ESPN.com’s Marc Stein is reporting that Celtics forward Paul Pierce will opt out of the final year of his contract with the team, making him an unrestricted free agent this summer. The last year of his contract was worth 21.5 million dollars. Pierce has been a Celtic since Boston drafted him in 1998.
While this news could be the first step towards the dismantling of the Celtics, the more likely story is that Pierce’s decision was motivated by the current and future NBA economic climate. This summer will be one of the biggest free agency summers ever. Next summer might be a different story entirely.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires after this season, and many experts believe there will be a lockout or labor dispute of some kind. If a labor stoppage does occur, top free agents may have to wait to get a contract.
There is also the distinct possibility that the next CBA could be much less player-friendly than the current one. Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal both had their gigantic pre-CBA contracts grandfathered in when the last CBA was signed; the same thing will likely happen for all the free agents that sign a max or near-max deal this off-season. Because of that and the possibility of a lockout, there is major incentive for players to get a deal done this summer instead of the summer of 2011, especially since so many teams have cap space now.
Some of the teams with cap space to burn will likely make a play for Pierce this summer. Pierce’s hometown Clippers, who have a hole at small forward, will almost certainly have some interest in Pierce if they can’t pull off a miracle and sign LeBron James. It’s possible that Pierce will end up with the Clippers, but the more likely scenario is that Pierce will use the Clippers’ perceived interest as leverage and pressure the Celtics into giving him a multi-year deal.
Assuming Stein’s report is accurate, both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are now unrestricted free agents. The Celtics hold both Allen and Pierce’s “Bird rights,” meaning that they can pay both Allen and Pierce regardless of Boston’s salary cap number. Because of Boston’s encouraging playoff run and those “Bird rights,” Boston will likely be able to keep the “Big Three” together if they really want to.
However, keeping both Pierce and Allen will cost a lot of money, and both players showed their age at times last season. The time for Danny Ainge and Co. to make some tough choices about the future of the Celtics is now. In the coming weeks, we’ll see just how much Ainge is willing to pay for the chance to give Rajon Rondo and the “Big Three” one or two more chances at raising banner #18.