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Judgment requires long view

The Dixville Notch-ish returns are not good for Danny Ainge, not that he cares.

"I honestly don't pay any attention to that," the Celtics' hoop el jefe said last night. "I feel our basketball staff, the players, the ownership, all understand completely what we did and why we did it. And I am satisfied with that. I understand that fans don't comprehend all the details, so people react without even knowing."

Yes, they did react.

To quote Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Sherrington, "They [the Mavs] got what for Raef LaFrentz? All morning and into the afternoon, you waited for the punch line. But, apparently, it's no joke. Not unless you're a Celtics fan wondering what the heck Danny Ainge is doing."

I think I know what Ainge is doing. And while I reside in the only state that went with George McGovern, I would like to offer a dissenting view: I think this trade helps Boston. I think Ainge does know what he's doing. But, at the same time, the deal also helps Dallas. It is -- cliche bell, ring -- a trade that actually helps both teams.

These are different teams with different rosters and, most important, two different mind-sets. The Mavericks are, to borrow a term from M.L. Carr, championship-driven. (Unlike with M.L.'s Celtics, it actually means something in this case.) The Mavericks came within two games of the NBA Finals last season (and an NBA title, given the competition) and maybe, just maybe, Walker pushes them over the top.

Ainge conceded as much Monday. The Mavericks are close. The Celtics are not. Nowhere near close. The Mavs could be one Walker away from the Big One, and we don't mean Samaki. As the estimable Marc Stein of ESPN.com wrote, "Without touching their Big Three [there should be a copyright on that term, hoopwise] core of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley, [owner Mark] Cuban and President of Basketball Operations Donnie Nelson have acquired a more talented player with a far more palatable contract. The next two words that should follow are `slam' and `dunk.' "

It is a good trade for Dallas. The Mavericks never got what they wanted, or expected, from LaFrentz. So you can understand the jubilation in Big D. ESPN's David Aldridge wondered, "Is Walker overrated? A ball hog? A turnover machine? All three may be true. But he was still an All-Star, and one of the key reasons the C's had gotten back to being a playoff team. Ainge needed to do better than this."

Maybe he did. I covered most of the Western Conference finals last year and LaFrentz might as well have applied for the witness protection program. He was a nonfactor. Even when Nowitzki went down, he was nowhere to be seen. That has to say something about the fellow.

But that does not necessarily mean he will be similarly invisible in Boston. He'd better not be. (The one caveat: the Celtics said a lot of the same things last summer about Vin Baker. And Baker had better numbers in Seattle than LaFrentz had in Dallas. LaFrentz averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game last season.)

LaFrentz tended to get lost in Dallas; that can't happen in Boston. He's expected to do much, much better in the center-free East (the same was said about Baker) and in the power forward-free East (the same was said about Baker). That is why Celtics fans have every right to be optimistic -- and suspicious (see Baker, above). LaFrentz seemingly is an automatic upgrade already and, plus, you've also got Jiri Welsch (a junior-sized Peja Stojakovic, perhaps?) and two other fellows yet to be identified.

But is LaFrentz ever going to be what we think he can be, or will he continue to be a tease?

We don't know.

It says a lot about LaFrentz that the Celtics had to move to Welsch and the two unknowns (draft pick and free agent) to really, really sell this one. Theoretically, LaFrentz should have been enough. But he wasn't. He was supposed to be the guy who tipped the scales in Dallas, who dragged Shaq away from the basket, who made other teams pay. For whatever reason, it never happened.

It might happen here, however, because LaFrentz won't be the fifth option and he'll be encouraged to shoot threes. And he'll play -- period. He has to. A lot. Theoretically, LaFrentz has six years to make himself a name in Boston.

The question that fans in Dallas have to ask themselves is this: Are we closer to, or farther away from, an NBA title? The answer has to be closer. In Boston, the question has to be, are the Celtics better off going forward with this deal than if no deal had been made at all? We know what we lost. We don't know yet what we got.

All we can say now is that we're willing to wait for the returns from California.

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