How Danny Ainge is making the Celtics great again
He’s morphed from hotheaded player to savvy GM. But can he land another superstar for the Celtics?
AS THE PERSON IN CHARGE of building the Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge has proved adept at seeing possibility where others might see a problem.
This particular aptitude of the affable Ainge doesn’t apply only to basketball. Sometimes it even applies to, well, lunch. Ainge loves Chipotle, sometimes eating there twice a day. And when Chipotle was linked to breakouts of E.coli and norovirus, Ainge saw opportunity. “The lines are shorter now,” he told ESPN, presumably in between bites of a burrito bowl with double chicken, his meal of choice.
That knack for recognizing reward in the shadows of risk, played out since he stepped up to management in 2003, has made Ainge the best deal maker the Celtics have seen since Red Auerbach in his heyday. Ainge, the franchise’s president of basketball operations (a fancy name for general manager), swung the blockbuster 2007 deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett that led to the 2008 NBA Championship, the team’s first since 1986, when Ainge was its feisty starting shooting guard.
Ainge was a sweet-shooting nuisance of a player who averaged 11.5 points per game in a 14-season career and never was called for a foul that he didn’t incredulously protest. He was so reviled in opposing arenas during his eight seasons in Boston that he was sometimes presumed guilty even in confrontations in which he was the victim — and had the stitches to prove it. During a brawl with Atlanta Hawks 7-footer Wayne “Tree” Rollins in 1983, Rollins chomped Ainge’s finger (inspiring the Herald’s timeless headline: Tree Bites Man). The truth was overwhelmed by Ainge’s reputation. “I still get asked today,’’ he says with bemusement, “why I bit poor Tree Rollins. And sometimes they don’t believe it when I say he bit me.”
Ainge’s tenure as Celtics GM is in its 14th season; he won two championships with the Celtics as a player. The big question now is will he win a second as a GM. NBA franchises tend to go through lengthy boom-and-bust cycles. But the Celtics went from winning a mere 25 games three seasons ago to tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference last season.
“The hardest thing to do in the league is to put together a championship contender without having the team be really horrible for a long period,’’ says Daryl Morey, a former member of the Celtics front office who has been the Houston Rockets’ general manager since 2007. “He’s set the team up as well as any executive in the league.”
As the 2016-17 season dawns with the opener at TD Garden October 26, another bound forward is expected. The Celtics signed well-rounded, respected forward/center Al Horford as a free agent and plucked energetic rookie Jaylen Brown from the University of California with the third pick in the draft. The Celtics are the consensus choice among prognosticators as the chief challenger to LeBron James and the champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. It’s a status that Ainge embraces. “It’s a good thing to play with expectations, because to become a championship team, at some point you’re going to have expectations to be good,’’ he says during a recent extended interview at the Celtics’ practice facility in Waltham. “Regardless of what the end result of this year is, I’m OK with the expectations that they have now,” he says of his players, calling their goals “achievable.”
Ainge has the Celtics on the cusp of greatness through a series of exceptional decisions. The biggest was the June 2013 trade of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and two others to the Brooklyn Nets for five roster-filler players and — don’t blink, because this is where the heist happens — first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, as well as the right to swap first-round picks in 2017.
Ainge also has a knack for finding undervalued players. In February 2015, he acquired guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns for bench player Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick from the Cavaliers. “You had to bring that up,’’ Suns general manager (and former Celtics assistant GM) Ryan McDonough says with a laugh when Thomas’s development into an All-Star is mentioned. Ainge also hired Butler University’s Brad Stevens as head coach, though college coaches are considered risky by NBA insiders.
But Ainge hasn’t won everything. He wanted to use all those first-round picks to swing a deal for a superstar, much as he did for Garnett nine years ago. That hasn’t happened, in part because teams are reluctant to part with their best players unless there are extenuating circumstances such as a trade demand. Ainge must also deal with a different reluctance. His reputation for not just winning trades but fleecing other GMs also works against him.
“There’s so much pressure now because you don’t want to lose a trade,” says Larry Bird, Ainge’s teammate for eight years in Boston and the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. “But I don’t think that way, and neither does Danny. And we’re right.”
Still, barring injury to or the abduction of LeBron James and Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry by the Space Jam aliens, the Celtics aren’t a genuine championship contender. Yes, they have a roster of talented, highly competitive players, led by Horford and Thomas. What they don’t have is a superstar, and one, if not two or three, is necessary to win a championship in the NBA. The Celtics made a spirited run at free-agent superstar Kevin Durant in June. Durant was impressed with the Celtics’ pitch, which included a cameo by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But he chose the Golden State Warriors, which won 73 games last year and bristle with talent this season. The Celtics had a long shot, but it rattled out. “There are only so many of those transcendent superstar players born,” Ainge laments, “and everybody is after them.”
SITTING IN HIS OFFICE at the Celtics’ Waltham practice facility on a late September morning, Ainge looks not like an executive for one of the premier franchises in a thriving sports league, but an obvious ringer in an over-40 men’s basketball league. It’s shortly after the official start of training camp, and he wears a sleeveless white workout T-shirt and sweat pants; when he stands up, it’s obvious his listed playing height of 6 feet 5 inches is an accurate measure. Ainge suffered a heart attack in 2009; he looks younger and fitter now, even with grayer hair.
His office decor is sparse, given his accomplishments. A few photos of his playing days with the likes of Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish during the Celtics’ halcyon ’80s, plus one of Celtics legend Dave Cowens. Near the window hangs a green-and-white framed sign that offers a clue to Ainge’s mind-set: If You’re Scared, Get a Dog. Behind him, broad windows overlook the Celtics practice court, where the familiar squeak of sneakers sets the beat to the conversation.
Ainge is 57, a father of six. His eldest son, Austin (director of player personnel for the Celtics), is 35, five years older than anyone on this year’s Celtics team. Ainge married a fellow student, Michelle Toolson, when they were at Brigham Young University, and, as a Mormon, he eschews NBA off-court staples like alcohol-fueled carousing. But Celtics guard Avery Bradley, 25, says Ainge connects with his players because he is approachable and candid, something that players around the league will tell you isn’t as common as it should be for GMs.
Told of Bradley’s comments, Ainge says: “I’ve been through so many different things, through so much of what these guys have been through. I’ve been a rookie who had high expectations and didn’t play well. I’ve been an All-Star and a sub and a guy who didn’t play as much as I thought I should play. Been a leading scorer on a team that didn’t win. I’ve been around a dozen Hall of Fame players and lots of great coaches. I have a lot of experience to share with them.”
It doesn’t hurt that he may be the best all-around athlete to ever wear a Celtics uniform, a three-sport All-American in high school who was playing Major League Baseball while starring on the basketball court for BYU. But working in management “never really crossed my mind at all during my playing days,’’ he says. When new Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca approached him in 2002 about returning to the franchise as the general manager, he didn’t initially take it seriously. “I actually gave them some other names, including Kevin [McHale],” he says. But they persisted, and he listened. “Don’t know what triggered it other than that I continued to contemplate it,’’ he says.
Bird thinks he knows. “Hey, I had no intention of ever doing it, either,’’ he says. “You know, [basketball’s] in your blood, and it’s hard to get it out. It’s not the same as playing, because nothing is that, but you do get excited when you make trades and have the draft. Danny is a competitor, and this helps get that fix you don’t get from playing anymore. Helps a little.”
The intensive competitive fire Ainge showed as a player still burns. Celtics president Rich Gotham says that when he joined the team in 2003, within weeks of Ainge signing on, “we were in the playoffs in Indiana. Danny and I were sitting about five rows behind our bench. [Kendrick Perkins] was a rookie. And [Pacers center] Jermaine O’Neal was killing us. And Danny is screaming at Perk, ‘Hammer him! You’ve got to hammer him!’ And Perk is looking into the stands with this bewildered look. His GM is screaming, ‘Hammer him!’ ” Gotham laughs. “I’ve never seen him once lose his temper. But he gets caught up in the game. We tell him it might not be the best idea to sit courtside.”
WHILE AINGE’S COMPETITIVE STREAK and relentless obnoxiousness made him hated as a player, as a GM he’s known for being measured and open-minded, as well as for being covetous of information. The Celtics were one of the first NBA organizations to fully embrace Moneyball-style analytics, but he also deeply values scouting. “Danny listens to whoever puts the most time in, to whoever works the hardest,’’ says the Suns’ Ryan McDonough. “That can be unique for an ex-player. He really respects work.”
McDonough says Ainge and his lieutenants call around the league about big trades — three- and four-team deals — all the time, just in case a coveted player becomes available unexpectedly. It’s a fun version of due diligence. Signing Kevin Durant would have been the perfect piece to complete the fast rebuild, to make the Celtics a legitimate title contender, if not an outright favorite, immediately. But Ainge can play a game of patience, too, and he can win it, especially in pursuit of a superstar. We learned that in the Kevin Garnett trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves in July 2007. Ainge says that could have gone the other way, literally.
“When we did the KG deal,” says Ainge, “that was a deal we wanted to do in some form for four years.’’ He says he and Kevin McHale, then the Timberwolves general manager, “had had the conversation before, like ‘OK, KG and Paul [Pierce] need to be together. They would be great together.’ And it was like ‘If you’re not trading me KG, then maybe how can we get Paul and KG in Minnesota, and what will that package look like?’ ”
The Celtics ended up in a position to acquire Garnett because Ainge had taken a systematic approach to roster-building, collecting assets until Boston could give McHale what he wanted for Garnett.
“There were a number of smaller moves that led up to that,’’ says McDonough, who was still with the Celtics then. “People remember that we got Garnett and Ray Allen and had a great run with those guys. But sometimes they overlook all of the moves that were made to put us in a position to make that deal.”
The Garnett deal shows how Ainge-the-GM keeps himself in check. “Danny is one of the most impulsive people I know, and I’m shocked he doesn’t make a trade every week,” McHale said in a recent conference call. “He’s doing it the right way.”
All these years later, Ainge says the Celtics actually have a deeper roster now than they had then. They have made the right moves. They have the talent to be compelling and the assets to acquire a proven star player, and rumors fly about Ainge’s next deal. It’s not a bad spot to be in. But Ainge’s goal is not to be a fringe contender or to build his own reputation as a master trader. “The goal is to hang that 18th banner,’’ he says. “That’s always the goal until we hang it, and then the goal becomes putting up a 19th. The desire to win never goes away.” He’s hungry for more, and while the line might be long now, it’s moving fast. Danny Ainge knows what he likes. The mystery remains how he will get it.
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