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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Ainge takes 'step back' shot from upstairs

Now that it's done, you can see why this move was inevitable.

Go back to the initial comments of Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge when he was hired to revamp the franchise. He vowed to be proactive yet he promised to be patient.

Turns out he meant both.

Ainge dealt team captain and three-time All-Star Antoine Walker, along with Tony Delk, to the Dallas Mavericks for center Raef LaFrentz, guard Jiri Welsch, salary-cap throw-in Chris Mills, and Dallas's first-round pick in 2004. On the surface, it looks like a lopsided deal that favors the Mavericks, who have designs on an NBA championship this season.

That's because for this deal to pan out the way the Celtics hope it does, it will require the passage of time. Consider your local basketball team on a three-year plan.

"That's about right," Ainge said yesterday.

Ainge was careful to avoid the word "rebuilding." He said he believes after a short adjustment period, his team will still be competitive, and battling for a playoff spot this season.

I'll believe that when I see it. Of course, if you are Ainge, and your team's owners have just jacked up ticket prices, you'd best avoid the "R" word at all costs. There's nothing paying fans hate more than taking that proverbial "step back" to move forward.

But that's what is happening here. Ainge determined very quickly that the Celtics could not win a championship with Walker and Paul Pierce as the cornerstones. The team needed more, but the weighty contract of Vin Baker left Ainge with no flexibility.

Baker is untradeable. Pierce, in Ainge's estimation, is a legitimate building block. So Walker had to go -- particularly since all the team would have gotten if it let him walk as a free agent in two summers is the mid-level exception, worth about $5 million.

So now the Celtics have three years to reposition themselves as legitimate contenders. Now rookie point guard Marcus Banks, who doesn't appear to be quite as far along as Boston thought he would be, has three years to figure out this up-tempo system. Welsch, who may well turn out to be the key to this deal, has three years to acclimate himself to the league. In three years, Pierce will be 29, his former college teammate LaFrentz 30, and Baker will be gone. Baker's money will remain, as a calling card for the missing piece to pull this whole thing together.

Ainge always has been bothered by Walker's poor shot selection and even poorer shooting percentage. As a broadcaster, he wondered why Walker didn't venture into the post more, then discovered, when he became the Celtics' head of basketball operations, that Walker isn't effective on the block because he doesn't have the strength or lift to execute power moves against larger power forwards. In other words, he's no Charles Barkley.

But you knew that already. Mavericks coach Don Nelson knows it, too, but that's not what he was looking for.

"I wanted a point forward, and I got one," said Nelson yesterday. "I think Antoine needed a change."

Asked if there would be enough basketballs to go around in Dallas with a potent offense that now includes Walker, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, and Steve Nash, to name a few, Nelson answered, "There's plenty of balls to go around if [Walker] is willing to pass -- and I think he is. If he wants to shoot all those threes, there won't be enough balls. We're not going to keep him out there shooting eight threes a game."

Nelson declared this trade good for both teams. Celtics fans will be skeptical, wondering why their team couldn't get more. Walker is only 27, but our league spies tell us that even Pacers boss Larry Bird, once a vocal Walker supporter, had soured on his game. The best offer for Walker the Celtics could muster up during the summer was Knicks forward Kurt Thomas and point guard Charlie Ward.

LaFrentz and Welsch make more sense. Welsch, the 16th pick in the 2002 draft, played in his native Czech Republic, then logged two seasons in Slovenia before landing with Golden State last season, showing all sorts of promise.

"I love Jiri Welsch," Ainge gushed. "He's a 6-foot-7 guy who is a shooter, a passer, a dribbler, a thinker. And he's a tough kid. I fell in love with him last year when he worked out for Phoenix before the draft."

Ainge liked him so much that he badgered the Warriors, who acquired his rights from the Sixers, to deal him. But the Warriors wouldn't part with the 22-year-old guard until Dallas insisted he be part of a nine-player deal in August that netted Golden State Nick Van Exel. Welsch averaged almost 12 points a game in preseason for the Mavericks playing shooting guard.

"I hated to lose him," Nelson conceded. "He can shoot, almost like Dirk. He can make the pass. He's a little turnover-prone right now, but he won't be in a couple of years. He's tough, too. I think he was my leading rebounder at guard. I wanted him, but we're going for it now. I had no place to get him time."

Nelson said the same thing doomed LaFrentz, a high post 3-point shooter who plays center but, according to Nelson, couldn't defend the more rugged Western pivotmen like Shaquille O'Neal.

Ainge points out that LaFrentz was second in the league in blocked shots two seasons ago and hits 40 percent from the 3-point line.

"And I think we can use him in the low post," Ainge said. "I've seen him have success there."

Asked if LaFrentz could be a legitimate threat down low, Nelson said, "I didn't put him down there, but he has a baseline jumper from the right box."

Ainge insists that he knows LaFrentz is a piece to the puzzle -- not the piece. No kidding. LaFrentz has been one of the biggest teases in the NBA. One night he'll haul in 20 rebounds and block 5 shots, but the next he'll play so listlessly you wonder if it's the same guy. He's a near 7-footer with a perimeter game. You think Antoine Walker drove you crazy? At times, this kid will give you different kinds of fits.

"But he'll help the Celtics," Nelson predicted. "He can shoot the three. We had Dirk at his position, so he couldn't get enough time in our lineup. He's not strong enough at any one thing to [displace] our guys. They'll get more out of him than we did."

They'd better. The three-year plan requires LaFrentz to pull his weight in the middle. He doesn't have to be a three-time All-Star, but he does need to be a key contributor.

That's what Antoine Walker was, warts and all.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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