Although the relationship between the Celtics and David Lee may last one year, or perhaps even less, his acquisition Tuesday from the Warriors for Gerald Wallace was a necessary move toward legitimacy and improvement for president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
The Celtics acquired the long, twisting contract of Gerald Wallace for a reason two years ago as Brooklyn GM Billy King insisted Ainge swallow the final three years and $30 million of the aging veteran’s contract to facilitate the trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Wallace spent two years with the Celtics, cooperated fully with limited minutes and an old-head-in-the-locker-room role, and easily could have come back at 33 years old next season while the Celtics allowed his contract to expire.
But this high-spending free agency not only has teams overpaying for players but also approaching or exceeding the luxury tax. Meanwhile, the champion Warriors 1) wanted to find a place for Lee to play because it wasn’t going to be in Oakland, and 2) reduce their luxury tax bill by accepting a lesser contract.
So Ainge was able to acquire a two-time All-Star forward, hungry to prove he’s more than the emergency replacement he was in the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers. Lee, 32, has been considered an automatic double-double player throughout his career, and he posted 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 2013-14 under coach Mark Jackson.
This past season Lee was injured to begin the season and could never crack Steve Kerr’s rotation until the Finals. The Warriors had moved on without him, but, in the most encouraging point for the Celtics in this deal, Lee was able to contribute when it counted most.
He pitched in with 9 points and was a plus-21 in 15 minutes, 28 seconds in Golden State’s critical Game 4 win over the Cavaliers.
Lee may be ending his prime, but the Celtics desperately needed productive big men. They selected three guards and a forward during last month’s draft, flooding their backcourt. Meanwhile, they had little help for Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger until they agreed to terms with Toronto’s Amir Johnson, who could start at center.
The Celtics needed proven players and, in Johnson and Lee, nabbed veterans who will crash the boards and score around the basket.
Before acquiring Lee, the Celtics had not made any significant steps forward improving their place in the Eastern Conference. They were being passed by teams such as Orlando, Charlotte, and Indiana, all of which made stirring roster upgrades over the past two weeks.
Free agency didn’t work out the way Ainge and the Celtics wanted. The market value for players unexpectedly soared to the point where Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll goes to Toronto for four years and $60 million, Reggie Jackson re-signs with Detroit for five years and $80 million, and potential Celtics target Robin Lopez agreed with the Knicks for four years, $54 million.
Ainge sat there holding his salary-cap space and draft picks and they devalued quicker than an Alex Rodriguez rookie card. Ainge had to find a way to improve the roster and also capitalize on teams whose riches became overwhelming, such as the Warriors, who had the luxury of winning a title with a $15.4 million player on the bench.
Despite winning the championship, Lee fully acknowledged he would not want to return to playing just 18 minutes per game and even fewer in the postseason. He has one year remaining on a six-year, $80 million contract, and he lived up to that deal with his production.
Ainge had to determine the best time to utilize Wallace’s contract and he waited two long years for it to become an expiring one. Even when the Celtics missed out on free agent targets such as Kevin Love, Ainge had that contract in his satchel to use appropriately.
The Warriors no longer needed Lee and were looking to trade him to a team that could absorb his contract, but those candidates were decreasing as more teams began participating in the free agent bonanza. The Lakers chose to acquire Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and the $17.8 million it cost them to make the deal rather than take on Lee, who is not a natural center.
Until Ainge can legitimately sign a big-name free agent, he has to use the resources accumulated since the beginning of the rebuild two years ago. Those first-round picks aren’t as valuable as once thought because many of them are likely to be mid first-round or later, and with Brooklyn re-signing Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, that Nets’ No. 1 next season may be in the teens also.
So it was time for another plan. Ainge had to become more creative in devising way to improve the roster and compete in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics faithful have not exactly been thrilled with the results of free agency over the past week.
Now Boston has brought in a player who will embrace the Celtics culture, has experience playing in the Eastern Conference, and is determined to show his value for his next contract.
The Celtics and David Lee is a good match. The two sides need each other, however long their courtship will last. The organization found out perhaps the hard way that acquiring marquee free agents next summer will be more difficult and more expensive than expected.
But, until then, the Celtics have a competitive team with an upgraded frontcourt. Lee is a consummate professional, evidenced by a handful of his former Golden State teammates offering Twitter tributes as if he was voted to the Hall of Fame.
The Celtics were left wanting in free agency, but the summer isn’t over yet. This was a positive day for the franchise.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GWashburnGlobe.