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Top Stories of 2011, No. 4: Celtics’ trade of Kendrick Perkins

12.28.11 at 12:15 pm ET

For the final 10 days of 2011, will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our next entry in the countdown is No. 4: The Celtics‘ trade of Kendrick Perkins.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NBA lockout
No. 9: NFL lockout
No. 8: Celtics’ playoff loss to Heat
No. 7: Patriots’ acquisitions of Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco
No. 6: Jacoby Ellsbury’s MVP-caliber season
No. 5: Patriots’ playoff loss to Jets

It happened without warning, although the signs were clear enough. With minutes to go before the end of the NBA’s trading deadline on Feb. 24, Celtics team president Danny Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to the Thunder for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a first-round pick via the Clippers that carries a top-10 protection through the 2016 season.

While it was shocking at the time, the Celtics were concerned about their ability to retain Perkins long-term and the move allowed them to be significantly under the salary cap in the summer of 2012 when the contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen expire. The Celtics had offered Perkins a four-year extension worth $22 million, the most they could have offered under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. With no such restrictions, the Thunder signed him to a four-year deal worth almost $35 million.

In his first interview following the trade, Ainge told WEEI that it was one of the hardest decisions he’s had to make.

“It’€™s not easy at all,” Ainge said. “We agonized over it. Both Doc [Rivers] and I agonized over it. We went back and forth. There were a few other types of things out there, and it was a very difficult decision to make, yet one that we thought was best for the team and where we’€™re headed.”

There were also questions about Perkins’ health after the center tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA finals against the Lakers and underwent knee surgery in the offseason. Perkins worked hard in his rehab and returned to the court ahead of schedule, but he suffered a setback before the trade deadline and missed almost a month of games before taking the court for Oklahoma City in mid-March. The Celtics were counting on the return of Shaquille O’Neal from an Achilles and calf injury, but he played only 18 minutes the rest of the season.

Without Perkins, the Celtics struggled down the stretch and lost in the second round of the playoffs to Miami. It was a bitter blow for a team that proudly stated it had never lost a playoff series when all five of its starters were healthy.

The Perkins trade left a psychological scar on the Celtics, and also offered a convenient excuse for the team’s late-season struggles and early playoff ouster. Rajon Rondo, one of Perkins’ best friends on the team, acknowledged after the season that he allowed the trade to affect him more than he should have, and Green and Krstic never appeared comfortable last season.

The C’s interior defense again became a strength after another injured center, Jermaine O’Neal, returned to the lineup, but Perkins had become an immensely popular player on and off the court for the franchise. A defensive anchor and intimidating presence who supplied the muscle for the Celtics swagger, Perkins transformed himself from an an overweight awkward teenager into a legitimate starting center in the NBA.

If the initial returns on the trade were bad, the long-term effects have grown worse in recent days.

The centerpiece to the deal was Green, a versatile forward who carried the promise of youth, scoring ability and athleticism. But Green, a four-year starter with the Thunder, struggled with an inconsistent role, averaging 9.8 points and 3.3 rebounds with the Celtics. In mid-December, the team announced that Green would undergo heart surgery and miss the 2011-12 season.

Krstic started strongly with the Celtics, but he also suffered a knee injury late in the season and lost his effectiveness and confidence. The team initially said it would like him back, but he signed with a team in Russia without an option to return to the NBA.

The pick from the Clippers, usually a tantalizing prospect considering their constant rebuilding projects, may be cashed in as early as this season after Los Angeles acquired Chris Paul from the Hornets, giving them a tandem of Paul and Blake Griffin that figures to be in the playoff chase this season.

The 2012 draft is unusually strong, as several top prospects elected to stay in school and the newly ratified CBA kept the age limit intact, meaning the draft should be filled with two classes of young talent. Having two first-round picks in a loaded draft is solid value, even if a mid-first-round pick from the Clippers is something of a letdown.

It’s impossible to offer a complete perspective on the deal until Ainge completes his rebuilding project after this season, but ultimately, the Perkins trade has become one of the defining moments of his tenure.

Read More: Danny Ainge, Jeff Green, kendrick perkins, Nate Robinson