The revelation of the rogue official ground trade talks to a sudden stop. As a stunned sport reeled over the Tim Donaghy scandal, NBA executives describe several sluggish days of relative radio silence. The pall of possible point shaving consumed conversations last week, and the league desperately needed something to restore the business of basketball.
"Everybody was in shock over the ref," one Eastern Conference official said Monday. "It was almost like we were waiting for it to get worse."
Even now, they are still waiting for arrests and the damning details about the mob and a referee. It turned out to be two old Boston Celtics out of the game's glorious 1980's, Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale and Boston G.M. Danny Ainge, who gave basketball its biggest trade in years on Monday.
The best Celtic since Larry Bird just walked into the Garden.
As long as Kevin Garnett agrees to his maximum contract extension, he's going to Boston for a package of players and picks, an immense move that restores the Celtics to NBA prominence with the arrival of one of the game's greatest ever players. Maybe most of all, the meeting of Garnett and that dusty old Celtics mystique clogs the vacuum of all-Donaghy, all-the-time within the sport.
This is big for Boston, but perhaps bigger for the sport. Yes, this saves Ainge's job, but don't underestimate how this resonates through the rest of the league. Privately, commissioner David Stern was devastated when neither of his draft day stars, Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, found his way to the Celtics. With the Knicks stuck in the lottery and the Lakers mired in mediocrity, the league is desperate for one of its anchor franchises to flourish. As with Major League Baseball and the Yankees, the NBA is a far more compelling league when the Celtics are a relevant franchise.
For Stern, Garnett's arrival in Boston makes for an intriguing storyline moving into next season. And outside of the Donaghy aftermath, well, the NBA is desperate to find one. This doesn't wash away the sport's shame, its stain, but K.G. chasing a championship on the parquet is a sexy plot for 2007-08 and beyond. Yes, the league can use a few of these now.
For months, McHale and Ainge have been discussing the trade, and finally, with Garnett's apparent nod, the Timberwolves get their wish for young players (Al Jefferson), expiring contracts (Theo Ratliff) and draft picks (a future No. 1). After Minnesota owner Glen Taylor told McHale he wanted Garnett moved near draft day, an initial trade agreement between the two teams crumbled when K.G. insisted he wouldn't sign a contract extension with the Celtics.
Once the Suns exhausted several scenarios with which they would give him his wish to play with Steve Nash, once the Lakers and Warriors failed trying to acquire him too, Garnett had to understand that only Boston could spare him another lottery season in Minnesota. Between then and now, the Celtics traded their No. 5 pick in the draft for Seattle's Ray Allen and still had the wares to convince McHale this was the best deal he could get for Garnett.
His harsh stance on playing in Boston appears to have softened. Truth be told, it makes sense for him. In the Eastern Conference, where LeBron James' one-man team in Cleveland just reached the NBA finals, Garnett had to see that the Celtics give him a chance to chase contention again. Playing with Paul Pierce and Allen should assure 50-plus victories in the East and make them a legitimate conference title contender. Boston will struggle to surround its three stars with pricey role players, because once Garnett gets his contract extension, the Celtics will be paying luxury tax for years to come.
Still, this franchise had no choice. It has been irrelevant in the shadow of the Red Sox and Patriots, never mind the larger landscape of the NBA. No, the Celtics don't have much balance on their roster to support the big three, and it's doubtful they'll spend money for complementary players.
Nevertheless, they have time to reconstitute the rest of the roster. For now, they're talking with Garnett, 31, about signing him into his golden years in Boston, where he'll chase a title beneath the 16 championship banners in the new Garden. They'll love Garnett there because he always plays hard, always cares about his teammates and his city. He never, ever cheats the paying public and it's that NBA which needs those players on the biggest stages now.
Along with Pierce and Allen, the Garnett Celtics would be composed of three future Hall of Fame players who've never reached the NBA finals, who've been dying to play with talent like each other for years. Garnett goes to Boston now, and maybe the Celtics are finally chasing No. 17 again. No, this doesn't spare the sport the shame of this summer's scandal, but if you want to win people back to the NBA, the reclamation of the Boston Celtics is a shrewd place to start.