Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Those are the technical differences between the future Hall of Famers’ departures from the Celtics — and not inconsequential ones, in many people’s minds.
Fundamentally, however, their respective exits from Boston were based on the same thing. And that is why LeBron James is right to call out anyone who criticized Allen for their hypocrisy now.
James says a lot of things, and not all of those things are universally liked. He is simultaneously the most popular and the most unpopular player in the NBA, so none of the negative reaction to anything he says is very surprising. Yet on Thursday James was not wrong when he stepped on a third rail with many Celtics fans and suggested that their widespread vitriol toward Allen last year looks especially silly now that coach Doc Rivers and the other two members of the new “Big Three” are gone — all in moves they signed off on.
“I think the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, Ray got killed for leaving Boston and now these guys are leaving Boston,’” James said, according to ESPN.com. “I think it’s OK. I didn’t mind it. But there were a couple guys who basically [expletive] on Ray for leaving, and now they’re leaving. That’s the nature of our business, man.
“I don’t know what Boston was going through at the end of the day. I know Ray had to make the best decision for him and his family and his career. Doc, KG and Paul did that as well. You can’t criticize someone who does something that’s best for their family.”
The simple-minded reaction to James’ comments is that Allen’s situation was different because he was a free agent, meaning the decision to leave was all his. Pierce and Garnett, by contrast, recognized that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was dead set on dismantling the team and starting over, and they did not want their final days as players wasted in a rebuilding quagmire. Rivers’ departure, too, was based on recognizing that things would no longer be the same.
The naivete of that reaction is admirable.
Yes, there are subtle differences with the ways in which Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Rivers left Boston. At their core, however, all four leaving was based on reading the writing on the wall and seeing that their short- and medium-term hopes for another NBA championship ring lay elsewhere. Allen simply recognized the shift sooner than the others. Had Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Rivers or Ainge thought a championship was a realistic goal for the Celtics as they were constituted, they would all still be in Boston, together.
Pierce and Garnett did not sign with Brooklyn over the Celtics as Allen did with Miami, but they might as well have. Garnett had to waive his no-trade clause; Pierce had to talk him into it. Before the Nets trade went down, Garnett may have been ready to waive the clause to go to the Clippers. In other words, there were at least two teams Garnett was willing to choose over the Celtics. That’s not exactly the blind loyalty Garnett growled about when he said multiple times over the years that he “bleeds green.” Pierce still wanted to play, which is why he became such a salesman in nudging Garnett to accept the trade. If Pierce’s allegiance to the Celtics was stronger than his desire to continue playing and chasing another ring — an aspiration Allen was criticized for pursuing two summers ago — then Pierce would either still be with the Celtics, eyeing a low playoff seed, or he would have hung up his sneakers rather than play for another franchise.
The bottom line is, Pierce and Garnett were not wrong to do what they did. Neither was Allen. Fans often mistake what they wish for themselves with what is best for their favorite players. In the cases of Pierce, Garnett and Allen, those priorities did not align. That does not make any of them bad people.
“We all know the world, how it works,” a diplomatic Dwyane Wade told reporters. “The biggest thing is, Ray is happy here. If they’re happy in Brooklyn, then let them be happy. People say things about people when they do something, when they themselves would do the same thing. It’s about putting yourself in the best situation and at the end of the day, we all do that.”
Thanks to changing teams, Pierce and Garnett now have a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien championship trophy next spring. Rivers believes he has the same chance. And that is all any of them wanted. It’s all Allen wanted, too. The fact that one made his move a year earlier does not mean that their individual motivations were any different, or that one is a villain while the rest are innocent victims of circumstance.