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Pierce opts out of final year

Seeking long-term deal, he is unrestricted free agent

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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Paul Pierce plans on opting out of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent. He notified the Celtics through his Los Angeles-based agent Jeff Schwartz late last night.

ESPN.com first reported on the story.

Pierce’s decision, though not a surprise, throws president Danny Ainge’s plan to retool the team for another potential title run into a tailspin. Pierce walked away from $21.5 million but a potential new collective bargaining agreement after next season might reduce salaries and Pierce is likely seeking a new contract under the current CBA.

Pierce said several times throughout the playoffs he wants to retire a Celtic, but he also intimated he did not want to deal with free agency next summer. The Celtics can sign Pierce, who turns 33 in October, to a long-term extension, but that may extend the life of the Big Three further than Ainge wanted.

Although he is still playing at an All-Star level, Pierce may have endured some slippage and his level of production will be uncertain at the end of a multiyear contract. Pierce now becomes eligible for a maximum contract, which would begin at at least 105 percent of the $19.7 million he earned last year.

Ainge has said that his worst nightmare is to repeat the mistake made with the original Big Three, when Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale were kept together too long. But now two of the new Big Three are free agents and will demand extensions. Ray Allen also will be an unrestricted free agent as of tonight.

It is unlikely Pierce would return to the Celtics at a $21 million-per-year price, meaning the club could receive a small amount of cap relief. The Celtics will hover over the cap with the new contract of Rajon Rondo kicking in along with Kevin Garnett’s $18 million salary next season. With Pierce opting out, the Celtics do not automatically gain that $21 million in cap space.

Ainge would need to renounce Pierce’s rights — meaning the Celtics would not be allowed to re-sign him — to soak up that cap space and pursue a free agent with the estimated $15 million in cap room. Ainge could chase a younger player with that money, but it would mean the end of Pierce in Boston. The eight-time All-Star and 2008 NBA Finals MVP would likely have to indicate that he planned to sign with another team for the Celtics to make that decision.

Schwartz did not return calls but unquestionably is trying to determine what the market is for his client.

Pierce could serve as a fallback plan for teams who miss out on the premium free agents such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but the question is whether he would earn more on the open market or through an extension with the Celtics.

Meanwhile, Bill Strickland, the agent for Rasheed Wallace, said he is more convinced his client is retiring but would not comment on whether the sides plan to work out a contract settlement.

Even if Wallace walks away from the final two years of his contract, that money still counts against the Celtics’ salary cap unless they reach a settlement.

The veteran forward was due more than $13 million over the next two years.

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