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For Boston, that's the Ticket

The Celtics have a deal in place for Kevin Garnett that not only will restore the hopes of the league's winningest franchise, but it will also make traditional Eastern basketball relevant again. The Celtics have boldly shown the Knicks and 76ers that the old powerhouses still can compete against the warm-weather capitals of San Antonio, Miami, Dallas and Phoenix.

The Celtics spent the recent days trying to hold onto second-year point guard Rajon Rondo and keep him out of the trade. They were also negotiating an extension of three to four years with Garnett, who has two years and $45 million remaining on his current contract with Minnesota. Garnett may amend his 15 percent trade kicker -- worth an additional $6.75 million over the next two years -- in exchange for the extension.

With their new All-Star trio of the 31-year-old Garnett, Paul Pierce (who turns 30 in October) and the 32-year-old Ray Allen, who was acquired in a draft-day deal with Seattle, the Celtics should instantly join Cleveland and Detroit among the favorites in the East. If Boston is able to finish its rotation by acquiring a veteran point guard (such as Tyronn Lue or Brevin Knight) and another center (Dale Davis?) to complement Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, respectively, the Celtics could be headed for their first NBA Finals since the Larry Bird era of five Finals appearances from 1981-87.

But the Celtics' run at a 17th championship will come at a terrific price, as they'll be a luxury-tax team for as long as they keep Garnett under contract. They'll be paying their three stars close to $58 million next season, which is within $5 million of their entire team payroll this year.

It's a daring move by the ownership group led by managing partner Wyc Grousbeck, who purchased the Celtics for $360 million five years ago. Celtics VP Danny Ainge appeared to be moving the team in reverse while developing young players whom he had drafted no better than No. 15 in the first round. Count me among those who spent the last two years arguing that Al Jefferson and Delonte West would have little trade value.

Count me as wrong on that score. Ainge found two trade partners in Seattle and Minnesota that were seeking to unload big salaries in exchange for young players of high character. The personnel boss who made the disastrous Brandon Roy-for-Sebastian Telfair deal in a cost-cutting move one year ago is the same personnel boss who has now shrewdly landed a pair of All-Stars -- thanks to owners who are willing to absorb their monstrous salaries.

All of this has happened in the two months since the Celtics suffered the horrible luck of tumbling three spots to No. 5 in the draft lottery. Now their fans may look back on that night as one of the best things that ever happened to them: By losing the opportunity to draft Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, which would have extended their youthful rebuilding plans for several more years, the Celtics were forced to make trades and build an instant winner around Pierce.

The arrival of Allen in Boston surely made the Celtics appear more attractive to Garnett. But money was an even bigger issue, according to league sources. The word circulating through the recent NBA Summer League in Las Vegas was that any team interested in acquiring Garnett would have to satisfy his request for an extension in the neighborhood of his current salary.

After seeing their previous bid for Garnett fail before the June 28 draft, the Celtics decided to meet his salary demands in hope that he will repay them with a championship. Their new business strategy will be to invest big money in KG in hope of scoring even bigger revenues. The return to contention will also make them relevant in the New England market, where they have fallen well behind the popular Red Sox and Patriots.

Because their three stars are all going to be on the wrong side of 30, the Celtics must aim to convert the KG trade into a title over the next three years. It's a reasonable goal because the pieces would seem to complement each other beautifully. The 6-5 Allen is one of the league's top perimeter scorers, capable of knocking down game-winning threes over the tightest defense. The 6-6 Pierce can score from anywhere on the floor, and the vast improvement in his playmaking over the past two years has turned him into one of the NBA's top all-around players.

Garnett turns Boston into a potential champion because he is arguably the top complementary star in the league. He recovered from a knee injury to lead the NBA in its all-around "efficiency'' category last season, based on his averages of 22.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals in 76 games. But he should make his biggest impact in Boston at the defensive end, giving the Celtics a stopper as a team defender and protector of the rim. The scoring of Pierce and Allen will enable Garnett to scale down his offensive production as he ages, keeping him fresh at the defensive end.

Allen was the star player of a Sonics team that two years ago was pushing champion San Antonio to six games in the second round of the playoffs. Next season Allen will be the third-best player on the Celtics. No franchise in the East will claim a more formidable threesome.

All three players have been affected by injuries the last two years. If healthy, however, each will average close to 40 minutes per game. Even so, rebuilding the bench will be the next big concern for the Celtics. If Ryan Gomes is included in the KG trade, then the top substitute remaining on the Boston roster will be Tony Allen, who is coming off major knee surgery last season.

Given the fact that newly assembled contenders usually need time to develop chemistry and fill in their weaknesses, the Celtics will be expected to spend this season developing their identity and making a deep playoff run while restocking their bench. A run at the championship will become a reasonable expectation in 2008-09.

The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, viewed Garnett as the finishing piece in their mission to win a championship next season. While it has been widely reported that the Suns refused to trade Amaré Stoudemire, it is my understanding that they would have considered moving him to Minnesota in hope that Garnett would have solidified their team defense and overall intensity in matchups against the champion San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, who are expected to return to contention next season.

If you were to poll NBA executives whether they would prefer the 24-year-old Stoudemire or the 22-year-old Jefferson, the overwhelming majority would go for Stoudemire, a two-time All-Star and potential MVP who is the superior athlete. Yet the word around the league was that Minnesota VP Kevin McHale rejected the possibility of trading for Stoudemire and preferred instead to acquire the less-renowned Jefferson, who provides low-post scoring while serving as a low-maintenance player in the locker room. It speaks to McHale's integrity that he is doing what he clearly believes is in the best interests of his franchise even though he will surely be criticized for choosing Jefferson over Stoudemire in a trade involving Garnett.

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