Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were standing in front of the Boston Celtics' private jet during a recent Western trip when they decided to have a picture taken. The Celtics' stars have taken plenty of photos, but this one was different: Just days before the NBA's trade deadline, Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Rondo jokingly questioned whether this would be the last shot of them together.
Though none of the four were traded, they all know their time together is running out. The core that carried the Celtics to the NBA championship in 2008 and another Finals appearance in 2010 will likely be broken up this summer.
"I've been [sentimental] since the beginning," Pierce said. "Every day since we've been together I just appreciate being on the court with these guys. [A breakup] could've happened last year or the year before.
"I appreciate every moment I have with them, but even more so this year because Kevin and Ray are in the last year of their deals. This could be our last run."
The Celtics' Big Three came together before the 2007-08 season when trades brought Garnett and Allen to Boston to join Pierce. Rondo was an unproven, young point guard and has since become a three-time All-Star. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are all in the twilight of their careers – a fact Celtics general manager Danny Ainge knows well.
Ainge once told Red Auerbach that the late Celtics patriarch should have traded Larry Bird when Bird still had value near the end of his career so the franchise would have an easier transition to its next era. Ainge sent center Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season and seemed like he was prepared to disassemble the rest of the Celtics' core this season. With the Celtics in a fight to just make the playoffs, Rondo, Pierce, Allen and Garnett were all discussed in trade talks.
"It's a part of the business," Garnett said. "I've been here for a while and I understand what it is."
Allen was viewed as the most likely of the four players to be dealt, but he didn't sweat the trade deadline nearly as much as his family.
"Obviously, you don't want to go anywhere, but that's part of the game," Allen said. "The last two or three years I've been dealing with it more. If I was one of those people that stayed online looking, it would have probably been nerve-wracking because I would have been wondering if something was going to happen. I wasn't that guy."
The Celtics offered Rondo to the New Orleans Hornets for Chris Paul before the season began. As the trade deadline neared, Celtics officials stressed they would part with Rondo only if they received an elite player in return. To move Pierce, they also wanted a young star. League sources said the Celtics asked for first-round picks in this year's draft for Allen and Garnett.
Minutes before the trade deadline, Rondo asked a Boston Globe reporter at the team's hotel in San Francisco if any moves had been made. "Am I still a Celtic?" Rondo said.
"I'm glad it's over with so everyone else can stop talking about it," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Regardless, this summer is expected to bring significant change for the Celtics. Garnett, 35, and Allen, 36, will be free agents. Pierce, 34, also will have just one year remaining on his contract (worth $16.7 million), which makes him tradeable.
But even if the Celtics clear significant salary-cap room, this summer's free-agent class isn't deep. Dwight Howard has opted for another season with the Orlando Magic, leaving Deron Williams as the biggest potential free agent. If Williams leaves the New Jersey Nets, he's expected to strongly consider signing with the Dallas Mavericks. The remainder of the class will likely be filled with older veterans like Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Chris Kaman, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Kirk Hinrich – the same kind of players the Celtics currently have in Garnett and Allen.
That's why Rivers thinks the Celtics' core could return intact next season.
"I'm always sentimental with them," Rivers said. "I won a title with them and lost another one in a Game. 7. I think people assume they won't be back next year. I don't know why there is that assumption. [Garnett and Allen] are free agents, but you can sign your own free agents last time I checked.
"I don't know if we will sign them both. We may sign one. But they've been great for us. Our [free agents] are probably the best ones and we will have the most money."
Rivers said he believes Garnett's preference would be to return to Boston. "When he doesn't think he can help a team, he'd stop playing," Rivers said.
Allen's free-agent options are up in the air. The Miami Heat are expected to make a strong run at signing him this summer, one league source said.
"First of all, the team has to be willing to have me back," Allen said. "Then you have to look around to see what's acceptable and who is capable of having me on the team and then you go from there. It's hard to really say."
The Celtics (24-21) hold the Eastern Conference's seventh playoff seed. How they do in the playoffs – assuming they make it – will play a role in how the roster looks next season.
For now, even Garnett admits to feeling sentimental about the possible final days of the Big Three.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," he said. "I try to look at this thing for the long haul. That's where my mindset is."
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