The Boston Celtics pulled off one of, if not the greatest trade heists in NBA history in 2013. In exchange for the shells of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, GM Danny Ainge was able to swindle 4 first round picks in return. Stacking up draft picks in other trades lined the Celtics up for a bright future: or so they thought. The non-traditional rebuild the team has endured over the last 5 years is filled with head scratching decisions and unrealistic expectations that have sent them back to the drawing board going into the 2019 offseason.
After a measly 41-40 (yes, one game got cancelled) record in the 2012-13 season, the aging Celtics knew they needed to change directions. As for the Brooklyn Nets, they were looking to add to their core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. The Nets were desperate to compete for championships right away, and in turn became victims of the most lop sided traded the league had ever seen. This move became the one that elevated Danny Ainge as one of the top exec’s in the NBA. At least, that was the image it gave him. Looking back five years later, this trade is still an unbelievable steal for Boston. But the rest of what has happened, not only since the trade, but throughout his now 16 year career as the Celtics GM has made him look worse and worse.
Danny Ainge took over in 2003. To his credit, there has certainly been some bright spots: Flipping a first rounder in ’06 to get Rajon Rondo on draft night, bringing in Allen and Garnett in ’07, the championship that those three would win in ’08, and bringing in Kyrie Irving just two summers ago. The problem is, these additions have taken the spotlight from all the mistakes that he’s made throughout his tenure. Since 2003, Ainge’s draft history has been rocky to say the least. First round picks including Delonte West, Gerald Green, Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and James Young. Sure, he was able to finesse guys like Rondo and Kendrick Perkins with draft night swaps, but he did the same to take questionable players like Kelly Olynyk and Jajuan Johnson. In recent years, he’s hit big with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Two guys with major potential to be stars in this league. But there is concern that he has hindered their development at times with this strange rebuild process.
After a season with only 25 wins after the Net’s trade, the C’s drafted Marcus Smart 6th overall, and then not only traded away Rajon Rondo, but brought in Isaiah Thomas, finishing the 2014-15 season 42-40 and squeaking into the playoffs. It felt like the quickest turnaround. A 17 game improvement, Isaiah Thomas’ sudden stardom and the first round picks they stole made the Celtics’ future look bright. After that season they added Terry Rozier at 16th overall, then improved to 48 wins the following season. The faux-rebuild seemed to be working. Isaiah Thomas was blossoming into a top tier point guard as well as leading the youngsters. In 2016, the Nets pick turned into the third overall, and they nabbed Jaylen Brown. They also added Al Horford in free agency. The improvement continued as they jumped to 53 wins that season, and getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Everything seemed to be going right for Boston. They eventually added Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and traded for Kyrie in the summer of ’17, and got back to the ECF even without Irving and Hayward. Then suddenly, it all came apart. Gordon Hayward never bounced back from injury, but was still forced into the lineup. Kyrie was a continuous quote machine that divided the locker room. Rozier, Tatum and Brown all had to take a step back for the two stars, which not only frustrated them, but impeded their development. The team never lived up to their championship expectations. And that’s the problem. Yes, there was a lot of talent, but it wasn’t cohesive. Kyrie, Hayward, Horford, Brown and Tatum were all first options before their time in Boston. The totem pole was never fairly established. The 2017-18 Conference Finals run established Tatum and Brown as the leaders, Rozier as the point guard. When Irving and Hayward came back, it threw away all that growth and confidence. The team was hastily thrown together with no sense of identity.
The other issue the Celtic’s went through during this process was all of the trades they missed out on. The assets that Ainge was stockpiling, masking it with some “master plan” the fans could buy into, got wasted. Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Blake Griffin, Demarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis all came and went. Ainge’s stinginess with his picks and young talent was mind boggling. They all but had Paul George, but considered Terry Rozier untouchable and refused to throw him in. A young, unproven guard was for some reason valued above a certified all star that had led his team to multiple ECF appearances. Ainge refused to add picks for Porzingis and Butler. He refused to include role players like Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to land a star. And somehow, Ainge was able to point the finger, and blame the other teams for having asking prices too high. All of these non-moves made the summer of ’17 even more head scratching. They traded their heart and soul Isaiah Thomas and previously higher valued Jae Crowder for Irving. They even threw in their last Nets pick – the one they wouldn’t give up for George or Butler. They then shipped Bradley to Detroit as a salary dump to go get Hayward. Obviously, Hayward is much better than Bradley. But is he better than George, Griffin or Butler? No. The players that Ainge did and didn’t value made zero sense. He wouldn’t pull the trigger on established leaders like George, but went and got Irving, who never (and still hasn’t) won a thing without LeBron. What’s the point of the assets if you aren’t going to use them to improve?
Again, we have to call Ainge’s track record into question. In 16 years, the biggest free agents he’s landed is Hayward and Horford. No disrespect to them, they’re former all stars and quality players. But neither of them have been so much as top 25 players in this league. Your biggest fish are still not superstars. The guy you finally pull the trigger on for trades is the complete opposite of a leader and never accomplished anything for us to assume he can be the best player on a winning team. Isaiah Thomas, a guy the gave up close to nothing to get, had a more successful stint with the team…just to be shipped out after giving his body for your team (not to mention playing days after his sister’s death). He’s hoarding “assets” that aren’t very valuable. If you have a shaky draft record, and you refuse to trade them, then what good are the assets?
The strangest part of all this, though, has to be the image that Ainge and the Celtics have built. The idea that they are still a legitimate free agent landing spot. The idea that they’re in the mix for every super star via trade. The idea that they’re these genius con men that keep embarrassing other teams because they got an extra second rounder thrown in. The smoke and mirrors surrounding the team has fooled too many people. To be blunt, they’re not as in the mix as we think. Kyrie and Horford are gone. Hayward only went because of the Brad Stevens connection. They’ve shoehorned themselves into every single trade rumor that’s come about since 2013, even when they have zero shot at being involved. They were going to get Russell Westbrook, remember? And Dwight Howard and Kevin Love too, right? No team in the league could put a better package together for AD they told us. And now, going into this free agency, they’re tying themselves to D’Angelo Russell. They over value themselves and their assets time and time again.
So what’s next for Boston? Who knows? If we think we know Ainge, he’ll stay aggressive. He’ll keep landing extra second rounders and taking advantage of pick swaps decided years ago. If it were up to me, they should go all in on Tatum and Brown and look to the future. We’ll see, though.
The reality of it is, they’ve squandered any opportunity they’ve had. They could have stayed course and rebuilt around Tatum, Brown, Smart and Rozier. Instead, they inserted Thomas, Horford, Hayward and Kyrie. They also could have moved some of their assets and picked a star like Butler or George to build around. They instead chose to sloppily throw talent together, then throw Kyrie on top of it. Throughout all of it, they’ve created a false narrative of who and what they are as a team.