As far as I’m concerned, you can divvy up the credit for the Celtics’ remarkable in-season turnaround in all sorts of ways, and I probably won’t dispute your distribution.
Just make sure the credit is distributed generously, and in bulk.
Give Ime Udoka a huge chunk for getting a team not exactly accustomed to playing a unified brand of basketball to commit to unselfish offense and relentless, connected defense. Celtics fans dreamed this team would play this way, but at times it was hard to believe it ever would. Udoka’s refusal to accept anything less has been refreshing and rewarding.
Give a huge chunk to the players who listened and finally realized that playing team-first basketball made them more productive and dangerous individually. Jayson Tatum’s emergence as a willing ball mover — not to mention an All-NBA-level performer no longer willing to play the little brother role to his basketball heroes — has been perhaps the most satisfying development. He already was an All-Star. Now he’s unlocked how to be truly great, while raising up those around him. This is what a true superstar looks like, folks.
Give a huge chunk to Marcus Smart, who save for the occasional flashback has resisted taking high-degree-of-difficulty shots and has embraced being handed the keys to the offense as the actual point guard.
I’ll admit, I thought injuries and Smart’s Rodney Harrison approach to playing defense had started wearing him down last season. But he’s back to being a defensive demon, and he deserves to win Defensive Player of the Year, along with also placing high in the Reformed-Gunners-Turned Playmakers balloting.
I’ll leave it to you to distribute the rest of the credit among the current players — Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Jaylen Brown, and on and on — and personnel as you see fit. Call them your own personal version of Tommy Points.
But while you’re at it, don’t forget to set aside some credit for someone who is no longer here.
This is Danny Ainge’s vindication, too.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. As surprising — and for those of us who appreciated his 18 seasons helming the Celtics front office, disappointing — as it was when Ainge resigned in June, it’s crystal clear now that the franchise needed a shakeup, and it has worked out more or less in a best-case scenario.
After eight seasons on the bench, Brad Stevens moved into Ainge’s role, and he has been a wheeling-and-dealing assassin, from getting a rejuvenated Al Horford in return for wobbly-kneed Kemba Walker, to turning Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford into Derrick White, to bringing back Daniel Theis for ball stopper Dennis Schröder.
Ainge was often accused of trying to win every trade, to the detriment of actually getting trades done. Stevens has won every trade, while also revealing with his actions what his true feelings were on some of the players he had to coach in recent years. He has been a whiz in his new role, while the coach replacing him has been the new voice the players needed to hear.
It’s all worked out for the best, even for Ainge, who six months after leaving the Celtics took the role of alternate governor and CEO of the Jazz, back in Utah where he was a college legend for Brigham Young.
Ainge’s mark is still on the Celtics team, and in ways that have turned out to be positive in the time since he left. Robert Williams III, the No. 27 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, was the fulcrum of their defense, an above-the-rim force on both ends of the court before his knee injury. Grant Williams, taken at No. 22 in the ‘19 draft, has become a fine two-way forward who can guard just about anyone and consistently bury threes (despite a recent slump). And Payton Pritchard (26th pick, 2020) has emerged as a dead-eye shooter; over his last 18 games, he has made 49.4 percent of his 3-point shots. When he launches one now, from any angle and anywhere, the assumption is that it is going in.
Ainge’s recent drafts were always nitpicked too much. One of the angles that most annoys me when it comes to sports discourse is the notion that your general manager royally screwed up if he didn’t draft the one excellent player who went in the next dozen or so picks after your team made its choice. No one knew Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to be GIANNIS!, including Giannis himself, you know? Context-free complaining is the worst.
There’s so much luck and unpredictability in every draft. Ainge had the daring to buck conventional wisdom twice when he took Brown and Tatum (trading down from the No. 1 spot) in consecutive drafts at No. 3. Those were not no-brainer decisions, even if they look like obvious choices now.
And while it would have been nice to end up with Desmond Bane in ‘20, it turned out that Ainge did enhance the team through the draft the last couple of years. It just required time, patience, and players settling into the right roles. Perhaps that’s a hint that we shouldn’t write off Aaron Nesmith just yet, either.
I do wonder what Stevens has done that Ainge would not have. Would he have made the White trade with the Spurs, considering the Celtics sweetened it with draft-pick capital, something Ainge wasn’t often inclined to do? I’m not sure. Stevens seems more willing to part with extra pieces to get a player he wants than Ainge was near the end here.
Then again, many of the rumored trades Ainge was criticized for failing to complete would have turned out to be somewhere between disappointing and disastrous. Tell me again what Jimmy Butler has ever won.
The Ainge-to-Stevens transition reminds me a little bit of when Theo Epstein succeeded Dan Duquette as general manager of the Red Sox. Duquette was a master at acquiring stars and making savvy trades; he brought Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Jason Varitek to the Red Sox, among others. But Duquette failed at player development and along the margins of the roster.
Epstein, upon taking over in ‘03, quickly proved expert at team construction and finding secondary pieces that fit just right: Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin, and that big-swingin’ Ortiz fella that the Twins dismissed.
Ainge was better at his job than Duquette was at his; the ‘08 championship banner is proof. And even though he’s in Utah now, he deserves some credit for leaving behind some of the pieces that have become essential to this wildly satisfying Celtics rejuvenation.
The time was right for the change. But remember, in dealing out the credit the way Smart now deals out assists, Ainge deserves some for seeing big things in some of these Celtics long before they made a habit of validating his faith.