Sources: Marbury, Celtics interested in deal

Nearly one year since Stephon Marbury last played in a regular-season game, signals are getting stronger that the New York Knicks' outcast will eventually make his comeback with the Boston Celtics.

That still depends largely on Marbury's ability to negotiate his release from the Knicks after weeks of fruitless and oft-contentious buyout talks, but sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com this week that Boston is Marbury's preferred destination if he manages to become a free agent and that the Celtics are indeed hopeful of signing him.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a New Year's Day holiday for the entire league and likewise did not return messages from ESPN.com on Friday. Ainge has generally refused in recent weeks to address the possibility of signing Marbury, but it's believed that the Celtics' concerns about their depth, after losing James Posey and P.J. Brown from last season's title team, have swelled noticeably since they followed up the best 29-game start in NBA history at 27-2 by losing three of the next four games on the road.

With Brown telling the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Wednesday that he is "officially retired" and Dikembe Mutombo having re-signed earlier this week with the Houston Rockets, Marbury easily ranks as the most accomplished low-cost veteran whom the Celtics can add to their bench in-season. Boston also knows it would have the option to simply release Marbury without significant salary-cap consequences if he fails to click as a backup or proves unwilling to accept a secondary role.

It appears that the biggest obstacle to such a move is Marbury actually securing a buyout from the Knicks in a timely fashion as opposed to reservations Boston might have about Marbury's impact on team chemistry.

Although it has been widely assumed that Celtics forward Kevin Garnett would resist a reunion with the controversial point guard -- after Marbury broke up their Minnesota partnership following less than three seasons together by forcing a trade to New Jersey -- one Celtics source insists that Garnett has voiced no opposition to the idea of signing Marbury for the rest of the season to strengthen Boston's backcourt depth behind starters Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen.

When asked specifically about the likelihood of Marbury joining the Celtics this season, the source predicted that "it will happen."

Joining the NBA's reigning champions would certainly back up Marbury's recent claim at halftime of a Knicks-Lakers game in Los Angeles that "the team I'm going to go to, a lot of people will be shocked." The 31-year-old hasn't officially played for New York since Jan. 11 of last season and began this season on the inactive list while awaiting a buyout. Marbury was then barred from contact with the team in late November after a dispute over Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's offering him the chance to start playing again following the Knicks' two trades on Nov. 21, which left them short of available players.

The Celtics lack size more than anything off the bench, which should explain their interest in Brown and Mutombo. But Marbury -- when he's right -- is a proven scoring threat who can also handle pressure on the ball, freeing up Eddie House to focus on his preferred role of designated shooter. The Celtics also clearly have the strong team culture -- with Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and coach Doc Rivers -- to take on the various challenges of a Marbury dice roll.

"All the people who say nobody wants me on their team, [that] I'm all different things -- a cancer -- that's not what's going on," Marbury said at the game in L.A. earlier this month when surrounded by reporters.

One source close to Marbury cautioned that it would be premature to say that he's narrowed his wish list down to the Celtics, but one Western Conference executive said of the notion that Marbury is Boston-bound: "I've heard the exact same thing."

The fact remains, though, that Marbury has to extricate himself from the Knicks before he can make any firm future plans. Media outlets in New York have reported in recent days that Knicks president Donnie Walsh is planning to seriously rekindle buyout talks now that the calendar has flipped to 2009, but one theory in circulation holds that the Knicks have dragged out Marbury's release this long in part because they don't want to see him wind up as a contributor in a championship race with a team from the same division.

The Celtics have also yet to make either of their two scheduled regular-season visits to Madison Square Garden. The first is Sunday and the second is Feb. 6.

In buyout negotiations to date, Marbury has refused to surrender more than $1 million of his $20.8 million salary and, at last report, was no longer offering to give back that much. The Knicks have reportedly asked Marbury to give up at least $3 million for the right to choose his next team, although they could be moved to lower those demands if a trade materializes that requires New York to open Marbury's roster spot.

Assuming that Marbury does eventually secure a buyout from the Knicks, it would appear that his options are scarce should the Celtics ultimately decide not to take the gamble.

Orlando and Phoenix are among the top teams needing guard help which have publicly declared their intent to steer clear of Marbury. Miami is often mentioned as a possible destination, but the luxury-tax implications from signing Marbury and the Heat's status as a rebuilding team make it a questionable fit. It is unclear whether the Los Angeles Lakers -- who recently lost backup point guard Jordan Farmar until mid-February at the earliest because of knee surgery -- would be a Marbury bidder.

ESPN.com reported in mid-November that Dallas planned to investigate the possibility of signing Marbury if he became available -- with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Marbury having built a casual friendship over the years -- but that was before J.J. Barea emerged as a reliable contributor off the Mavs' bench. Club sources, meanwhile, have maintained from the start that the Mavs would likely pass on the tricky prospect of bringing in Marbury to back up Jason Kidd, given what happened after those two were traded for each other in the summer of 2001. Kidd led New Jersey to back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003; Marbury experienced only moderate success in 2½ seasons with Phoenix before a 2004 trade to the Knicks which has delivered little beyond a steadily deteriorating relationship with his hometown team.

In a first-person weblog entry for the New York Post on Wednesday, Marbury discussed his ongoing exile from the Knicks.

"People who know me know I'm in the best shape of my life," Marbury wrote, "... Bottom line, I came to camp with the right attitude, in shape and ready to play. I didn't come to be a distraction.

"I didn't want to be a distraction for the team first and me second. I honestly came to help the team win. Real talk. I was willing to put in the work necessary to earn my starting spot and humble enough to accept coming off of the bench.

"It was unfortunate that the coach wanted to go in a different direction and didn't want me to be part of the team. I just wish it had been handled correctly from jump. I could understand the fact they didn't want Chris Duhon looking over his shoulder, but if you don't want me just pay me and let me go. I just want to play basketball."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.