Back to the Drawing Board
Pierce? Gone. Garnett? Adios. Doc Rivers? See ya. Danny Ainge spent the summer blowing up his team, and now it’s up to the cocksure Celtics boss to figure out how to return the franchise to glory. With a new season starting and everything uncertain, at least one thing is clear: We’re about to find out if Ainge is as smart as he thinks he is.
When Ainge sat down with his staff last summer to figure out the Celtics’ next move, there were not many faces looking back at him. His front office is among the smallest in the league. That’s by design.
When he was coaching in Phoenix, Ainge thought the front office was too large and that the best information wasn’t coming from the veteran basketball men on the staff, but from a pair of interns in the video room. Since then, Ainge has stayed away from old-guard basketball men. “I really don’t owe anybody anything,” he says. “I don’t owe a friend a job.”
For all of his outward bravado, Ainge tends to be a loner, especially among his peers. When he’s on the road scouting, he prefers the solitude of his hotel room to hanging out with the boys after the game. His staff is small, but also fiercely loyal. Over the years, the mainstay has been Mike Zarren, a Harvard Law grad and stats maven whose only prior connection to basketball was as a Celtics season-ticket holder. Zarren started as an intern around the time Ainge took over. “There’s no hierarchy here at all,” Zarren says. “Obviously he’s making the decisions at the end, but he wants to hear what everyone thinks.”
Ainge’s son Austin also serves as director of player personnel—he started in scouting and then went to coach the team’s D-League affiliate before returning. In a recent column, the Globe’s Bob Ryan hinted that Austin’s growing influence troubled Doc Rivers. Austin, who spends about a third of theseason on the road, was surprised by the insinuation.
The small group, which also includes 26-year-old scouting director Dave Lewin,allows for a tightly knit, freewheeling dynamic. Ainge is mostly known for debating endlessly, even going against his own position just to see how strongly his staffers believe in their convictions. “I expect them to have answers for choices they make, and I expect them to know everybody they should know,” Ainge says. “If you don’t work around here, you won’t last.”
When the Celtics draft a player, they’ll have watched every possession during which he was on the court in his final year of college. That type of attention to detail, it seems, is what gives Ainge so much confidence in his process. As does his endless arguing and critical self-examination. “If anything, he’s overly skeptical at times,” Zarren says.
There is a feeling with some around the league, though, that Ainge has been more lucky than good. And that after living off the KG trade for so long, it’s time for his comeuppance.
Ainge figured he’d bring them back again. Garnett had a no-trade clause. Pierce is a franchise legend whose number will no doubt be raised to the rafters. “If we didn’t get anything in return that’s worthwhile, then Paul and KG retire as Celtics and I’m completely satisfied and happy with that result,” Ainge says.
Ainge adds that Pierce and Garnett have more good basketball left in them, provided they don’t have to carry the team as they did in Boston. That was an annual debate inside the front office—trade rumors abounded each year—but he stubbornly refused to move them until he could get what he felt was equal value.
The deal came together relatively quickly, but was the culmination of months of other conversations between Ainge and his Brooklyn counterpart, Billy King. The free-spending Nets were one of the few teams willing to take on the veterans’ contracts, and they were also willing to part with three prized first-rounders and give Boston the right to swap picks in a future season. The Celtics also sent Jason Terry to Brooklyn and, since the NBA requires that teams exchange nearly equal amounts of salary in trades, received from the Nets a raft of inferior players, including Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.
The picks represent hope for the Celtics, but hope won’t help you beat LeBron James. “There are no guarantees,” Ainge says. “The only guarantee that we knew was that Paul and KG and the team we had constituted could not win a championship, and we also knew they were probably done in a year or two. Those were the only things we knew for sure.”
The trade’s real value is in the details. It’s common practice for teams trading their picks to “protect” them, which essentially means that, should the pick fall in the top three or five or 10 selections, they get to keep it. What was remarkable about the haul from the Nets was that all three—one in 2014, 2016, and another in 2018—are unprotected, as is the one from the Clippers in 2015, meaning the Celtics will get them wherever they fall. The worse those teams fare, the better Ainge’s trade will look.
Ainge expects the Nets will be good this season, but by 2016 and 2018 those picks could be extremely valuable, either as selections or possible trade chips. Every day that Brooklyn’s players grow older, the value of Ainge’s assets increases. The Celtics were smart about the fine print, acquiring a so-called trade exception that helps the team work around the rule requiring nearly equal amounts of salary to be exchanged in trades. Then there’s the contract for new guard Keith Bogans. To make the salaries balance in the Nets trade, Ainge agreed to sign him for three years at a wildly inflated rate of $5 million per year (about $4 million more than he ordinarily would have gotten). But only one of those years is guaranteed, and since Bogans can be jettisoned at the end of this season, he could be an attractive trade target for a team trying to clear space beneath the salary cap. This is how business gets done in the NBA these days, thanks to the byzantine salary-cap rules. Everything has value, whether it’s picks and players or contracts and exceptions, but you have to know where to look to maximize your chances.
The consensus among rival executives is that Ainge made out like a bandit, but it wasn’t a clean getaway. For now, the Celtics are way over the salary cap and bumping up against the league’s luxury tax, which limits their ability to maneuver. But that’s a short-term problem, and Ainge, as usual, is thinking three steps ahead. The Celtics have only a handful of contracts on the books beyond the 2014–2015 season—the future is out there, clean and beckoning. None of this guarantees that Ainge will be able to successfully rebuild the team, but now there are options.