BOSTON -- This wasn't the way it was supposed to end.
Years from now, the jerseys of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will hang among Boston's other basketball legends in the rafters of TD Garden. And after everything the pair gave this team -- including its 17th world title -- it's extremely tough to stomach the idea that they could be discarded to a division rival in exchange for a rebuilding acceleration package.
Pierce, the team's captain who has spent all 15 of his NBA seasons in green, deserved the opportunity to retire here. Garnett, who changed the culture of the Celtics' organization upon his arrival in 2007 and gave all of himself to the team the past six years, deserved one more run in a Boston uniform.
But if the past week has taught us anything, it's that the NBA is a business. One in which loyalty is fleeting. One day your longtime coach needs a change of scenery and heads west to chase a title; the next day, you're waving goodbye to the faces of your franchise with the goal of accelerating the rebuilding process as much as possible.
Make no mistake; everyone in Boston knew this day was coming. The Band-Aid started to come off last summer when Ray Allen took his talents to South Beach for the opportunity to win a title with the rival Heat.
But Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ripped that bandage right off Thursday with the inevitable-yet-still-sudden departure of Garnett and Pierce, which is merely a formality now after the team agreed in principle to a blockbuster swap with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics will send Garnett, Pierce and fellow octohooparian Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for a package headlined by three future first-round draft picks (2014, '16, '18), Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace. The deal cannot be officially consummated until the league's new-year moratorium lifts on July 10.
What a stretch for Boston sports fans, who just keep getting punched in the stomach. The Bruins lost in the Stanley Cup finals, the Patriots cut star tight end Aaron Hernandez as he was charged with murder, and now the Celtics have waved goodbye to their coach and veteran core in a 48-hour span.
Like Pierce and Garnett, the fans deserved better. Even if just getting six years out of the duo was a bit greedy.
When the Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Allen was first assembled in the summer of 2007, there was a belief that the group had a three-year window of opportunity. For the past three years, Celtics fans have lived in fear of this day, which Boston managed to stave off by extracting all it could from a veteran core.
But the writing was on the wall this year. Boston endured a .500 season and a first-round playoff exit. Rivers surprisingly elected for a change of scenery while signing on as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. And it seemed like only a matter of time before Pierce and Garnett would be sent packing as well.
But boy, did it come suddenly. Smoke quickly turned to fire on draft night and, with Garnett's final seal of approval in waiving his no-trade clause, an era ended in Boston as the deep-pocketed Nets loaded up for next year's run.
Ainge, meeting with reporters after the Celtics traded up to select Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk with the 13th pick in the first round, politely sidestepped questions about the Brooklyn negotiations. But asked about the rebuilding process, he was bluntly honest.
"Our objective is to do it less painful, and do it with more speed, more pace," Ainge said.
Waving goodbye to Pierce and Garnett and the whole Ubuntu era will not be easy for Boston fans. It's going to be particularly painful, especially when Brooklyn rolls into town and fans see Pierce and Garnett decked out in those black uniforms. Even the Photoshopped images make stomachs turn.
There are those who will wonder whether this could have been prevented, if Boston could have brought its veterans back at the start of next season and at least given them the opportunity to show what was left in the tank.
But Rivers' departure was the first domino in an inevitable process. By trading Pierce and Garnett now, Boston is hoping to maximize their late-career value and embrace the rebuilding process.
Did the Celtics get enough for their veterans? That might not be decided until a decade from now, when Boston gets a true look at the talent it will capture via this deluge of draft picks.
If you're a Boston fan, the positive spin here lies in the potential to build something special with the assets acquired. The Celtics now own a whopping nine first-round picks over the next five years, including two first-round picks in each of the 2014, '15 and '16 seasons. Even if Brooklyn's picks are at the back end of the first round, there's heavy value in an age when the collective bargaining agreement restricts teams' ability to simply buy a championship -- though the Nets are testing that theory with the insane luxury-tax bill they'll foot this season.
"Draft picks are a great way to keep your payroll in check," Ainge explained. "The reason that the payroll is important is not just for dollars, it's also for flexibility. In the new CBA, being under the cap is a great advantage, being under the [luxury] tax is a competitive advantage. It's an asset to be there. You have more flexibility. You can do trades easier. You have more money to spend on free agents and exceptions as well. It's a competitive advantage."
Listen, that's not going to make things any easier for emotional Celtics fans. And we haven't even talked about Wallace's cringe-worthy contract, which has three years and $30 million remaining.
The Celtics are left hoping that their youth can blossom without the veteran safety net and that they can supplement the current core through a growing pile of draft picks. Boston still has a young core highlighted by Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger. All five players were starters at times last season. There could be additional wheeling and dealing in the coming weeks as free agency approaches. And the Celtics could seemingly try to entice a third team into the Nets deal before July 10 if they wanted to move some of the players set to come back from Brooklyn.
But one thing this process has confirmed: The Celtics plan to build around Rondo, who will no longer have the security of Garnett and Pierce to help him lead. Ainge said the team has no plans to move Rondo at the moment. This truly is his team now, and he'll lead them into the next generation.
Yes, it's the end of a successful era in Boston, but is it the start of another?