On March 25, the Celtics were 21-23 and in need of reinforcements to reinvigorate their spiraling season. With the 5 p.m. trade deadline fast approaching, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was locked in and doing one of the things he does best: making phone calls and wheeling and dealing in search of upgrades.
The Celtics ultimately missed out on top targets Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, and acquired their Orlando Magic teammate, Evan Fournier. A new offseason was just a few months away, though, and Ainge figured to have a chance to do it all over again, just as he had for the last 18 years.
But this time, for the first time, his reservations about continuing in the job were real and impossible to avoid any longer. Soon after the trade deadline, Ainge approached Celtics ownership and told them he did not think he had the energy to do his job anymore.
He said he would stay longer if the team needed him, but he believed that this should be his final season. Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca were stunned, and they wanted to make sure that Ainge, 62, did not make this decision hastily. They asked him to take more time.
But in truth, Ainge had been thinking about it since May 2019, when he suffered a heart attack during Game 2 of the Celtics’ playoff series against the Bucks. Although it was publicly called a minor incident at the time, the truth was that it was a considerable health scare that left Ainge’s family urging him to permanently step away from his high-stress job.
Since then, in addition to trying to help guide this franchise during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ainge had been crushed by a string of deaths within the Celtics family: John Havlicek, K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, and Paul Westphal.
“It just made me really reflect on life when you lose those really close to you,” Ainge said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. “You always say when you have someone die that’s close to you that life is short. You feel it. And there are things I want to do more of.”
Ainge went back to Grousbeck and Pagliuca and told them he wanted to step aside. His departure would leave a gaping hole in the franchise’s front office. And as the Celtics’ top decision-makers began to consider options, they agreed that the best candidate might be directly in front of them.
Brad Stevens had served as a de facto assistant general manager over his eight seasons as coach, gaining a level of comfort and responsibility as time passed. This franchise values continuity and believed moving Stevens into Ainge’s post would increase the chances of keeping the rest of the front office in place.
Yes, they would be losing Stevens on the bench, but ownership reasoned that it was more challenging to find a high-level GM than a high-level coach. They approached Stevens with the idea.
He didn’t immediately say no, but he was somewhat ambivalent, in part because he was uncomfortable with the idea of replacing Ainge, a Celtics legend who also developed a reputation as one of the shrewdest executives in the NBA.
Over time, however, Stevens warmed to the possibility. His son, Brady, is a freshman in high school and his daughter, Kinsley, is in sixth grade, and the demanding nature of being a coach had taken him away from them often, never more than when the Celtics were separated from loved ones in the NBA’s Orlando bubble last summer.
Stevens accepted the offer and ignited one of the most stunning shifts in this franchise’s history.
“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.”
The Celtics’ frustrating season ended Tuesday night when their shorthanded team was walloped by the Nets in Game 5 of an opening-round playoff series. Players were unaware of the looming shakeup at the time, because the team did not want to create a new distraction while they were still playing. Most of them found out Wednesday morning, just before the rest of the world.
Internally, there was some discussion about whether the Celtics should wait for another week or two before announcing the moves to avoid the optics of making it seem reactionary after a frustrating season. They wanted to be careful not to make it look like Ainge had been fired, because he had not.
But Ainge has never cared much about public perception, and this situation was no different. He said they should make the announcement now so the team wasn’t delayed or hindered as it moved forward with its coaching search and transition.
A league source said Wednesday that the Celtics will move quickly in their pursuit of a coach, and that there will be “a lot of diversity” in the candidates who are considered. Stevens said he will first meet with his former assistant coaches to discuss their futures, knowing that a new coach will likely bring in their own staff.
“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.”
This job will present new challenges for Stevens. He is viewed as one of the game’s brightest tactical minds and now he will be tasked with new responsibilities, such as trade negotiations and draft picks. But Stevens already has an intimate knowledge of Boston’s roster, and his connections from his years as Butler’s coach will help him as he takes on more scouting responsibilities.
“I just think Brad will be a natural in this job,” Ainge said. “He’s good with people, he’s a good leader, he’s a respected person. His style and my style are much different, but everybody in this organization has a great admiration for Brad.”
Ainge, meanwhile, isn’t sure what will come next. In an interview with the Globe, he dismissed reports that he could reemerge in a front office role with the Utah Jazz. He said he is friends with Jazz owner Ryan Smith but has not spoken to him about any position.
“Nothing is going on there,” Ainge said.
Ainge said that over the past year it has been especially difficult for him to miss out on moments with family, with the nation paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Celtics’ business mostly pushing on as normal. He is looking forward to now going wherever he wants whenever he wants.
But he is a ruthless competitor, too, and he acknowledged that pulling back from that part of his life could be difficult. He said he might consider getting back into NBA broadcasting someday, or perhaps even take a small non-coaching role at a college.
“I honestly haven’t thought about what’s next,” Ainge said. “I don’t have any urgency or anything planned. My only focus is to help the Celtics however they need me in this transition. These are my people. These are the people I drafted. These are the people I hired, including my son [assistant general manager Austin Ainge]. And in some ways I feel like Brad is one of my sons. I’m rooting for these guys hard.”