The Step Back: Nothing but Garnett (and Pierce and Allen)

When the Boston Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett on this day in 2007, they weren’t in a good place. Long-standing franchise cornerstone Paul Pierce had threatened to force his way out of Boston after enduring two seasons in which the Celtics had won just 57 games. The 2006-07 season was particularly bad, yielding a 24–58 record, the second-worst in franchise history.

At a crossroads, the Celtics’ Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge had two options. He either needed to trade Pierce and embrace the youth movement already underway in Boston, or use the assets he had at his disposal to try and surround Pierce with the veteran talent he’d been crying out for.

With the NBA Draft just around the corner, Ainge approached a number of teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves about Garnett, the Phoenix Suns about Shawn Marion and the Denver Nuggets about Marcus Camby, but no one bit. The draft already seemed like a lost cause, as Boston would be picking fifth overall, despite going into the lottery with the second best odds.

Well aware that the Celtics would be landing neither Greg Oden nor Kevin Durant, that year’s two best prospects, Ainge began talking to the Seattle Supersonics’ new general manager Sam Presti on draft day. The conversation went well and shortly after the Portland Trail Blazers made their fateful decision to take Oden number one overall, Commissioner David Stern announced a trade. The Celtics had agreed to send Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the rights to the fifth overall pick (which became Georgetown’s Jeff Green) to the Supersonics for Ray Allen and the rights to the 35th overall pick (which became LSU’s Glen Davis).

The announcement stunk up the Seattle Center, where fans were watching the draft on TV (although their boos quickly turned to cheers when the franchise drafted Durant second overall):

Celtics fans, on the other hand, probably felt pretty good about it. Despite being a defensive liability at times, Allen was, to that point, a four-time All-Star coming off a campaign that had seen him average 26.4 points per game, while shooting 37 percent from deep.

Thanks to the trade, Pierce had a veteran teammate who complemented his game. And yet Ainge knew that if he wanted the Celtics to become a true contender he needed more.

Prior to the draft, the conversations he’d had with Timberwolves Assistant General Manager Kevin McHale saw the pair agree to a deal in principle that would have sent Garnett to Boston. But, according to ESPN, Garnett quashed the deal, telling the Celtics that he didn’t want to play for them and that he favoured a move to the Suns instead. In reality, those close to Garnett believed he would have happily spent his entire career in Minnesota given the chance. But the fact that he was being shopped by the franchise upset him (the implications of which Bill Simmons explored as part of his series of NBA ‘what ifs’) and he began to reconsider his options, one of which, of course, was a future with the Celtics.

Ainge, who was unperturbed when the first attempt fell through, continued to explore the scenario with McHale that summer, well aware that the rift between player and organisation had grown since then. He knew that the Timberwolves were keen to embrace a rebuild and that few other teams had the kind of assets Boston had, even after the Allen trade. He also knew that McHale had something of a soft spot for Celtics’ power forward Al Jefferson.

In the end, it was Jefferson who became the focal point of the deal, though it took far more than that to pry Garnett away from Minnesota. Far more in fact than any team had ever given up in exchange for a single player, as the Celtics packaged Jefferson with Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, cash considerations, Boston’s 2009 first-round draft pick (top three protected), and the 2009 first-round pick that Minnesota had traded to Boston in the 2006 Ricky Davis–Wally Szczerbiak trade.

Regardless, the Celtics got their man. And, better still, Garnett agreed to a three-year contract extension with the franchise worth just over $51 million.

The ‘extend and trade’ agreement secured Garnett a further $8.8 million in trade bonuses spread out over the next five seasons. This took the total value of the extension to $60 million. And yet it ultimately amounted to a significant discount, as Garnett had previously been eligible for a three-year extension worth nearly $90 million including trade bonuses. While this made Garnett the third-highest-paid player on the Celtics behind Pierce and Allen, it also gave the team the financial flexibility needed to further supplement the roster. And that’s exactly what they did, signing James Posey and Eddie House at a discount once the deal was done.

Behind the ‘Big Three’, the Celtics stormed the Atlantic Division, winning 66 regular season games. In the postseason, they then beat the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers to capture the franchise’s 17th championship in what was the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. Pierce was named Finals’ MVP, while Garnett produced perhaps one of the most memorable NBA moments of the past couple of decades:

The Celtics were unable to build on the success of that first season however, losing a seven games Eastern Conference Semifinals series to the Orlando Magic while Garnett watched from the sidelines in 2009 before losing to the Lakers in seven games in the 2010 Finals.

Garnett, Pierce and Allen have all since retired. Allen was inducted into the The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, while Garnett has been selected for induction later this year and Pierce looks set to join them in 2021.