As he spent the weekend in Boston, reliving the days when he and Paul Pierce were supposed to lead the Celtics to prosperity as a trash-talking, shimmying, dynamic duo, Antoine Walker watched his onetime close friend’s No. 34 raise to the rafters of TD Garden, on occasion wondering if, had things worked out, he could have received the same honor, the same adulation.
Walker averaged 20 or more points in five of his seven seasons with the Celtics, earning three All-Star appearances. He dazzled at times at power forward but his work went largely underappreciated with the Celtics, as did Pierce’s, because they couldn’t lead the franchise back to the NBA Finals.
They played 5½ seasons together and scrapped their way to respectability, including a stunning berth in the Eastern Conference finals in 2002, but as management ran short on patience, Walker and his showboating style were shipped to the Mavericks before the 2003 season. The Celtics went through some hard times with Pierce starring by himself until president of basketball operations Danny Ainge built the Big Three.
Pierce weathered the losing, became an NBA champion, and played 15 years in Boston.
Walker bounced around after his trade from the Celtics, helping Miami win a title as a reserve in 2006, but was out of the league by 2008.
Those early years were fun for Walker, until they weren’t. He had all the skills to be an all-time great, but circumstances weren’t as kind to him as they were to Pierce.
“I think the way it ended for me [in Boston] was not the right way,” Walker said. “I think obviously what separates us — you talk about Paul and 15 years and a chance to win an NBA title, it was totally different. Paul was a situation where you wondered whether he was going to retire a Celtic. Where I played on six different teams, it was a different feeling.
“One thing I could definitely take out of the situation, I do feel like I’m a definite part of the Boston family, not necessarily having my number in the rafters but the organization has been great to me after my departure.”
Walker played a season in Dallas, then was traded to the Hawks. Atlanta sent him back to the Celtics late in the 2004-05 season, Walker playing 30 more games with Boston (including the playoffs) before being dealt to Miami. That second Celtic stint, when he averaged 16.4 points and started every game alongside Pierce, was probably the last of the best of Antoine.
He was out of the league three years later at 31, finishing with a difficult season with the post-Garnett Timberwolves. But Walker did walk away a champion.
“It was the ultimate for me,” Walker said. “Me and Paul would always talk about maybe one day winning a title, playing in the Finals. That’s one of the reasons why I signed with the Heat, it was a transitional to focus on winning, to go play with Shaq [O’Neal] and [Dwyane] Wade and know that the stakes were high. It was the greatest feeling in the world for me, to be at that pedestal.
“I ran with Michael Jordan for a while and all he talked about was winning. He embedded in my head [that] it’s all about winning titles, and if you ain’t about winning titles, you didn’t do right. That’s some of the things I think about.”
Walker and Pierce weren’t the best of friends but held each other in high esteem. As their careers progressed and Walker went through his off-court issues, including financial troubles, the two didn’t talk as much.
That has changed.
“We were basketball friends but we were friends off the court, too,” Walker said. “We would go to each other’s charity events; we would help each other out. He would come to Chicago to hang with me, I would go to LA to hang with him. We built a great bond. That’s why it’s easy for us today, regardless of how separated we are from each other, we’re still able to talk and be good with each other, it’s because of those moments. It’s because of the ability to bring back our pasts and kind of work through it.
“We’ve maintained. We saw each other about two months ago. We exchanged numbers and we wanted to get back to being good friends and that’s a good thing.”
Seeing them together, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been for them had the Celtics had more talent and more patience.
“We probably were a piece or two away [from getting a title],” Walker said. “We knew that. But we believed that me and him could beat anybody. And that’s one thing I’ll always remember, the competitive spirit. He wasn’t scared of nobody and he’ll be considered with the LeBron James, the Tracy McGradys of the world when he goes into the Hall of Fame.”
Barkley shares some opinions
It’s funny that Charles Barkley has turned into one of the NBA’s sages, always eager to offer his opinions on the state of the league and its issues. And he has no problem hammering underachieving teams and players. At All-Star weekend, Barkley offered several opinions in his unique style.
On Golden State: “I think the gap is closing because of their bench. They don’t have the same bench as the last [few] years. And also you have [Andre] Iguodala and [Shaun] Livingston, this will be their fourth deep run in a row. They’re older guys. I don’t think their bench is as good as it used to be and I think the Rockets have made improvements and clearly the Cavs have made improvements.
“It’s a four-team race right now. I think Toronto and Cleveland are the two best teams in the East. And I think in the West, it’s the Rockets and the Warriors. With what the Rockets have done, they could be threats, and the Cavs are right there in that conversation because they got LeBron [James], who can dominate four out of seven games.”
On why things didn’t work in Cleveland this season before the trades: “They were too old. LeBron was not engaged. Isaiah [Thomas] is looking for a contract, but the main thing is they had too many old guys on the team. I haven’t watched an NBA game in about three weeks because I’m getting ready [to analyze] March Madness, and I actually watched the Cavs the last two games and that was like night and day from just an energy standpoint. Like when you watch the other teams play, there’s guys actually moving and running and jumping. When you watched the Cavs play two months ago, they were just standing around. . . . But to get those guys they got, you’ve got to give [general manager] Koby [Altman] a lot of credit. That was fantastic, considering he didn’t give up anything.”
On Thomas: “I think Isaiah is a terrific kid, a very good player, but . . . you saw it coming. You knew the Celtics weren’t going to give him $200 million and you knew the Cavs weren’t going to give him $200 million. So anybody who knows anything about basketball was going to see that this [Cavs] team was going to end badly.
Who is going to give Thomas $200 million? “Nobody. Nobody.”
On the future of the league and James’s influence: “Depending on what happens this summer with LeBron, we could be down to a one- or two-team league. At some point the fans are going to say enough is enough. Why am I watching or buying tickets if we only got three or four good teams in the NBA?
“I’ve already said this a million times: I hope LeBron stays in Cleveland. I think it would be a great way to end his career. I don’t have any idea how he thinks. He left there one time, it shocked me. But he wrote that great letter talking about how much Ohio meant to him and it would be great for him to finish his career in Cleveland.”
On rumors of James going to the Lakers in free agency: “That sounds great in theory, but they’ve got to chase two players, two really good players. Good luck to them. I like Magic [Johnson] and [GM] Rob [Pelinka], but this notion that people have to come to LA to be relevant, those days are over. I mean, you look at the best players in the world, you look at LeBron, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, they never played for the Lakers and they’re more worldwide known than anybody else in our league. And they’ve never set foot in LA to play a [home] game. Times have changed.”
More on LeBron: “Even though back in my days, guys didn’t win championships our teams were competitive. We were worth coming to watch. If these stars all keep aligning together, what’s it worth to go to a game?”
On the league adjusting the schedule to make it easier for players to cope with the travel and grind: “Making it easy for these guys, I’m not a big proponent of. If Bill Russell and [Julius Erving] and those guys could play three games in three nights in the worst tennis shoes ever invented and fly commercial or ride a bus, I think these guys could be inconvenienced a couple a days a year to make $30 million and fly in a private jet.
“I wish guys would say, ‘I don’t want to play back-to-backs because it will lengthen my career so I can make more money.’ Just tell the truth. Don’t sit there and say we’re too stressed out. These guys are flying in the private jets. When I first came into the NBA, we flew commercial. I know what it’s like to have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, fly three hours, and play in a basketball game that same night.
“These guys after a game get a nice hot meal, they fly private. C’mon, let’s [not] keep making it easier for them.”
Rivers: Celtics, Boston are special
Doc Rivers was a major presence in Boston this past week, attending the Paul Pierce jersey retirement ceremony last Sunday and then coming back to Boston with his Clippers, who beat the Celtics on Wednesday in the final game before the All-Star break.
Rivers still remains a fan favorite in Boston and still carries high respect and regard for the organization. He touched on a handful of Celtics- and Pierce-related topics during his visits. Rivers said Pierce could not find a more storied franchise to be recognized as an all-time great.
“I think — I guess, maybe the Lakers, but other than that — and probably Montreal in hockey or somewhere. But, there’s no other place in sports where you would want your number retired,” Rivers said. “In basketball, I don’t think there’s any other place. If you could choose where you would want your number retired, it would be in Boston.
“When you’re in the practice facility, you see it every day, all those numbers. You see the banners and the numbers. And I think it means something. Before I got here I didn’t realize . . . you always heard about the Celtic lore; you didn’t get it, because you weren’t in it.
“Then when you get in it and you see guys like Bill Russell come around, and [John] Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, who meant the most to me because he was just very special for me. It’s not about them. It really isn’t. It’s all about being a Celtic. And there’s no organization — I can tell you that — there’s no other organization, maybe in sports, that has that type of loyalty. And it started with Red [Auerbach].”
Rivers said what made Pierce so special was his desire to sacrifice his offense and change his game when he was joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
“I think what people forget about Paul is that he moved over to win,” he said. “A lot of players, and I say it all the time, say they want to win and all that stuff and then they do until they have to give up part of their game. Paul was the happiest out of everybody. When we got Kevin and Ray he wanted to move over, he wanted to give room, and to me that’s the intangibles that I see with Paul. His brain, his winning — he wanted to win — his drive, and his love for basketball.
“That’s why I call him ‘the Baller,’ he loves playing. He went to our practices and he used to love playing one-on-one, he would play anybody one-on-one. Coaching my son (Austin Rivers), and [his] best memory was when he was in high school playing one-on-one against Paul. He thought he was playing one-on-one against Paul, he didn’t know Paul was playing [around]. It’s amazing.”
Rivers said he has no regrets about leaving the Celtics after the 2012-13 season for the Clippers, but he also understood that Boston is a special sports city, perhaps unmatched by any other. “When I decided to go I knew what I was leaving and I said it, actually: I’ll never have anything like this, because you don’t, you don’t have it,” Rivers said. “You appreciate it even more when you’re away, but I knew it before I left. You leave this organization, you know you’re leaving something special. The fan base, the whole thing, all of you guys [media], I mean, are you kidding me. You don’t get that anywhere in basketball. Maybe in some other sports they have this, but this is different. It’s always been different and that’s what makes it special and you have to be a part of it to understand it.”
As February progresses, players will be returning from China looking for NBA work. One of those is Brandon Jennings, who played in the Chinese Basketball Association and has signed with the Wisconsin Herd, the Milwaukee Bucks’ G-League affiliate. Jennings will give teams another option at point guard, with Derrick Rose and Ty Lawson also available on the open market. After being dealt to Utah by the Cavaliers, Rose cleared waivers and is an unrestricted free agent. But the Cleveland experience did nothing good for his reputation. He was erratic when he played and then he took a month off to assess his NBA future. Questions for teams interested in Rose: Can they rely on him to help make a playoff push? Will he require major minutes or else shut down? And how healthy is Rose? He was named NBA MVP just seven years ago, but Rose could be fighting for his NBA life and long-term future should he sign with a club for a playoff run . . . One thing overlooked in Cleveland general manager Koby Altman’s trading of six players to rejuvenate his franchise was that he supplied soft landing spots for three. He sent Dwyane Wade back to Miami, Isaiah Thomas to the Lakers, and Jae Crowder to the Jazz. While sending Wade back to the Heat after he spent 13 years there was a fuzzy story line, Thomas grew up a Lakers fan because of his father, who grew up in Inglewood, Calif., and actually named his son after Pistons Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas because of a lost bet. Crowder’s father, Corey, played 51 games for Utah during the 1991-92 season and after the trade posted an Instagram with Jae decked out in Jazz gear when he was a toddler. The Jazz even gave Crowder a pair of his father’s LA Gear game-worn sneakers when the Celtics visited the Jazz in February 2016, a gift that Crowder truly appreciated. Crowder had 29 points and eight rebounds in his first two games with Utah and looks much more comfortable in that atmosphere than with Cleveland.
And for the Jazz, who could lose Derrick Favors to free agency this summer, Crowder is signed for two more years at a bargain of $15.1 million. Crowder also joined the Jazz in the midst of an 11-game winning streak.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.