Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge knows a thing or two about what it takes to win with this franchise. Prior to joining the Celtics front office in 2003, Ainge played for the club from 1981-1989 as he helped the club win a pair of NBA Title. Ainge was known as a tenacious defender during his playing career and that tenacity has carried over to the front office.
Once upon a time, President Donald Trump authored the book “The Art of the Deal”, but this is a phrase that Ainge himself could trademark.
Since Ainge began running the Celtics, he has never been one to shy away from making a trade. In 2007, Ainge famously acquired power forward Kevin Garnett and shooting guard Ray Allen to team with small forward Paul Pierce as this trio would help Boston win the NBA Championship in 2008. With Garnett, Allen, and Pierce leading the way, the C’s would remain as one of the top teams in the NBA until 2013 when age began to catch up to him.
However Ainge would turn water to wine when he traded Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets in a package that would see the Celtics obtain multiple first-round picks. This move signaled that the Celtics were in full rebuilding mode which was something that head coach Doc Rivers wanted no part of. And with Rivers still under contract with the Celtics, Ainge was able to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers which resulted in more draft picks for Boston.
Since the Nets were in win-now mode at the time that they acquired Pierce and Garnett, they mortgaged their future which has greatly benefited the Celtics. The past three years have seen the Nets become one of the worst teams in the NBA and since their picks went to Boston, the Celtics were able to select small forward Jaylen Brown third overall in 2016, and small forward Jayson Tatum third overall last season. Ainge was able to parlay what he received from the Nets into even more ammunition for his team as after entering the 2017 NBA Draft in possession of the first overall pick, he made a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that trade with the Sixers, Ainge moved down two slots to draft Tatum, while also potentially obtaining a first-round pick from Philadelphia in this year’s draft. The pick was initially the property of the Los Angeles Lakers, but if the pick falls between slots two through five, the Celtics will once again be in business. The Celtics also owned the first-round pick of the Nets for the upcoming draft, but Ainge was able to use that to acquire All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer as the landscape of this team has drastically changed.
In exchange for Irving, the Celtics sent power forward Ante Zizic, small forward Jae Crowder, point guard Isaiah Thomas, and two draft picks to the Cavaliers. On the surface it appeared that the Celtics gave up a ton to acquire Irving, but they have come out of this smelling like a rose. Last season Thomas suffered a hip injury that threatened to derail his career, but this didn’t prevent the Cavs from acquiring him. Thomas’ injury kept him out of Cleveland’s lineup until January 2, but in the 15 games that he played, the Cavaliers were only 6-9. The Cavs became a walking train wreck with chemistry issues on the court as well as in the locker room. The Cavs were on the short end of the stick in regards to blowout losses to the likes of the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs as their season was spiraling out of control. And in a shocking move just prior to the NBA’s Trade Deadline this past Thursday, the Cavaliers traded Thomas to the Los Angeles Lakers.
So now the marquee player that the Cavaliers received from the Celtics last summer is gone, while Boston has themselves a new franchise player which has increased their chances of being a title contender for this year as well as the coming seasons. With a record of 41-19, the Celtics currently have the second best record in the Eastern Conference and they are set up for long-term success, while the Cavaliers are a team that is attempting to get back on track after they parted with several malcontents which included Thomas. And this is another feather in the cap of Ainge for pulling off the deal last summer.
Ainge also pulled a rabbit out of his hat in 2013 when he hired Brad Stevens to replace Rivers as the Celtics head coach. Prior to joining the Celtics, Stevens didn’t have any prior coaching experience in the NBA, but he did have success collegiately as he helped the Butler Bulldogs make consecutive Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011. In each season under Stevens, the Celtics win total has increased and they have a shot to win 60 games this year for the first time since 2009, and the best appears yet to come.
Brown has made tremendous progress from his first to second year as he is now averaging 14 points compared to averaging 6.6 last season, while Tatum is in the running to become the NBA’s Rookie of the Year as he is averaging 13.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. Both Brown and Tatum have the potential to one day be NBA All-Stars, while the Celtics are doing this without the presence of small forward Gordon Hayward who suffered a dislocated ankle in the team’s first game of the season. Irving has been up for the challenge of being “the guy” as he is averaging 24.7 points and 5 assists this season. Neither stat is a career-high for Irving, but he has the ability to take over a game at any moment.
On 23 occasions this season Irving has scored at least 25 points in a contest which included him going for 28 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds in Boston’s 110-104 overtime win this past over the Washington Wizards on February 8. Irving provides the C’s with a proven finisher, but this team is built on their balance and depth which makes them dangerous.
For the season seven players on the Celtics are averaging double figures in points which includes reserve point guard Terry Rozier as his scoring ability has added to the team’s depth. This makes it tougher on Boston opponents as the connotation that you can simply focus on Irving to shut down the Celtics is a pipe dream. The Celtics also dig in on the defensive end of the floor as they are second in the NBA in points allowed this season at 99.6 points per contest. And the fact that the Celtics take pride in playing defensive basketball makes it tough on their opponents coming down the stretch in contests which leads to victories for Boston.
With the All-Star break right around the corner, it is stretch run time in the NBA and the Celtics are sitting pretty. The C’s recently signed center Greg Monroe to a one-year deal for $5 million. The Celtics wanted Monroe, but instead of engaging in a trade, Ainge patiently waited until he was bought out by the Phoenix Suns which paved the way for him to join Boston. For Monroe’s nine-year NBA career, he has averaged 13.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest, and his presence gives Boston another big man that can score close to the basket, while also making opponents have to play this team honest.
The Celtics find themselves in a battle with the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division Title, but Boston’s depth should allow them to win out. The Cavs should be an improved team after their moves at the deadline, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Hayward could return before this season ends in a limited role which would only make the Celtics that much more tougher to deal with.
Ainge has skillfully constructed this team as they are set up for both short-term and long-term success. Ainge learned from one of the best in former Celtics team president/head coach Red Auerbach who was the architect of several Boston dynasties which led to 16 of the franchise’s 17 NBA Titles. Under Auerbach, the Celtics had a litany of Hall of Famers which included Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird. Ainge won two NBA Titles with the Celtics as a player, while also being the architect of the team most recent title in 2008. Auerbach was a shrewd dealer when it came to making trades as he always knew how to find a sucker which is something that Ainge picked up on as that has once again provided this franchise with consistency. And even if the Celtics are denied an NBA Title this year, they are setup for long-term success, as their future draft picks could help them land another star player to team with Irving. But either way the chances of the Celtics will be pretty good as it isn’t merely the luck of the Irish.