As the Celtics flipped their frustrating season on its head and emerged as unlikely NBA title contenders, the man responsible for constructing most of the roster watched admiringly from about 2,000 miles away.
Last May, Danny Ainge retired after serving as the team’s president of basketball operations for 18 years. His children and grandchildren were getting older, his 2019 heart attack had caused him to reevaluate his priorities, and guiding a team during the COVID-19 pandemic had altered the in-person camaraderie and relationships that Ainge relished most.
He was reenergized after a six-month break, though, and last December Jazz owner Ryan Smith, Ainge’s close friend, convinced him to come to Utah as the team’s alternate governor and CEO.
That has put Ainge in an unusual position. He is dedicated to helping transform the Jazz into a championship team while also maintaining a connection to a franchise that was such an important part of his life for so long.
“It’s been fun watching [the Celtics] play,” Ainge said by telephone from Salt Lake City this past week, before the Jazz were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Mavericks. “Obviously, my focus is more on the Jazz, but it’s been fun to follow my old team and all my people back there. I still consider them and will always consider them — regardless of what happens from here on out — I’ll always consider them friends and family.”
Ainge’s departure from Boston was unique because it did not end poorly. He was not fired. He did not leave in a huff. He stayed on as an adviser for several months and was even in the team’s draft-night decision room last year.
Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck still exchanges text messages with Ainge about once a week. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who was hired by Ainge as the Celtics’ coach in 2013 before replacing him as lead executive last spring, said he and Ainge remain in frequent contact. Assistant general manager Austin Ainge speaks to his father every day.
“I was telling him what I think they should be doing against the Mavericks, and he was telling me what he saw against the Nets,” Austin Ainge said. “We even talk about playoff series neither of our teams are involved in.
“But he’s been rooting very hard for us and is very invested. He obviously cares for us in the front office. He worked with us for so many years. He’s super-invested in the players. He spent hours and hours with these guys, and of course he’s pulling for them.”
There was minimal overlap between the first-round playoff games of the Jazz and the Celtics, so Danny Ainge was able to keep tabs from afar. Now that the Jazz have been eliminated and the Celtics have advanced to face the Bucks in the conference semifinals, there will be no late-night scheduling conflicts.
But Ainge stressed that his primary goal over the next few weeks will be getting back to what he does best: determining how to build the Jazz into a title contender.
Over the past few months, there has been a renewed appreciation for Ainge’s role in doing that for the Celtics. His lottery picks, including Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart, have continued to ascend. Later draft selections such as Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard have become essential parts of first-year coach Ime Udoka’s rotation. Ainge’s fingerprints are impossible to ignore.
“The thing I liked the most is he’d come into anyone’s office and say, ‘Hey, did you see that game last night? What’d you think?’ ” Stevens said. “I’m sure the video room probably spent as much time talking hoops with Danny as anyone. I just think that’s really cool. He always involved everyone, and obviously was never scared to go against the grain or make a pick that somebody thought wasn’t the right pick at the time. He was doing his own work and puts his signature on it.”
Grousbeck remembered the 2016 draft, when Ainge passed on a trade that would have “cleaned out our cupboard” of future picks and just pushed forward with his decision to draft Brown. Grousbeck was booed when he announced that choice at a public draft party at a Seaport hotel.
“But I trusted in Danny,” Grousbeck said. “He just provided a real bulldog mentality where we weren’t going to get screwed on trades. We were going to hopefully come out better than we were before, and guys started getting scared to trade with Danny because he was doing such a good job. That’s all you really need to say about a GM.”
During the 2019-20 season, Ainge encouraged Stevens to keep an eye on Pritchard, the spunky point guard from Oregon. And Stevens recalled draft night in 2018, when Ainge feverishly began trying to trade up to select Robert Williams, only to pull back and have him fall to Boston at No. 27.
“Danny is great at this,” Stevens said. “I think the easiest thing to do is pick out a mistake that somebody makes or something that doesn’t go right. That’s so simple to find things. These are hard jobs and ultimately there are going to be some things that don’t go perfectly. But on the whole, Danny is as good as it gets.”
Ainge brushed off the notion that he has taken personal satisfaction from the Celtics’ resurgence. Most of all, he said, he is pleased that so many of the people he worked with and roots for are having success.
“I still really enjoy the guys,” he said. “Obviously, I have relationships with most of the players. It’s been fun watching them grow and reach their potential. Everybody seems really fired up about the team, and that makes it fun.”
Ainge said that last season, when the Celtics went 36-36 and lost in the first round of the playoffs, was a “rough year.” But he believed the struggles were mostly related to injuries and COVID-19-related absences, much like the start of this season.
Good health and the steady hands of Stevens and Udoka have brought the Celtics back to a good place, and Ainge is enjoying watching it all transpire, even from two time zones away.
“I have a great relationship with all of them,” he said, “and I’m rooting for their success, all of them.”