There is no such thing as batting 1.000 for a player personnel director. There are hits and there are misses.
Austin Ainge has helped the Celtics score big on players such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. He was able to pluck quality center Daniel Theis out of Germany. He has helped ensure the Celtics have benefited from the assets his father, Danny, has acquired over the years.
With the league closer to returning to play, Tatum has emerged as a potential All-NBA player coming off his first All-Star appearance. Smart is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. And Brown was on the verge of making the All-Star team after signing a lucrative four-year extension.
The Celtics were also able to nab useful forward Semi Ojeleye in the second round, and 2019 first-rounder Grant Williams has emerged as a key player off the bench. Of course, there have been misses, such as passing on the opportunity to draft Giannis Antetokounmpo (as did 13 other teams), but there has been a method for Austin Ainge that has helped keep the Celtics ascending in the Eastern Conference.
Let’s start with the discovery of Tatum, whom Ainge said he first saw as a 15-year-old on the AAU circuit. The Celtics followed his rise to Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri, to third-team All-ACC as a Duke freshman, to the player the Celtics decided to draft instead of Markelle Fultz.
“We saw them earlier than some of the undiscovered types,” Ainge said of Tatum and Brown. “We heard their names starting at 15, 16 years old. Jayson was very skilled as a young player and had great touch and footwork and obviously size, and his basketball IQ stood out. That was a great thing to just build on.”
Brown was considered a raw but freakish athlete coming out of Atlanta. He often was the victim of his power and strength in the college game because he would often steamroll defenders and be called for charges. Brown’s game was more suitable for the NBA.
“As a young player, his physical tools, so fast and strong and explosive, and all of the background work we do on these guys, both of these kids passed with flying colors,” Ainge said. “Coming up, their coaches liked them, their teammates liked them, and they are hard-working kids. So that gives you the confidence that they will continue to improve.”
Ainge has seen hundreds of NBA prospects, some tabbed to be superstars before they are old enough to drive. But there is that critical three-year gap between when these players draw the attention of NBA scouts and when they potentially enter the draft at 19 years old. Tatum and Brown were able to make that ascension to quality NBA player. Not all prospects do.
“It’s really competitiveness, work ethic, and personal habits,” Ainge said. “We see guys get caught up in the life. We see guys who don’t continue to work and who don’t strive to be great after they’re already good and make a little money. You want guys that stay hungry. There’s no secret to being able to guess that. You just do as much work as you can and hope these guys prove you right in the end, as both Jayson and Jaylen have.”
While the Celtics were high on Tatum after his freshman year at Duke, he didn’t exactly wow them in predraft workouts because of limitations his agent requested. Tatum would only work out for the Celtics by himself, with no other prospects. So Tatum was relegated to shooting drills.
What the club wanted to see from Tatum was 3-point range. He had been known more as a midrange specialist at Duke. But could he expand that range in the NBA?
“He made a lot of threes,” Ainge said. “We thought earlier in the evaluation that it might take him a couple of years to make NBA threes because he preferred 18-footers in college. But it was evident that the NBA three was already pretty easy for him."
The Celtics thought Brown, taken third overall in 2016, was out of place during his lone year at Cal, which attributed to some of his weaknesses. Players such as Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray, and Buddy Held were on the board when the Celtics came up.
But Ainge and the brass believed in Brown because of his potential and versatility.
“Jaylen would have probably been best in college playing [power forward] surrounded by shooters where he could just live at the rim and the free throw line,” Ainge said. “He’s developed the rest of his game very nicely in the NBA. But at that point, it was a little raw. We took that into account.
“We had seen him play really well at high school events and we just believed in his talent. Sometimes you have to go with what you believe and have faith that the players will improve. Jayson and Jaylen both have.”
League leads in reaction to tragedy
This past week was clouded by the tragic death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police after he was arrested for alleged forgery.
The NBA has reacted with anger, sadness, and sympathy, most notably from former standout Stephen Jackson, who was a longtime friend of Floyd’s and who traveled to Minneapolis to participate in a news conference to express anger in the lack of arrests of the officers. (Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested on Friday afternoon.)
Several NBA players have expressed their views through social media, while some teams and coaches have released full statements. It’s a testament that the NBA remains the most socially conscious league in professional sports.
Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff released a statement with GM Koby Altman. Bickerstaff is a Black man younger than Floyd and he was a Timberwolves assistant coach for four seasons. However, regardless of professional status or income, there is an inherent awareness from Black men when dealing with law enforcement.
“Our hearts are filled with sadness, disgust, and overall frustration as we continue to process the tragic and senseless acts of violence towards yet another individual of the African-American community. Our sincere condolences go out to the members of the Floyd family and those who came to know and love him,” the statement read..
“This is a very important time in our history and the images of this incident, as well as the countless others, will blister a lasting image in our minds forever. What’s happening in our country today has left an emotional strain and unfortunately has shaped how we conduct our lives on a daily basis. We should not have to live in fear.
“This is not the first time that we have had to stand together in an attempt to impact change, but this could be the first time we actually ‘DO’ create change for all of humanity. In the face of desired change, we cannot treat this as an isolated incident of outrage, but one that we remain consistently engaged with and one where we focus our energy toward sustainable accountability. We have a responsibility as fathers, husbands, and leaders of young men to stand up and speak up for those who no longer have a voice. During times like these, we have to work through our pain and work together to find a solution. Let’s all do our part!”
It’s evident that the NBA will find a way to honor Floyd and create more awareness, even if it makes some uncomfortable. In 2014, LeBron James led a campaign to wear “I Can’t Breathe!” T-shirts after the tragic choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police after he was selling single cigarettes in front of a convenience store.
The NBA realizes its responsibility to act during these difficult times. It has set the standard for how professional sports leagues and its players should react, support, and console each other and their fans.
Balance lacking in playoff pool
The NBA is set to return in late July, but there remain discussions on a definitive playoff plan since there is incentive to bring back all 30 teams, even though all were not in playoff contention.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr has said his team does not desire to continue the season with no chance at making the playoffs. The Warriors had a blueprint for this season, especially after Stephen Curry went down with a broken hand four games into the season.
The Warriors had the league’s worst record at the time of the shutdown, although they planned to bring back Curry, who played March 5 and scored 23 points in 27 minutes. Curry was not going to play the full remaining schedule, but now there’s almost no incentive to bring him back after what could be a four-month layoff followed by a three-month layoff.
Golden State wants to gain a top-five pick to join Curry, a healthy Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green for a reboot next season. The club also has a midlevel exception slot to bring in a free agent, and there is nothing the organization is going to do to jeopardize that this season.
And let’s be honest, there is no team outside the playoff picture from the Eastern Conference that deserves to come to Orlando for a restart. The Wizards (24-40, .375), who are in a rebuild, are the ninth-place team and 5½ games back of the Magic for the final spot.
There was little chance the Wizards were going to make up that difference in the final 18 games, so the NBA should leave the Wizards and all the remaining teams in the East at home. The Hornets, Bulls, Knicks, Pistons, Hawks, and Cavaliers all have winning percentages of .354 or worse.
The only incentive they would have is to improve their lottery position. And current players aren’t as interested in improving their team’s draft position as the organization is.
As for the West, the situation gets murkier. There are four teams within four games of the eighth-place Grizzlies for the final playoff spot, and three of those are 3½ back, including the Pelicans.
It would be absurd to believe the NBA does not want to include Zion Williamson, the prized rookie for the Pelicans, in the playoff race. Also, the Trail Blazers, who reached the Western Conference finals last season, are in that mix and have enough star power with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to make for an interesting first-round matchup.
The NBA needs to devise a method for these teams to have a shot at the playoffs without penalizing the Grizzlies, who played well enough to gain the slot when the season was suspended. The league should invite 20 teams ― eight from the East and 12 from the West — to play a shortened regular-season schedule and then allow the teams who are ninth-12th in the West to participate in a play-in tournament for the rights to play a three-game mini-series with the eighth-place team for the final spot.
The NBA eliminated the mini-series more than 30 years ago, but now is the appropriate time to bring it back. The series can be played over four days because there would be no travel involved.
This would give the public a chance to see a healthy Williamson and his team make a playoff bid. TV ratings are important at this point, even critical, because teams will make no money from fan attendance, so it’s understandable the league will try to involve Williamson and his team in the tournament.
But for the league to bring all 30 teams to Orlando and play a series of meaningless games doesn’t accomplish anything. Many teams who are out of the race would rather prepare for the lottery, give their younger players structure for the offseason, and get ready for the 2020-21 season.
What this nearly three months off has done is allow executives and coaches to seriously consider how critical long-term health is for their players and staff, and also understand the arduous job of regathering players and staff, taking them to Orlando, and then spending extended time in one place.
This restart also allows the league to try new playoff and play-in methods that could be used in future years. Commissioner Adam Silver wants to get a consensus on these decisions but likely won’t. He is going to have to make difficult decisions that will rankle certain owners, some of whom aren’t exactly thinking about the league’s best interests.
It’s best for the league to bring as few teams as possible to Orlando for safety measures and also to maximize the impact and legitimacy of the season. Does a team that’s 20-plus games under .500 really deserve a shot at the playoffs?
The NBA always seems to make the soundest decisions in difficult situations and this is one of those times where it’s best to credit the teams who have accomplished the most during the regular season and avoid gimmicky methods to draw ratings, even if that means Silver angering owners of teams who want to return to play.
While the pandemic continues, the Knicks are making management changes, such as adding longtime Jazz executive Walt Perrin as assistant GM. The Knicks removed Steve Mills as president earlier this year, replacing him with former sports agent Leon Rose. They retained veteran front office man Scott Perry as GM. The Knicks are looking for a coach and have compiled a list of candidates that includes former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, who has been a head coach in Chicago and Minnesota. Thibodeau wants to return to coaching, but in the right situation. The Knicks are again in rebuilding mode but will have salary-cap space in the future to attract free agents. The club is also expected to have a top-five pick in the draft … There are teams such as the Hawks that would love to return despite being out of the playoff picture. One of the story lines for a Hawks return would be 43-year-old Vince Carter, who has decided to retire after this season but never received a proper sendoff. Carter would love to play another set of games, especially in his hometown of Orlando. There are also other teams headed for the lottery that would like to return for the purpose of giving younger players experience or to satisfy cable TV requirements. And there are teams that used this season as a total rebuild, such as the Warriors, who have no desire to return for risk of injury to veterans, especially with nothing to play for … Wizards guard John Wall declared himself healthy in a conference call this past week, but don’t expect the former All-Star to return when the season resumes. The Wizards want to ensure Wall is 100 percent for next season as they attempt to pair him and guard Bradley Beal for perhaps one final playoff run. Wall, who has been often injured, is the league’s fourth-highest-paid player and will earn $47 million in 2022-23, the final year of his contract, making his deal almost unmovable.