Ainge's airball could signal trouble

WALTHAM, Mass. -- As the flurry of NBA blockbuster deals and free-agent maneuvers slows to a trickle, and the Celtics absorb the chilling news that a heart ailment will sideline Jeff Green for all of 2011-12, Boston's roster looks eerily familiar to the team that fell to Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season -- minus Green.

The abbreviated preseason has been nothing but cruel to Celtics boss Danny Ainge, who gamely tried to upgrade his roster in time for a shortened 66-game slate but was thwarted at every turn. The unexpected loss of Green is yet another blow on top of futile attempts to bring in top free agents.

Thus, the aging Big Three will begin their final stand lamenting the One That Got Away.

No, not Chris Paul -- forward David West.

The flirtation with Paul rightfully dominated the headlines in Boston for obvious reasons: CP3 is a sexy, frontline superstar with great skills, marketing appeal and scoring ability at the point guard position. Yet the pursuit of Paul was a high-risk, high-reward scenario from the start. Had Boston acquired him, it would have forfeited its "bridge" player Rajon Rondo and gambled whether Paul would be willing to re-sign with the Celtics amid signals from his camp that he wouldn't.

That's why the true kick to the gut was losing West to the Indiana Pacers for a two-year, $20 million contract.

West is coming off a serious knee injury, but according to Pacers president Larry Bird, the Pacers' medical staff examined West and determined he had "one of the most sound post-surgical knees they've seen."

"He still has a long way to go in terms of rehab and conditioning," Bird said, "but even so, he looks great."

The addition of West provides Bird and the Pacers with a promising nucleus that includes Danny Granger (although his name swirled in preseason trade talks), point guard Darren Collison (who played with West in New Orleans), Tyler Hansbrough and George Hill.

West's decision to choose that group over Boston's three future Hall of Famers was a hugely disappointing and vexing development for the Celtics, who felt West's skills would have nudged them back into championship contender territory.

Because of salary cap restraints, the Celtics could not offer a two-year deal. They were required to acquire West in a sign-and-trade, which means the contract had to be a minimum of three years. In what team and league sources described as a creative but complicated package, the Celtics were prepared to offer West a four-year contract with a buyout that, in the end, amounted to three years and $29 million. In other words, the average of their offer was just under $10 million (about $9.6 million).

Count veteran Ray Allen among those who can't believe West chose Indiana over Boston with such a slim difference in compensation.

"I'm shocked," Allen said. "I don't understand it."

West was a two-time All-Star for the Hornets, the first during the '08-'09 season when he averaged 21 points, 8.5 rebounds and 39.2 minutes a game. Paul lauded him as an unselfish player who was willing to do the "little things" to help the team win.

"He's really strong," Bird reported. "He's a bully. He can pick and roll, sets a really good screen.
He's not a great rebounder but he can rebound his position. And he can score.

"David is someone you can drop it down to, and he's going to shoot with either hand. You've got to think about double-teaming him, which obviously helps everyone else on the floor."

Allen first heard of West's potential interest in Boston last month when Allen was playing golf in Augusta with his private banker, who coincidentally also handled West's financial affairs.

"He told me how much I would love [West], that he and I were the same kind of guy -- cognitive thinkers," Allen said. "He said West was interested in coming to the Celtics and would be willing to come for less."

So why does Allen think West had a change of heart?

"Once it got down to the end, I think his ego kicked back in," Allen said. "He wanted the dollars. I guess it comes down to 'What is a championship worth to you?'

"Think of all the guys who have made $20 million and could be considered one of the best ever, but they get chided because they never won. We [the Big Three] all had to do less when we won. We're still taking less to make it work. But it's worth it. No one can ever say to KG, Paul or me, 'You guys never got your ring.'"

Theories abound on why West chose the Pacers over the Celtics. Included among them is the notion that since West opted out of a contract that would have paid him $8.5 million, he needed to "save face" among other players (and agents) by not accepting a Celtics contract that included a first year of just under $8 million, even though the average value over the life of the contract would have been higher.

The other factor could be that West preferred a two-year deal so he could re-establish himself as the two-time All-Star he was before he was injured, rather than commit for three years to a team with an uncertain future.

It's one thing to lose a free agent to Los Angeles. It's quite another to lose him to Indiana, a franchise that won just 37 games last season and is a small Midwest market that has always struggled to draw high-caliber free agents.

The free-agent dilemma has always been a thorny one for Boston. The list of signings range from Xavier McDaniel, who was a serviceable player during his Celtics tenure, to Travis Knight, who inked a seven-year, $22 million contract in 1997 and was a colossal bust. There was the aging Dominique Wilkins, whose one-year foray on the parquet was an unmitigated disaster. Remember Tom Gugliotta? Rasheed Wallace? Dwayne Schintzius?

You get the idea.

In the old days, there were two reasons cited why free agents didn't choose the Celtics: They were "too white," and it was too cold in Boston.

On paper, the first was a head scratcher since the Celtics fielded the first all-black starting five and the first African-American head coach. Red Auerbach never cared what color you were as long as you could play.

And, yet, the racial tension was real. Just ask Bill Russell. The late Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish used to tell me they were convinced that when the Celtics won, the local papers put Bird or Kevin McHale's mug on the sports cover, but when they lost, it was the African-Americans whose pictures were featured. No amount of argument on my part during the '80s could convince them that this simply was not so.

By all accounts the racial stigmas that once thwarted the Celtics are in the rearview mirror and no longer factor in players' decisions. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is revered in these parts almost on a Belichickian level. The New Three, or, if you prefer, the Big Four, are made up of African-American players who are adored by the fan base.

Yet the appeal of KG, Paul Pierce, Allen and Rondo still can't change the fact Boston cannot sell balmy February afternoons the way Phoenix, Orlando or Los Angeles can.

Asked why there has never really been a significant free agent for the Celtics, Rivers answered, "Weather. I hate to say that, but it's true.

"New York and Chicago have that issue too, but they're really big cities, and that's attractive to guys in the league."

Rivers expressed frustration that West did not join the team. "I'm very disappointed," he conceded, "but we're moving on with the guys we have."

You may recall that in 2007, when Ainge was in pursuit of Garnett, the player's initial response was to rebuff the Celtics. Clearly cold weather was not a factor; KG, after all, had been playing in Minnesota for his entire career. Nor, he said, was it an aversion to playing in Boston.

"I knew what the demographics of Boston were," Garnett said. "It wasn't my first choice, but the issue with me was I had been with the same team for so long, I had to get comfortable with the idea of going anywhere.

"Then, when I looked at it, Boston was identical to the team I was on: a bunch of young guys that weren't very good. I would have been going from one trash can to another."

Some diligent recruiting by Pierce, Rivers and Ainge softened KG's stance some, but it wasn't until the Celtics acquired Allen that Garnett decided Boston might be able to make a run at a title.

In other words, build a contender, and they will come.

Garnett has been a perfect fit in Boston. He eschews the spotlight and isn't interested in celebrity appearances or high profile marketing, so the absence of a "big city" feel is a moot point with him.

According to the Hornets, the same was true about West.

"You don't know what [West's] preferences were," Garnett said. "He's a Xavier guy. Maybe Indiana was safe for him. You can't take it personally when guys don't come.

"To be honest with you, I'm just happy for him that he's healthy and can continue playing."

The current owners will argue that, in effect, KG was the Celtics' all-time best free agent because they extended his contract as they acquired him. They will also maintain (accurately) that since they've been in control of the team, they have been right at or over the salary cap, thereby limiting their opportunities to make a free-agent splash.

That will change next season, but with Paul off the market and Dwight Howard expected to follow, either to New Jersey or the Lakers, Boston could well be left holding a big sack of cash with nobody to spend it on.

Maybe that's the best explanation of all why West isn't in Boston.

Longtime Boston journalist Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.