As of last Thursday, officially 10 years have passed since Danny Ainge was hired as Executive Director of the Boston Celtics. I don’t know about you, but I was a little shocked at the idea that it’s been so long and borderline stunned to think that on the day Danny strolled back into town — May 9, 2003 — Tom Brady was still sitting on one Super Bowl ring and David Ortiz had only one career home run with the Red Sox. Or how about the fact that Red Auerbach was still alive?
"In the tradition of the Celtics family, it's a coup to get this guy,” Auerbach said at Ainge’s introductory press conference. “This guy will get it done. He's very bright, and he's lucky, too.”
Man, only Red could get away with using the word “lucky” to describe a major hire. Only Red would be completely serious in using the word “lucky” to describe a new hire. Either way, looking back on that day and the decade that’s followed, there’s something special about that quote. In part, just that it exists. But also in terms of how often Ainge’s detractors use the word “lucky” to describe the success that he’s had in Boston. As if “luck” is totally random, and unworthy of praise, as opposed to an inherent quality that Red cited years ago in support of bringing Ainge on board.
But that was Red Auerbach. He said stuff like that. Even more, he believed stuff like. But whether luck is real or random, it obviously wasn’t the only factor in Ainge eventually “getting it done.” It won’t be the only factor in what happens next.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll get into all of that; the ins and outs of everything that will go into Ainge’s latest attempt to construct another champion. For now, let’s start with five trades that helped build the first champion, in the hope that it can give us a better understanding of Ainge’s mindset as the ground work gets underway on Celtics Rebuild: Phase 2.
October 20, 2003: Traded Tony Delk and Antoine Walker to the Dallas Mavericks for Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch and a 2004 1st round draft pick (Delonte West).
Ainge was hired in May of 2003, in the middle of the Celtics second round playoff series against the Nets, and from the start, made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the state of the team:
“The reason I’m here is because it’s the Boston Celtics,” he said before Game 3. “There are better rosters, better cap room, better circumstances around the league. But it's not the Boston Celtics.”
Again, this was while the current roster was still alive in the playoffs. Can you imagine if something like that happened in 2013? The CSNNE and Sports Hub studios would simultaneously explode.
Ainge’s objective was clear. He knew the Celtics weren’t good enough. Despite consecutive trips to the playoffs and a recent appearance in the Conference Finals, he didn’t think the roster was worthy of title hopes. And he was right. That team was fun to watch compared to what Boston was used to, but they were no where near as good as the Kidd (and Scalabrine)-led Nets teams or the Pistons team that was in the process of coming together or any number of giants that were battling out West. They were in no man’s land.
He saw Paul Pierce as pretty much the only player worth building around. So what he needed to do was remove out the other dreck, draft well and surround Pierce with enough young assets to eventually exchange for some real talent. Sure, it didn’t happen as quickly as he would have liked — and it almost didn’t happen at all — but it started with trading Antoine.
The takeaway: As we’d later be reminded in the Kendrick Perkins trade, Ainge has no allegiances. He doesn’t care about other people’s allegiances. If he thinks a deal will make the Celtics better, that deal will happen, regardless of the names attached or the commotion it might cause.
December 15, 2003: Traded Tony Battie, Kedrick Brown and Eric Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm, Michael Stewart and a 2005 2nd round draft pick (Ryan Gomes)
The Celtics were in the midst of a five-game winning streak when Ainge pulled off this next “blockbuster” and further emphasized his focus in turning Boston not only into a competitive team but a champion.
He didn’t care that the C’s were playing well; he knew they would never play well enough. So he further broke up the band, and when the dust settled, only eight months after taking the job, only three active players — Pierce, Mark Blount and Walter McCarty — remained from the roster he inherited.
This trade also precipitated the resignation of coach Jim O’Brien, who understood what Danny was doing and why was doing it, but wasn’t interested in taking part in a rebuild. He left in late-January. John Carroll took over on an interim basis. And the wheels were set in motion for a bigger coaching hire that summer. But in terms of Ainge’s approach to rebuilding, this is what’s important to remember: He won’t get caught up in the ebbs and flows of the NBA season, or the ever-changing opinion of fans and media. He’s got his bottom line for what a team is capable of and will stick to it. And if there’s anyone in house who isn’t on board, he’ll let you leave before altering his focus.
February 19, 2004: As part of a 3-team trade, the Boston Celtics traded Mike James to the Detroit Pistons; the Boston Celtics traded Chris Mills to the Atlanta Hawks; the Atlanta Hawks traded Rasheed Wallace to the Detroit Pistons; the Detroit Pistons traded Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a 2004 1st round draft pick (Josh Smith) to the Atlanta Hawks; and the Detroit Pistons traded Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and a 2004 1st round draft pick (Tony Allen) to the Boston Celtics.
There’s a lot going on here, but the biggest takeaway was and is the idea that Ainge essentially helped the rival Pistons build a champion by facilitating the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace. (Detroit could have never acquired Rasheed without the Celtics jumping in to take on the last two years of Chucky Atkins contract.) Why would he do that?
The takeaway: Ainge didn’t care about helping the Pistons. In the future, he won’t care about helping the Lakers or the Heat or any other rival. All he’s concerned about is making the Celtics better, and in this case, acquiring that first-round pick was a way to do that.
January 26, 2006: Traded Marcus Banks, Mark Blount, Ricky Davis, Justin Reed, a 2006 2nd round draft pick (Craig Smith) and a 2008 2nd round draft pick (Nikola Pekovic) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Dwayne Jones, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak and a 2009 1st round draft pick (Jonny Flynn).
The biggest mistake of Ainge’s first rebuild was signing Mark Blount to a horrendous six-year/$40M deal in the summer of 2004, and this was Ainge undoing that deal. Or at least, making the best of it. And that’s important, because the only thing worse than an executive making a stupid decision is an executive who refuses to admit that he’s made a stupid decision and then ultimately making said stupid decision worse.
Bottom line: Even though it was a problem that Ainge created himself, the Celtics never could have realized their dreams (from a cap perspective) unless they found a way to get rid of Blount. In this case, it meant taking on an unpleasant and overpaid guy like Szczerbiak, but moving forward it would be a lot easier to convince another team (Seattle) to take on a talent like Wally than a shlub like Blount.
June 28, 2007: Traded Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and a 2008 2nd round draft pick (Trent Plaisted) to the Seattle SuperSonics for Ray Allen and Glen Davis.
July 31, 2007: Traded Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, a 2009 1st round draft pick (Wayne Ellington) and a 2009 1st round draft pick (Jonny Flynn) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett.
Let’s just combine these two deals.
By the summer of 2007, after thankfully finding a way to unload the year before, Pierce was the only player left from the team that Ainge had inherited. The previous summer, the Celtics had also signed Pierce to an extension — an important sign that they were committed to rebuilding around him. And while the previous three years had been less than smooth — and had included the brief return of Antoine and one of the longest losing streaks in NBA history — the Celtics were in the exact position that Ainge had envisioned.
They still had their centerpiece, Pierce: older, more mature and ready for that next level. But instead of older players who had already maxed out on their potential and younger players who didn’t have much to begin with, Ainge headed into the summer of 2007 with this:
Pierce, Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen, Delonte West, Gerald Green (who still had value), Ryan Gomes, a top 5 pick and Theo Ratliff’s expiring deal.
Obviously, the key here was drafting — a spot where Ainge has fallen off a bit recently and will need to improve upon to facilitate this next rebuild. He nabbed Jefferson, Allen and West all in 2004, and all outside of the lottery. He also stole Gomes (an important piece in the KG trade) in the second round of 2005, and was smart to feast on the cheapskate Suns and acquire the late 2006 first-round pick used to pick Rondo. And even if Gerald Green never amounted to much, he was a good value pick at 18. Enough to sweeten the pot for KG.
And all told, Ainge’s focused yet tumultuous four years eventually helped realize a dream. First Ray, and then KG. And then . . . the champion that he set out to build in the first place.
Now, it’s time to build another.
Stay tuned for more on what it will take to get there.
Well, other than luck.