By: Don Porcaro
If someone was to group general managers into political parties, Danny Ainge would be anything but conservative. The trigger-happy GM has never been shy of dealing any player, regardless of how much they mean to the team or the city. With only one championship under his belt, but a faster rebuild than almost any other team, is Danny Ainge already a hall of fame GM?
In 2003, Danny became the Executive Director of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics. At the time, the Celtics were a very average team in the Eastern Conference. Ainge took an average Celtics team and basically ran them into the ground through the first two seasons. In 2004, Boston clinched the third spot in the Eastern Conference led by Paul Pierce and Gary Payton. In the next two years, Boston failed to qualify for the playoffs, finishing last in the Eastern conference in 2006. Ainge knew that something needed to change, as his star player Paul Pierce could not carry the team by himself.
The summer of 2007 was one of few moments that truly defined Danny Ainge as a general manager. The first move of this two piece risk was trading for Seattle star Ray Allen. Although the trade and 2008 Championship speaks for itself, there was a genius to this trade that many seem to forget about. Seattle was a folding franchise that desperately needed a new face of the city. Ainge took advantage of a young and inexperienced GM in Sam Presti, picking his target very carefully. With the pressure of moving to a new city, Presti knew he must make a move, and Danny gave him the best offer he could get.
The offer for Ray Allen included some of Boston’s supposed best assets. Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the 2007 fifth overall draft pick Jeff Green. Delonte West was never more than a solid bench player. Szczerbiak was really nothing more than a salary dump to pay for the large contract of Ray Allen. Jeff Green was the centerpiece of the deal. Trading a top-tier draft pick for a proven-star is already arguably a good trade. Add in the fact that Jeff Green was really a bust in his career and actually ended up back with Boston, shows this was a complete win for Danny.
The trading did not stop there, as Boston still needed a star big-man to compliment the two wings. The trade that Danny made next was a much bigger gamble than his earlier trade. Kevin Garnett was the next star to be traded to Boston. Not only did the Celtics pay a massive price, but Garnett was outspoken of not wanting to come to Boston. This was a risk of both giving up big time players, and having an unhappy superstar. As we will see as a trend in Danny’s career, the trade seemed to pay off. The deal included prized big man Al Jefferson, along with Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and Ryan Gomes. Once again, none of those players had nearly the career that Garnett had. KG ended up loving his time in Boston, and Danny Ainge brought home a title the following season.
After an era of dominance that included two trips to the finals and an NBA championship, the superstars began to age past their primes. Most GMs would hold on to their stars and let them retire with the team. As heartless as it may seem, Danny had other ideas. Ray Allen walked on his own, but Ainge would soon pull the trigger on one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
Danny Ainge traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The centerpieces of the Boston Celtics were shipped off to Brooklyn for basically no current talent, and the rebuilding process began. This was more than just a rebuild. Ainge managed to acquire 4 first round draft picks in exchange for Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry. Rajon Rondo was the only all-star left on the Celtics, but that would also change very shortly.
On December 18th, 2014, Danny traded his very last piece of his once “super-team”. Rajon Rondo was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for a first round pick, Brandon Wright and Jae Crowder. Although Wright and the first rounder never became anything special, Boston struck gold with Jae Crowder. A versatile forward with a team-friendly contract, he gave Boston more than most expected he would. Eventually Crowder would even become a valuable asset for Boston to continue their future success, but we will get to that later.
With almost all of their superstars gone, Boston finished the next season near last place. They were the 5th worst team in the league and it seemed they had no real plan besides tanking for coveted top prospect Andrew Wiggins.
It takes most teams at least 3 or 4 years of being at the bottom before gathering up enough assets to contend in the NBA. Besides free-agent hot spots like Los Angeles or Miami, it is unheard of for a team to only rebuild for one or two years. Teams like the 76ers and Kings have been rebuilding for 10+ years. Danny Ainge and the Celtics certainly were not willing to wait that long.
In the second year of rebuilding, Boston struggled as expected early on in the year. Before the trade deadline, Danny Ainge got on the phone with the Pheonix Suns Front Office and asked about a 5’ 9” point guard name Isaiah Thomas. Danny saw something in him that no one from Phoenix did. He saw star-potential. Isaiah would go on to lead the Celtics to a second half surge, actually sneaking into the playoffs. Despite getting swept, Boston managed to make the playoffs, just one year after being considered one of the worst teams in the league.
During the first tanking year, Boston managed to add Marcus Smart through the draft. With the Brooklyn Nets struggling and losing all of the assets in the Boston trade, the Celtics could be the best team possible, and still end up with a high draft pick. In other words, Danny let another team tank for him, and the Nets were pretty good at it.
As Isaiah developed into a star, as Danny thought he would, Boston was once again put on the map as a top destination for free agents. In the 2016 off-season, Boston hit on prized big-man Al Horford. They missed out on Kevin Durant, but were one of his final three choices. It was becoming clear Boston was quickly turning into a power house. Along with Horford, the Brooklyn picks were starting to come into fruition. Boston grabbed Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick thanks to the Brooklyn Nets.
With the additions of Horford and Brown, Boston jumped to the top seed of the Eastern Conference in the 2016-17 season. Only 3 seasons after being at the bottom of the east, Danny Ainge had the Celtics back on top. However this was not through one big free agent signing. This was through multiple trades made by Danny Ainge, constantly swindling opposing owners.
As the 2017 season came to an end, Boston had drawn attention from multiple big names. Gordon Hayward was the first name of the 2017 off-season to take notice. Many say Hayward signed in Boston because of the connection with head coach Brad Stevens. While that may be a big reason, I can’t imagine it had nothing to do with the growing talent of the team and the constant pursuit of big-name free agents.
Gordon was not the only new addition in Boston. Before the draft had even gotten underway, Ainge traded the number one overall pick for the number 3 overall pick, and another first rounder, which is projected to be another high draft pick. After Boston was not blown away by consensus number one pick Markelle Fultz, and Lonzo Ball refused to work out in Boston, Jayson Tatum was on the top of the Celtic’s draft board. Getting an extra pick for someone Boston was going to take regardless is another steal of a move from Danny Ainge.
As the free agency period came to an end, Boston got better, but still could not contend with teams like Golden State. They added Hayward and Tatum, but still were not done. Rumblins of Cavs superstar Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland seemed like the perfect opportunity for Danny to strike again.
This trade, unlike many others was not a complete steal. Ainge had to risk many assets in order to pull this one off. Isaiah Thomas was dealing with a major hip injury in which no one was sure he would be ready for the season. Along with that, Thomas was looking for a max contract, despite being 31 years old with injury history. Instead of taking the risk on Thomas, Ainge pulled the trigger on Kyrie Irving. The deal included Thomas, the 2018 Brooklyn first round pick, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic. Although it has only been a short time, it seems the Kyrie trade is paying off. Thomas’ hip injury is still lingering, and he is still looking for a max contract.
Although he has only brought one championship, the Celtics have only missed the playoffs one time since 2007. Ainge has consistently put Boston in good shape to win and has been one of the best “traders” in recent NBA history. A trip to the hall of fame as a GM is certainly a debate, but one or two more championships will confirm that debate.
Photo: (The Boston Globe)