After the trade that sent him from the Lakers to Boston in July, the nine-time all-star refused to report for the standard player physical. Payton was furious that the Lakers moved him just days after he exercised his $5.4 million option to stay with the team. He has since threatened retirement.
The 36-year-old will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time great players at point guard, but his stock has never been lower.
Father Time has caught up with Payton, who is no longer the defensive dynamo who once terrorized opponents. His waning foot speed was exposed in the playoffs, first by San Antonio's Tony Parker and then Chauncey Billups as the Pistons routed the Lakers in five games to win the NBA title.
Getting old is a fact of life in the NBA, and it's one of the most difficult things to deal with as a player. Plays that you made the previous year are suddenly beyond your capability.
The bumps and bruises that used to vanish overnight now linger for days. The jump shots now come up short, as your leg strength begins to leave. Players who once feared you are now attacking, sensing your vulnerability. And as your game suffers, EA Sports decides not to put you on the cover of its latest video game.
The older players who have success late in their careers are able to accept their shortcomings and carve themselves a new niche. They're able to swallow their pride, expand their vision and figure out new ways to be effective. They must deal with the frustration of no longer being great players and shrug off the inevitable criticism from fans and media.
Some players have thrived in those roles. Payton's own teammate with the Lakers, Karl Malone, turned himself into a selfless leader in L.A. by focusing on passing and defending despite the fact that he was in range of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time NBA scoring record.
Sam Perkins became a valuable asset for several teams late in his career by being a great three-point shooter, a veteran leader and decent low-post defender. Scottie Pippen was nowhere near the player in Portland that he was in Chicago, but he continued to be a solid defender, a very good passer and a great teammate. And Mark Jackson has been a professional, steadying influence the past few seasons despite the fact that he's 39 and can no longer run.
Will Payton ever accept a lesser role?
He can still play in the league, without question. This is a man who averaged 14 points a game last season in an offense that wasn't suited for him.
Yes, he has slowed down considerably, and he'll no longer be a dominant player. But he's a nasty competitor, has loads of experience and can be an effective starting guard for the Celtics. More importantly, he can be a mentor for young Celtic guards Marcus Banks and Delonte West. This is a team that is building for the future.
The problem is that Payton has rarely shown any of those tendencies. The very quality that made him great – a nasty mentality – is harming him now.
As much as he trumpeted the fact that he took a pay cut and made sacrifices to the Lakers last year, his contributions were hardly selfless.
Nobody offered Payton more money than the Lakers, and instead of doing his best to fit in to an uncomfortable offense, he spent the entire season complaining about it. When things got tough in the playoffs, instead of taking some blame and rallying the Lakers (as Malone did), his pride got in the way and he ranted to the media about his teammates' poor defensive help.
If Payton decides he can't be an asset to Boston and walks away from the game – and $5.4 million – his decision should be respected. He knows who he is and what he wants, and he is certainly allowed to make his own path.
But if he eventually makes his way to Boston, pouts his way through the season and makes life miserable for Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers and the rest of the Boston organization, Payton will tarnish a brilliant career.