Boston Celtics big man Kevin Garnett has gifted the basketball world with 18 years of fierce loyalty, an even stronger competitive spirit and a brand new set of expectations for the big men of today's NBA.
So why does the South Carolina native now find himself dangerously close to being left alone in the New England cold?
His former coach, Doc Rivers, bolted for the sunny beaches of Southern California to take over the Los Angeles Clippers. His closest confidant on the roster, 35-year-old Paul Pierce, becomes fully guaranteed for a $15.3 million salary for next season if he's not traded or bought out by June 30.
Garnett had the foresight to get a no-trade clause added to his last contract, a three-year, $34 million deal that runs through the 2014-15 season. But thanks to the fact that Rivers' prolonged departure from Boston caught the attention of the league office, Garnett still doesn't have complete control over his basketball future.
The Clippers entered this offseason with one priority: re-signing All-NBA point guard Chris Paul. Part of that plan included surrounding CP3 with seasoned veterans, an idea that swiftly became making L.A. the West Coast version of its East Coast rivals.
With 33 years of combined NBA service between two of the Celtics' prominent pieces, Pierce and Garnett, Boston team president Danny Ainge had approached the last few seasons focused on the future. His roster was always too talented to disassemble, but a rebuilding project grew closer with each passing day.
The fates of the league's most decorated cities became intertwined when reports surfaced that there was mutual interest between Rivers and the Clippers. The rumor mill quickly spun out of control with names from both sides of this reported deal getting tossed into the fire: Garnett, Pierce and possibly Jason Terry all heading for L.A., with Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan readying for cross-country flights to Boston.
The deal was on one second, off the next and quickly back on again. That seesaw exchange finally appeared to settle when Rivers was officially named the Clippers coach, via NBA.com's Eric Patten.
But the dust left from that final sway of the seesaw has engulfed the future of Garnett.
According to Ken Berger of CBS Sports, the league won't allow any player swaps between the Celtics and Clippers until after the end of the 2013-14 season. Per Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, Ainge confirmed the league's mandated delay on any trades between the two teams.
Commissioner David Stern said the league's collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from including players in trades "involving coaches' contracts."
And according to what a source told ESPN's Marc Stein, the Celtics and Clippers can't swap players even if other teams are involved in the deal:
ESPN source says provision DOES include three-team (and more) trades. NO trade exchanging Celtics & Clippers allowed until after next season— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 25, 2013
Theoretically it's still possible that Garnett could find his way to L.A. if he negotiates his way out of his current contract and signs with the Clippers. Stein reports that the league office hasn't decided what they'd do in that situation, but the league would examine any such move if it came close to fruition:
Provision in Doc's deal does appear to create wiggle room for Pierce or KG to join Clips if they get bought out & hit free agency. But ...— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 25, 2013
But NBA is not yet addressing such hypotheticals, suggesting that a down-the-road signing of Pierce or KG w/Clips would have to be looked at— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 25, 2013
According to Stein, the league feels that would be a necessary step toward confirming adherence to the guidelines set in place by the CBA:
NBA adamant it had to take this step to ensure no player transaction is connected to Clips' hiring of Doc, which would violate league rules— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 25, 2013
Assuming L.A. is no longer an option for The Big Ticket, what options are left on his hoops horizon?
He could play out the final two years of his contract without Rivers in Boston, maybe even convince Ainge that Pierce is worth the $15-plus million tab for next season. But Garnett spent the first 12 years of his career playing for some bad Minnesota Timberwolves, just once making it past the first round of the playoffs during his tenure.
He's a team-first guy by every definition, but it's tough to imagine him choosing to spend his twilight years as nothing more than a leadership figure for a young team without any championship aspirations.
He could force his way out of Boston and go searching for a contender, but where would he start his search?
He's waged storied wars with the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks and doesn't seem like the type to forget about them, so those two are probably out the question. His long-standing feud with Tim Duncan makes the San Antonio Spurs perhaps the unlikeliest destination.
The Oklahoma City Thunder could use his veteran presence, but they already have more than $20 million tied up in their starting frontcourt duo of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. He'd fit with Frank Vogel's defensive approach with the Indiana Pacers, but they seem locked in on bringing David West back.
According to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, the Brooklyn Nets have inquired about Garnett's desire to join his current Atlantic Division rival. Bondy suggests that the Nets would also have interest in adding Pierce after unsuccessfully targeting him at the last two trade deadlines.
As more teams get crossed off Garnett's list, though, so too do any realistic chances of competing for a title over the next two years. Maybe Yahoo! Sports scribe Adrian Wojnarowski's sources have it right. Maybe Garnett will play just one more season with the Celtics, then join his old coach Flip Saunders in a ceremonial role in Minnesota's ownership group.
Garnett has spent half of his natural life in the NBA, but last year proved he still has more basketball left inside the 37-year-old frame. He missed 14 games last season, still managed 19 double-doubles (one more than Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, by the way) and finished with respectable scoring (14.8) and rebounding (7.8) averages.
For a player so focused on maximizing the level of the players around him, maybe spending a year as an unofficial player-coach isn't such a bad idea. Maybe Pierce sticks around, Rajon Rondo doesn't lose a step from his ACL rehab, Jeff Green harnesses that elusive quality known as consistency and Boston makes a surprising playoff run past the opening round.
With his options limited, that might be the most satisfying outcome among the remaining possibilities for the All-Star that Rivers left behind.