When ESPN.com reported on Tuesday that the Celtics would be willing to trade point guard Rajon Rondo for the right player, it surprised anyone who had seen the sixth-year player's mastery of the team's system in recent years.
But according to numerous sources with knowledge of the situation, Boston general manager Danny Ainge is highly motivated to land an even better point guard than the one who led the Celtics to a championship in 2008 and an average of 58.5 wins in the last four seasons: New Orleans' Chris Paul.
Ainge, the sources say, has recently discussed trading Rondo in a deal that nets Paul, but the Hornets don't appear interested in a two-team deal in which Rondo -- who has four years worth approximately $46 million left on his contract -- and Paul would switch places. So Ainge has been on the prowl for a third team that could provide the sort of young pieces Hornets general manager Dell Demps would covet as part of his possible rebuilding plan. The more pressing question, of course, is whether Paul, who can become a free agent after this season, would consider signing an extension with Boston.
While ESPN reports that New York tops Paul's wish list because of the chance to form a Big Three with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, Paul would have a chance to take the Big Four -- joining Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen -- to a new level in Beantown. Without Paul agreeing to an extension, however, the sources say Ainge will not do the deal.
Intriguing as the Celtics possibility might be, the challenge for Ainge would be selling the 26-year-old Paul on the idea of joining a group of future Hall of Famers with an average age of 35. While Pierce is under contract through 2014, Garnett's and Allen's deals end after this season. What's more, Boston is merely one of the many teams who will be making a serious attempt to land Paul this season.
Paul, who will make $16.4 million this season and has a $17.8 million player option in 2012-13, is widely expected to turn down a forthcoming extension offer from New Orleans. If and when that occurs, it is believed that the Hornets -- who have just five players under contract currently and hardly look like the sort of championship contender Paul wants to be a part of -- will trade him at some point in order to avoid losing him for nothing in return next summer.
The Hornets add a unique element on their own as well: They are owned by the NBA, which has led to the question of whether it would prefer Paul stays put. The league bought the team for $310 million last December and the franchise value would almost certainly take a hit if the popular Paul departs. He has long been hailed as a local hero, a classy member of the community and more than capable athlete who arrived at the toughest of times in New Orleans. Paul was drafted fourth overall by the Hornets out of Wake Forest in 2005, just two months before Hurricane Katrina hit and the team played its next two seasons in Oklahoma City before returning.
This isn't the first time Ainge has attempted to make a bold move to improve his already formidable core. In February of 2010, he tried to acquire then Kings shooting guard Kevin Martin in a deal that was expected to include Allen. Four months later, the Celtics were falling to the Lakers in a seven-game NBA Finals for the ages.
While front-office executives have not been able to talk to agents or players during the lockout, they could talk to each other about possible deals. No deals can actually be done until the collective bargaining agreement has been officially ratified, which is expected to take place in time to start training camp and free agency on Dec. 9. The regular season is expected to start on Christmas Day.
Paul addressed questions about his future at the Boys & Girls Club event in, of all places, New York on Tuesday.
"I try not to pay attention to all that different type of stuff," Paul told reporters. "My heart is in New Orleans and right now the reason I'm here in New York is for [Anthony].
"I know I'm just happy to be here and be a part of it, to give these boxes out to the needy families and then going over to the [Five-Star Basketball] Clinic and seeing the smiles on the kids' faces when we show up."
He would certainly put a smile on Ainge's face if he saw Boston as a worthy destination.