Twelve hours after the Celtics’ frustrating season came to an end with a playoff loss to the Nets, a series of sweeping and stunning moves reshaped the franchise’s future at the top. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge retired Wednesday after an 18-year run at the helm, and he will be replaced by head coach Brad Stevens.
“I asked Danny not long ago, ‘What’s your top criterion for a successful head of basketball?’ ” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “And he said, ‘Someone who can really relate well to the coach and understands the coaching demands.’ That’s what Brad has to a T.”
Ainge, 62, will continue to work with the team during the transition period, and the search for a new coach will begin immediately. A league source said Wednesday that Stevens has already started making lists of potential candidates and that there will be “a lot of diversity” in the coaches who are considered.
Ainge suffered a heart attack in May 2019 that the team officially described as mild, but league sources have indicated it was more serious than the franchise let on. Despite pleas from his family then to step aside from the Celtics, he recovered and continued on in his role.
Ainge said his decision to step down wasn’t directly related to his health, but after the heart attack, he “started thinking about what I was doing with my life.”
He said he had been unable to attend several family gatherings recently, with his wife, Michelle, sometimes going to visit the couple’s grandchildren without him. Ainge did not want to miss out on any more moments. Also, the recent deaths of Celtics legends such as Tommy Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Paul Westphal, and K.C. Jones made Ainge rethink his own mortality.
“This job is demanding,” Ainge said, “and a lot of people counting on me and relying on me, and I just feel like there’s things I want to do more of.”
In late March, Ainge went to Celtics ownership and told them he thought it was time to retire.
“For the record, Danny came and said it was time,” Grousbeck said. “It was completely his decision, with no support whatsoever from ownership in making that decision. None was offered.
“No support was offered except for wishing him the best once it became clear that was his decision. Now we’ve taken a step with Brad. It was in that order and that’s exactly what happened.”
In an interview Wednesday, Ainge said he might do television broadcasting again someday, or perhaps look into some non-coaching role at a college. But he strongly dismissed reports that he was stepping aside from the Celtics in order to take a job with another NBA team such as the Utah Jazz.
“My goal is to get Brad up to speed on the draft,” he said. “Like I said, our whole staff will be able to help and try to make this transition, and put the Celtics in as good a place as we can be. And I’ll think about the future somewhere in the future.”
Ainge for years has been viewed as one of the most shrewd and powerful executives in the NBA, known especially for his string of trades that flipped heavily in Boston’s favor, including the 2013 deal in which franchise cornerstones Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were sent to the Nets and an avalanche of future first-round picks was received in return. That haul ultimately led to the acquisitions of All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But the past few years have been difficult. Despite the large collection of draft picks that Ainge amassed, the Celtics were mostly unable to parlay them into something bigger. Trade deadlines and offseasons passed with the Celtics consistently getting close to a big deal that never transpired, and Ainge struggled to find difference-making players in the draft since adding Brown and Tatum.
One of Ainge’s boldest, most stunning moves came in 2013, when he plucked Stevens from Butler University and installed him as coach. He said that about five years ago, he told Stevens he could see him in a front office role someday. It is unlikely that either of them thought it would happen this quickly.
“I think, when I looked at the big picture, and Wyc and I really talked about it, it made sense,” Stevens said. “This is a great opportunity to give us a good spark when we’re losing one of the best in his job in the world. That’s something we know we all have to step up and meet the next challenge.”
Stevens quickly emerged as one of the NBA’s brighter minds. The Celtics appeared to be in the beginning of a lengthy rebuild when he arrived, but he led the team to a 354-282 record, including seven consecutive playoff appearances, three of which ended in the Eastern Conference finals.
But he made no secret of the fact that this past year has been incredibly trying for him and his team, as it has for so much of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Celtics were in third place in the Eastern Conference last year before the season was shuttered because of the coronavirus.
The league restarted in the Orlando bubble last summer, and while Stevens frequently complimented the high level of basketball in that setting, he also made it clear how challenging it was for the players and staffers to be separated from their families for such an extended time.
This season, the Celtics dealt with intense and constant COVID-19 protocols but were walloped by the virus nonetheless, with Tatum, Robert Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Evan Fournier all sidelined with varying degrees of symptoms. Through it all, Stevens emphasized that the challenges of guiding a team through the ordeal were great. Now, he will move to the front office, where a new task awaits.
“I’m looking forward to really diving into this process,” Stevens said. “I think the good news about whoever we hire, they don’t have to fill Doc Rivers’s shoes like I did, and they don’t have to fill Danny Ainge’s shoes now like I do. The good news is they just have to figure out a way to be better than the last guy.”