On June 2, 2021, Danny Ainge retired — excuse me, “retired” — as president of basketball operations for the Celtics after 18 years as the franchise’s roster-building honcho.
It feels as if it happened longer ago than that, doesn’t it? So much has happened with the Celtics since then — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s continued growth into the elite tandem in the league, Ainge successor Brad Stevens’s savvy wheeling-and-dealing for ideal veteran pieces, the Celtics’ thrilling run to the Finals last season, the Ime Udoka situation, and more.
And though the Celtics should retire Ainge’s No. 44 sooner rather than later for all of his contributions, it has been a while since we associated him with the franchise in real time. Six months after his retirement, he joined the Utah Jazz as alternate governor and CEO. I’m not sure what “alternate governor” means, but apparently it still allows him to pull off lopsided trades, such as sending Rudy Gobert to the Timberwolves for a bushel of draft picks.
Stevens has done a stellar job replacing Ainge, eschewing late first-round picks and bringing in veterans who enhance the team’s core. With the trading deadline coming up Feb. 9, the roster is so deep and well-rounded that he probably doesn’t have to make any enhancements. That’s my way of saying keep Payton Pritchard.
But something else has happened during the Celtics’ ascent to true championship contenders, if not outright favorites. Some of Ainge’s decisions, particularly regarding the draft, keep looking better and better.
From 2014 — the first draft in which the Celtics used capital acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Nets that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn — through Ainge’s final draft in 2020, the Celtics selected a staggering 27 players, 15 in the first round.
Some picks had no impact. Some never wore a Celtics jersey at all. But several have contributed to the Celtics’ current state as a team with the highest of hopes.
2014: Marcus Smart (first round, No. 6 overall); James Young, (1, 17).
It’s simple and undeniable: Smart is the soul of the Celtics, and he does not get enough credit for reshaping his game and becoming a genuinely trustworthy point guard. (I’ll admit I was hoping Dante Exum would fall to them in this draft if you will. Betcha Ainge still would have taken him.) Young had scoring ability — he outplayed teammate Julius Randle in the national championship game their final year at Kentucky — but never seemed to be near peak condition.
2015: Terry Rozier (1, 16); R.J. Hunter (1, 28); Jordan Mickey (2, 33); Marcus Thornton (2, 45).
It’s funny, when this draft was complete, the Hunter pick drew more buzz because of a wild buzzer-beater he hit in the NCAA Tournament and vague rumors that the Warriors coveted him. Rozier, who averaged 12 points per game in two years at Louisville, was treated as a reach. In retrospect, he was a steal. Only four players drafted ahead of him (Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and DeAngelo Russell) have averaged more points than Rozier (13.2) in the NBA.
2016: Jaylen Brown (1, 3); Guerschon Yabusele (1, 16); Ante Zizic (1, 23); Devonta Davis (2, 31, sent to Memphis); Rade Zagorac (2, 35, sent to Memphis); Demetrius Jackson (2, 45); Ben Bentil (2, 51); Abdel Nader (2, 58).
To me, Brown is Ainge’s boldest and best pick. Anyone could have recognized his spectacular athleticism. But he was so raw it was challenging to project what he might become. In his one season at Cal, he shot 43.1 percent from the field, 29.4 percent from 3, and committed more turnovers (105) than he had assists and steals combined (68 assists, 27 steals).
Ainge recognized Brown’s determination and intelligence, and noted that Cal’s poor spacing on offense did Brown no favors. I’m not sure how many other teams would have taken him in that spot.
In a related note, Kris Dunn, the Providence star many Celtics fans coveted in that spot, is averaging 16.2 points this season for the Capital City Go-Go of the G-League.
2017: Jayson Tatum (1, 3); Semi Ojeleye (2, 37); Kareem Allen (2, 53); Jabari Bird (2, 56).
The trade with the Sixers in which Ainge sent the No. 1 overall pick their way for the No. 3 selection and a first-rounder the following season is obviously an all-time fleecing, one that would fit right in on Red Auerbach’s album of greatest heists. At 24, Tatum is a spectacularly talented and skilled player who works at maximizing every aspect of his game, but puts winning above all else.
Related question: Do you ever snicker when you think about how Magic Johnson and the Lakers passed him up at No. 2 — apparently without giving him any consideration at all — while locking in on Lonzo Ball?
2018: Robert Williams (1, 27).
Williams has played 187 regular-season games for the Celtics, 36 more in the postseason, and I can already say this with 100 percent certainty: There aren’t 10 players in my 40-plus years of following this franchise that I’ve enjoyed watching more. (Larry Legend, an engaged DJ, McHale when he was tormenting defenders in the post, Walton in ‘86, KG in ‘08 … it’s an exclusive list.)
He’d stand out as a ridiculous athlete if he were the size of a shooting guard. To watch him pogo around the court, swatting shots and catching lobs, is a joy that is amplified by his joy. He seems so happy to be out there after battling through knee problems last season, and is it ever a relief to see him looking like his pre-injury version of himself.
2019: Romeo Langford (1, 14); Matisse Thybulle (1, 20, sent to Philadelphia); Grant Williams (1, 22); Tremont Waters (2, 51).
2020: Aaron Nesmith (1, 14); Payton Pritchard (1, 26); Desmond Bane (1, 30, sent to Memphis); Yam Madar (2, 47).
I’m grouping these two drafts together because of their similarity and how they are likely to be perceived in the future.
Langford and Nesmith were taken at the same point in the draft. Both struggled with the pace of the game, Nesmith because he was too intense and Langford not intense enough at times. Both were dealt by Stevens to bring in essential, ideal pieces — Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon — and both are showing promise in their new locales.
I find myself rooting for both of them, though even if they become stars I’ll never lament these deals for a second. Also: Bane, already a cornerstone for the Grizzlies, would have fit in pretty well here, huh?
Hey, no one gets everything right. Ainge and now Stevens have done much better than most.