Once upon a time, Antoine Walker was the richest player in Boston Celtics history. The near 23-year-old Walker signed a six-year extension worth $71 million. This was one season after Walker averaged 22.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, both top-10 finishes in the NBA. Walker was seen as the team’s franchise star, their first since the 1993 tragedy of the late Reggie Lewis. In 2002, alongside Paul Pierce, Walker helped lead Boston to the NBA postseason for the first time in seven years. However, one year later, new Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge made a trade that sent Walker to the Dallas Mavericks just before the 2003-04 NBA season started.
We was tough pic.twitter.com/Ly3OXC3fYs
— Antoine Walker (@WalkerAntoine8) April 17, 2023
It’s not often a 27-year-old All-Star gets traded out of the blue, so what happened this time? Why did Ainge trade the former NBA All-Star, and was it ultimately worth it for the franchise?
Boston Celtics Trade Review #13: Antoine Walker to the Mavericks
Full Trade Details
Dallas Mavericks receive: Antoine Walker and Tony Delk.
Why Did the Boston Celtics Trade Antoine Walker?
Simply put, Ainge wasn’t a fan of Walker. In recent years, Walker has said numerous times he felt like he and Ainge didn’t have the greatest relationship:
One thing you have to understand, [I] went through this with [Ainge] in 2003, [Danny Ainge] is a liar. First of all, Danny Ainge took over in my seventh year with the Celtics. He took over in the summertime when [the team] had just been eliminated in the second round by the New Jersey Nets. We’re in preseason and training camp, we get to the last preseason game, and the Celtics decide to trade me. Obviously, I took it hard. [I] had been there seven years, we had just started to become a playoff team. Me and [Paul Pierce] had just finished up our fourth year [as] the second-leading scoring duo behind [Shaquille O’Neal] and Kobe Bryant. We were starting to build something very special there [and then] [Ainge] traded me for whatever reason. Obviously, [Ainge and I] had a war of words that was very public… over the situation.
Additionally, Ainge believed Walker wasn’t the true franchise guy in Boston – Pierce was. Plus, with Walker’s expensive contract, it’s likely Ainge wanted to ship him out rather than continue to pay him. It also appeared that Ainge was a big fan of Welsch and wouldn’t have made this trade if he wasn’t included.
The State of the Dallas Mavericks Before the Trade
In the 2002-03 season, the Mavericks finished with a 60-22 record – tied for league-best with the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs. Led by the Hall of Fame duo Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, the team made a trade intended to help them win their first NBA title in franchise history. Especially with Nash becoming a free agent at the end of the 2003-04 season, there was a sense of urgency to win immediately. Plus, it helped that the Mavericks organization was a fan of pairing Walker with Nowitzki, Nash, Michael Finley, and recently acquired Antawn Jamison:
“We see Antoine as a triple-double guy,” said Donnie Nelson, the coach’s son and an assistant coach. “I know in some form or fashion at the end of the game you’re going to see the Big Three and Antoine Squared.”
The Mavericks were looking to build a championship team and felt Walker was a piece to their puzzle.
The Celtics ended the 2003-04 season with a 36-46 record. After 46 games, Celtics head coach Jim O’Brien resigned. The team then moved to John Carroll in the interim, who finished the season with a 14-22 record. The Celtics hired Doc Rivers as their next head coach the following offseason.
Sneaking in as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics matched up with the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. However, the Pacers swept the Celtics in the first round. Boston’s leading scorer was Pierce, the team’s only All-Star in 2004, who averaged 23 points per game.
Injuries took a toll on LaFrentz during his first year with the Celtics. He played just 17 games in the 2003-04 season, averaging 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. The following two seasons were much better for LaFrentz, however. In those two seasons, the Kansas alum only missed two games and averaged 9.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. During the 2004-05 season, LaFrentz started all seven postseason games the Celtics played.
In June 2006, the Celtics traded LaFrentz to the Portland Trail Blazers, ending his Celtics career after three seasons.
The Celtics traded Mills in February 2004 to the Atlanta Hawks before playing a game for the team. Atlanta waived Mills shortly after, ending the California native’s NBA career.
Welsch only played in parts of two seasons with the Celtics before the team traded him in 2005 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his Celtics career, Welsch averaged 8.5 points on 42.8 FG%, including 36.1% from deep.
The Celtics used their 2004 first-round pick from this trade on West. He spent his first three NBA seasons in Boston, averaging 9.8 points per game, before the team traded him to the Seattle Supersonics in a package for Ray Allen. After a few years away, including a stop in Cleveland, West returned to Boston in 2010, playing 24 games for the team.
The Mavericks finished the 2003-04 season with a 52-30 record. This eight-game decline from the previous year earned the team the fifth seed in the Western Conference. In the first round, the Mavericks lost to the Sacramento Kings. Head coach Don Nelson stepped down after 64 games during the following season. His replacement was Avery Johnson, who remained the coach until the 2008-09 season.
Walker started all 82 games he played during the 2003-04 season. Due to the offensive stars he played next to, Walker had his worst scoring season, averaging 14 points per game. Additionally, Walker averaged 8.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Walker started all five games for the Mavericks that postseason but only averaged 9.8 points.
The Mavericks traded Walker to the Hawks the following offseason. Funny enough, the Hawks traded Walker back to the Celtics in February 2005. However, the Celtics didn’t hold on to him for long. In the 2005 NBA offseason, Ainge shipped Walker out in a trade for the second time to the Miami Heat in a monster five-team trade. Walker won his only championship in 2006 against his former team, the Mavericks.
Delk only played in 33 games for the Mavericks, averaging 6.0 points per game. That following offseason, Delk was involved in the aforementioned Walker trade that also sent him to the Hawks.
The Last Word on the Antoine Walker Celtics Trade
Trading Walker was a bold move for the Celtics (let alone doing it twice). However, the Mavericks traded him away after one season anyway. Still, Dallas got a greater return for Walker than the Celtics, acquiring Jason Terry along the way. For that reason alone, it’s fair to say the Mavericks got the better end of the deal.
However, Walker was still a solid NBA player after his trade from the Celtics. Sure, he never made another All-Star team, but he was a viable starter and was only 31 when he played his final season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Determining a winner of this trade goes beyond stats. Let’s not forget the Celtics franchise was in poverty for the next few years after moving on from Walker. When talking about this trade, it’s mainly about the “what-if” factor. What if Ainge kept Walker and Pierce together? Could they have won a title? Would the team have still acquired Kevin Garnett and Allen to form the NBA’s new “Big Three” in Boston? Nobody can know for sure.
Verdict: The “what-if” scenarios are too strong to say anything besides the Celtics lost this trade. In an otherwise amazing GM career with Boston, this is one of the few blemishes on Ainge’s record. The Mavericks didn’t win the title in 2004, but knowing what they knew then, this trade had the makings of an all-time fleece.