Same old Celtics? Not necessarily

Meet the new Celtics. Same as the old (and getting older) Celtics?

Doc Rivers is coming back. That's good news for a lot of people, not the least of whom is Paul Pierce, who has decided to forfeit more than $21 million next season in pursuit of even more riches down the road. He has become an unabashed Riversphile in the last few years.

The decision to opt out of the final year of his contract was a calculated but intelligent move by the Pierce team, led by agent Jeff Schwartz. Had Pierce played out his contract, it would have expired at the end of the 2010-11 season. And with everyone assuming there will be a lockout a year from now, Pierce faced the prospect of entering a very different job market in 2011 or even 2012 as an almost-35-year-old free agent.

This way, he gets his money under the current system, where both the size and length of contracts are probably going to be much more player-friendly than whatever emerges from the nuclear summer of 2011.

But who is going to be signing the checks? This time around, unlike the last time when he signed his extension, the Celtics may not be bidding against themselves. There could be some interest in Pierce outside of Boston, although it still seems unlikely he would go elsewhere. But it could happen.

Schwartz will use the open market to see if he can get a big number for Pierce, who turns 33 in October. (Or he should; that appears to be his job.) Pierce has said he wants to stay a Celtic and that the Celtics have always taken care of him. There's no reason to think they won't this time around.

In fact, multiple sources close to the Celtics told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that the team expects to re-sign Pierce. According to the sources, the Celtics expect the Pierce deal to be wrapped up sooner than later.

One wild card in this equation is how much longer Danny Ainge and ownership think this group (a) can stay together and (b) can win together. The one thing none of them wants is to be shelling out $45 million to three 30-somethings on a team that has no realistic chance of winning. (Then again, how many of us gave them anything more than a puncher's chance this spring and look what they did.)

They could make the decision that this group -- and by that we mean Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett -- still has two years left and budget accordingly. Garnett is already signed through 2012. Allen and Pierce could be given two-year extensions and the trio would be given two more years. Realistically, however, it might only be a one-year run because of the lockout hovering on the horizon.

My guess is that that won't satisfy Pierce or Schwartz. He is going to want at least three and probably four years, given that he's giving up one year (and unlikely to get it back in one season) and that there also is the prospect of a lost season due to a labor stoppage. He would still be only 36 when the four-year deal expired.

Is there anybody out there -- other than the Celtics -- who might give Pierce such a deal?

One man comes to mind, although it would be completely antithetical to his previous machinations: Donald T. Sterling.

Paul Pierce a Clipper? Hold that not-so-happy thought.

Sterling has been the habitual loser in Los Angeles, playing the nail to Jerry Buss' hammer. The Los Angeles Lakers aren't going away and will be among the favorites to win it again next season. Why not try to make a splash and become relevant all at the same time by signing one of the greatest players to ever come out of Los Angeles and bringing him home?

The Clippers offer an intriguing roster, even if they still don't have a head coach. They have Pierce's buddy Baron Davis. They have Chris Kaman, who had an All-Star-worthy year at center last season. They have a (presumably) healthy Blake Griffin ready to play and another impressive kid in Eric Gordon. They got three decent picks in the draft. Throw Pierce into that equation and you have to think the Clippers are, at the worst, a playoff contender in the brutal West. But they would be discussion-worthy.

The Clippers have the cap space to accommodate Pierce and, frankly, is anyone thinking that the real marquee free agents are even entertaining the prospect of playing there? Short answer: No.

And let's suppose that the gossip is correct on the Wade/LeBron/Bosh triumvirate convening in Miami. That leaves a lot of teams with cap room. Maybe none of them wants to spend a significant chunk on a guy like Pierce, who has taken a lot of pounding. But all it takes is one.

It's still difficult to envision Pierce in anything other than Celtic green and it's probably going to take a lot of Celtic green to keep him wearing Celtic green. Ownership has been unambiguous about re-signing Pierce when the topic was raised in the past. It plans to step up. But how high? And for how long?

And do the Celtics really want to be paying anyone a staggering sum three years from now when they will clearly be rebuilding? Ainge has consistently stated that he does not want this Big Three to atrophy like the first Big Three, to the point where two retired due to injuries and a third left as a free agent. Ainge has more options -- or at least he does in the current landscape -- than Red Auerbach and Dave Gavitt had in the early 1990s. He may not in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Pierce's decision to opt out shouldn't come as a total shock, but it might not be exactly what the Celtics had wanted or hoped to see. It's one more ball in the air for Ainge, who is going to be a 24/7 juggler all summer. Maybe when the dust clears, the same starting five we've been watching for the last three years will be back on the TD Garden parquet next season.

The Celtics are determined to make one more concerted run in 2010-11 and then lock the doors and close the windows when the lockout arrives. The question they need to answer this summer is how much longer is Paul Pierce going to be the captain of their team?

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.