- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- The way Celtics coach Doc Rivers tells the story, word had just reached him that the Houston Rockets had withdrawn their qualifying offer to Courtney Lee when the two serendipitously crossed paths in Florida this summer.
"The day that Houston [withdrew its offer], I honestly was walking down the street in Winter Park, I saw [Lee] across the street, and I commandeered him," Rivers said. "The next thing you know, we're having dinner and -- it took about a week -- but he was a Celtic."
The Celtics entered the offseason with Lee on their radar, but the team moved quickly to secure the services of Jason Terry and figured it didn't have enough resources remaining to land Lee, a restricted free agent who had a hefty qualifying offer from the Rockets. But Houston was forced to rescind that offer in order to sign Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to offer sheets, putting Lee on the open market.
Even then, the cash-strapped Celtics didn't appear to have much of a chance. Boston couldn't facilitate a sign-and-trade option with Dallas in order to ink Terry without using its midlevel exception. Undeterred, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his staff got creative with a sign-and-trade package that split spare parts (E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, Sasha Pavlovic) and multiple second-round picks between Houston and Portland in order to ink Lee to a four-year, $21.4 million deal. What's more, that complicated deal went down to essentially the very last minute (and nearly fell apart numerous times) before the Celtics were assured of obtaining Lee.
Needless to say, a mind-boggling amount of things had to line up for Boston to land Lee. But the Celtics did.
Now, as Avery Bradley recovers from double shoulder surgery, Lee is set to open the 2012-13 season as the Celtics' starting shooting guard. That role wasn't the only thing that sold him on coming to Boston -- it was Boston's core talent and a chance to compete for a title this season and beyond.
"The core group of guys they had here [was attractive]," Lee said. "The expectation every year for this team is to win big, and that's one thing I wanted to do, was win big. Speaking with [Rajon] Rondo during the whole free-agency period, he had the same goals that I had in mind. We wanted to win big, get to the championship, and win. And not only for one year, but continue to do it. We're about the same age, me, him, Jeff [Green], and a couple other guys on this team are around the same age, so we've got the core group here of veterans, and we've still got the young guys who'll keep pushing for years to come."
Lee admits there were better offers out there for him, but Boston's recruiting pitch -- particularly the offseason chats with Rondo, whose Kentucky roots matched up with those of Lee, a Western Kentucky product -- was too good to pass up.
"Everybody said the right things," Lee said. "There were other teams out there that were offering me more money, but like I said, my goal is to win. There's nothing better than winning. I got a little taste of that my rookie year [in Orlando] with going to the Finals, and that ride was unbelievable. My other years can't compare to that, but here, we're trying to get on that same race and that same track, and win."
Lee has opened camp nursing a thigh bruise, but that hasn't stopped him from holding his own with the first unit. Rondo said he tried to make things difficult on the newcomer by calling sets he's unfamiliar with, but was happy to see Lee quickly pick up the playbook as he directed him on the court.
Rondo likes what Lee brings to the table, and didn't hesitate to suggest that he can replace the departed Ray Allen (even if Rondo still isn't mentioning Allen by name).
"A lot of people don't know that Courtney was second behind No. 20 last year as far as 3-point field goal percentage, so we look forward to him stretching the floor," said Rondo, referencing a report on the league's top corner 3-point shooters last season.
"[Lee is] going to surprise a lot of people with his athleticism. But, like I said, he's a great defensive player, as well."
And therein lies maybe the biggest gain in adding Lee. While Allen's defensive skills had diminished, Lee is a competitive defender with the size to match up against both swingman positions. Having him to help hold the fort until Bradley returns gives Rondo a quality defender alongside to pressure opposing backcourts.
Gushed Rivers: "What I'm expecting to see is an all-around player. I think he does a lot of things well that helps our team. He can play multiple positions, terrific shooter, terrific defender, terrific team player. He does a lot for us."
Which is exactly why Rivers tackled him on that street corner back in July.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann