketball boss hasn't shown strong interest. Other available veteran free agent point guards include Earl Boykins and Keith McLeod.
"I like my team and I would kind of like to play this a little bit longer and see where we go," said Rivers. "Clearly [Wednesday] night, when Rajon was off the floor it changed the game. But we have ways of correcting that. If not, then maybe. But right now we'll just let this team play it out a little bit more.
"We're not panicking. Having said that, we're aware of it, there is no doubt about it. I'm just going to coach the ones now and we'll worry about the other stuff later."
The Celtics have two open roster spots. Ainge said Wednesday he wasn't looking to fill one unless it was with an impact player. So, that begs the question of whether Payton could be that impact player.
"Just knowing [Payton] and playing with him, I know what he brings to the game," said James Posey, who played with Payton the last two seasons in Miami. "He brings that competitive nature. That experience. He's been doing it. Even before we won a ring in Miami, people understood what he brings to the table."
Payton, 39, has averaged 16.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds over 17 seasons. The nine-time All-Defensive team selection played for the Celtics during the 2004-05 season, starting all 77 games he played for the Atlantic Division champions, who lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Pacers.
Payton, a nine-time All-Star, averaged career lows of 5.3 points, 3 assists, and 1.9 rebounds in 68 games last season. But the 6-foot-4-inch, 180-pounder also won a title with the Heat in 2006, has played in three NBA Finals, and could make an impact, a la veterans Lindsey Hunter (Detroit), Jacque Vaughn (San Antonio), and Darrell Armstrong (New Jersey). Goodwin says Payton is in great shape and could be ready quickly.
"I loved [Payton]," Rivers said. "Gary was great. He was a professional. He's a veteran, he knows how to play, and he's tough. So I always liked him and he knows that. That's probably why he wants to come. We had a terrific relationship."
The Celtics would likely have to pay Payton a prorated amount of $1.2 million based on the minimum salary for players with 10-plus years of experience. Goodwin said Payton would have no problem making the minimum or coming off the bench. He added that Payton is receiving "a little interest" from other teams and before the season he put the Celtics on a short list of teams he was interested in joining.
"Gary's interest is only with teams he can play with and compete with to win a championship," Goodwin said. "He'd love the opportunity to play with Boston. It's one of the teams he had me contact before the season, and that's saying a lot because Gary doesn't like the cold."
Goodwin said he last talked to Ainge about Payton and another client, free agent forward Chris Webber, about two weeks ago. Webber appears close to signing with the Pistons.