When the history of the 2010-11 Celtics is told, the events of Feb. 24 will almost certainly be relayed as a primary reason Boston failed to reach its championship goal. But make no mistake, while the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City is the easy scapegoat for Boston's inability to capture Banner 18, the train actually went off track seven months earlier.
Three weeks removed from the sting of a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the dominoes were falling exactly as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had hoped. Coach Doc Rivers shunned a sabbatical and was coming back to the Boston bench; Captain Paul Pierce opted out of his contract, but immediately agreed to a team-friendly four-year contract; and Ray Allen committed to a two-year deal at a reasonable rate.
All of this happened while many teams threw gobs of money at marginal talent at the start of free agency. And as if Boston wasn't already putting together a shrewd offseason haul, Ainge got word early on in the free-agency period that Jermaine O'Neal was coming to Boston, the 14-year-veteran choosing the Celtics over the Nuggets and Mavericks for the mid-level exception.
The same day Ainge confirmed Boston's intent to sign O'Neal, a report indicated that the team would also sign backup swingman Tony Allen. But that domino had fallen too soon.
"I've been working on [Allen and others]," Ainge said on July 8 as the Celtics' summer league team competed in Orlando. "We've had conversations. So we're just trying to fill our roster. Once we get [Pierce, Ray Allen and O'Neal] taken care of in a couple days, then we'll work on our next group of guys."
Days later, Tony Allen inked a three-year deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, spurning the Celtics while later noting that he didn't feel like a priority to Boston.
"Ultimately, it was the way [the Grizzlies] embraced me, the way they reached out to me and let it all out," said Allen. "They let me know I was needed. In Boston, I was kind of overshadowed by those guys -- Paul Pierce and Ray Allen."
The move put Boston's offseason on tilt. Pierce admitted he was "upset" by Tony Allen's decision, then implored Ainge to add more talent behind him on the wing. With limited resources, and a thin free-agent talent pool, the Celtics scrambled a bit and ultimately used their limited rights to re-sign Marquis Daniels, who might not have otherwise been a priority before Allen bolted.
Now piece it all together: If Tony Allen doesn't bolt, the Celtics don't need Daniels. If Daniels doesn't suffer the freak spine injury in January, the Celtics don't need another backup swingman late in the year. If the Celtics don't need a backup swingman, they're less likely to swing the Perkins trade that landed Jeff Green in February.
Appearing on Boston sports radio WEEI the night of the trade deadline, Ainge admitted as much. When asked if he might have approached the deadline differently if Daniels hadn't been injured, there was a six-second pause before his response.
"You know, it's a good question," said Ainge, who before Daniels' injury had remained steadfast in his love of Boston's 15-man roster. "I felt like our team was going good, playing very well... But I guess that once we started looking for those wing players, everything kind of transpired."
Let's be clear, the Celtics were going to have to consider trading Perkins at the deadline regardless of health and roster holes because he was going to be a free agent and Boston didn't appear to have the resources necessary to re-sign him at year's end. But the lack of Tony Allen and the injury to Daniels might have forced Boston's hand a bit more.
Last week at his season-ending gathering with the media, Ainge reflected on the Tony Allen situation, noting that it was the length of the deal that led to the initial snag (Boston originally offered a two-year deal with eyes toward the massive roster overhaul they've lined up after next season).
"We [eventually] offered Tony the same deal that he ended up getting in Memphis, but maybe ... [if] I made that offer initially [Allen would have signed in Boston]. But we were trying to maintain our flexibility, not this summer, but the following summer. It wasn't about money. It was about years and flexibility. I've already had a couple of questions in regard to that about the money or why would you not sign a contract for money? It had nothing to do with that. It has to do with flexibility and building a team. And so with Ray and KG's contracts sort of being done at the end of next year, we sort of wanted to keep that -- a lot of cap flexibility, and that was the issue.
"But we were willing, when all was said and done, to do that. So, anyway that was what I was saying, had I done it sooner, he might not have been wooed by Memphis."
The Celtics can't change what happened last year, but Allen can stand as a bit of a cautionary tale (albeit in an upcoming summer of uncertainty given the potential for a lockout). Limited in its potential resources to supplement the same supporting cast this summer, Boston has to be efficient with what it does have available, which could include re-signing its own free agents at modest raises (rather than settle for a minimum-contract player).
It's a reason the Celtics might have to make a player like Glen Davis a priority, even if they would prefer to see how the market plays out for him.
"All I'm saying is that, if out of the gate [Boston offered three years, then Tony Allen] might not have had that opportunity to have another team go after him," said Ainge. "That's all I'm saying. And I'm not dwelling on it, and that doesn't mean we still wouldn't be standing here today. I don't think that he's like a savior for a team, I just think he's a good player that someone asked me, would I have done something different in the offseason, and that's something that maybe I wish I would have."
It's telling that Ainge remains steadfast that the Perkins trade was the right move, but is willing to admit the team might have misplayed Allen. Before you blame the Perkins trade for Boston's demise this season, be sure to examine the reasons the Celtics were in that predicament.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.