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Christopher L. Gasper

Celtics’ trade hurts, but it was time

As their No. 2 all-time scorer, Paul Pierce’s place in Celtics history is assured.
As their No. 2 all-time scorer, Paul Pierce’s place in Celtics history is assured. elsa/getty images

You can either pull a Band-Aid off slowly or just rip it off. Either way, it’s going to hurt. The question is do you want to prolong the pain or just get it over with?

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge decided it was time to just rip the Band-Aid off and break up the Celtics’ band of basketball brothers on Thursday. He agreed to deal future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for a farraginous mixture of players and first-round picks (2014, 2016, and 2018, as well as the right to swap picks in 2017), none of which guarantees the Green anything moving forward.


Taking a wrecking ball to the New Big Three era was the right move. There is no such thing as growing old gracefully in the NBA. Yes, any season you get to watch Pierce and Garnett practice their craft should be savored, but the Celtics were only prolonging the inevitable reboot at this point.

They were in NBA purgatory, no longer a true championship contender with aging stars Pierce and Garnett, but still too talented and proud to be in rebuild mode. In order to raise the next banner, Ainge had to raze the team that won the last one. That’s how it works in the NBA, when you’re in a nondesirable market for star players in a players’ league. That’s what Boston is (that’s a story for another day).

Plus, the Celtics got six years out of a three-year plan.

Everyone thought the New Big Three Celtics of Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen were dissolving after they lost Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals to the Lakers.

Media members applauded when departing coach Doc Rivers walked off the podium after his emotional postgame news conference in the bowels of Staples Center. Allen was a free agent. Pierce had an opt-clause he would exercise.


Somehow, Ainge coaxed them all back. Allen left for the rival Miami Heat last offseason, but Pierce, Rivers, and Garnett remained.

With all due respect to Allen, the Big Three, the Next Generation was never Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. It was Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers. The Celtics parted ways with that treasured championship trinity last week.

Rivers, who waffled on whether he wanted to be part of the Celtics’ rebuild, was swapped to the Clippers for a 2015 first-round pick. He was introduced as the latest script doctor for the NBA’s longest-running tragicomedy last Wednesday.

The Celtics have lost their leaders and the identity they had forged since 2007, when Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett and created a champion faster than you could say “Ubuntu.”

The jettisoning of Pierce and Garnett in the name of basketball rebirth is not without ambivalence or pangs of regret. You don’t part ways with two legends, one of whom in the case of Pierce spent his entire 15-year career with the Celtics, without feeling the tug of the emotional ties that bound you to them.

It would have been fun to watch Pierce try to chase down John Havlicek as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Pierce tallied 24,021 points as a Celtic, second all time. He likely would have needed two seasons to catch Hondo’s 26,395.

It would have been a remarkable story for a player who grew up in Inglewood, Calif., where he used to sneak into Lakers games at the Forum.


Still, Pierce is among the greatest half-dozen Celtics in history, and certainly one of the most underappreciated.

Pierce was always function over form. His game was never graceful or pretty. It was all arms, legs, and angles, grunts, grimaces, and groans.

Pierce has his place in Celtics history. He assured that when he was named Finals MVP in 2008 against his boyhood team. He will have his No. 34 lifted to the rafters.

Pierce departs as the Celtics’ all-time leader in free throws made and steals. He has the No. 2 scoring average in team history (21.8), trailing only Larry Bird.

But more impressive than any number Pierce put up was the way he turned nearly being stabbed to death in a Boston nightclub in September 2000 into an unfortunate footnote of a great career.

Garnett belongs more to Minnesota, where he won a league MVP and became one of the league’s signature players, than to us, truthfully.

But Garnett legitimized the franchise by agreeing to come here on July 31, 2007.

It’s hard to believe that his trade to the Celtics received equal billing to the Red Sox acquiring Eric Gagne on the same day.

During his six seasons as a Celtic, Garnett’s intensity, work ethic, and defensive dedication came to be the pulse of the parquet. His sneering, scowling face became the face of the franchise. He bonded with Bill Russell and the fan base like he was born to be a Celtic.


If it weren’t for that fateful February night in Utah in 2009, where he went up for an alley-oop and came down with a strained tendon in his right knee and an aggravated bone spur, the Celtics might have won back-to-back titles. Boston was 44-11 at that point. The Celtics couldn’t get out of the second round without him.

Rail against the trade all you want, but the Celtics were never going to get equal value for Pierce, who will be 36 in October, and the 37-year-old Garnett.

Other teams weren’t going to pay for their sentimental value to the Celtics. Ainge got pieces for a puzzle he can’t fit together yet.

Garnett has a routine he does before each game in which he pounds his head against the basket support.

That’s what keeping Pierce and KG for a seventh season would have been for the Celtics — banging your head against a basketball wall in vain.

Letting go hurts.

But no pain, no gain.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.