Danny Ainge Goes 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.
Here’s the thing to understand about Danny Ainge’s master plan: It doesn’t exist. There are no secret step-by-step memos hidden in his office at the Celtics’ Waltham practice facility, nor is there a blueprint-filled safe. What does exist in his office is a window, through which Ainge can see down onto the practice court. On this particular August day, when he looks out, he does not see Rajon Rondo, since the star point guard is still sidelined with a torn ACL. And he certainly does not see Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce. Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, shipped the franchise icons to Brooklyn earlier in the summer. Instead, Ainge watches a bunch of unproven youngsters and veteran journeymen. To Celtics fans this season, they’ll most likely look like an unholy mess. To Ainge right now, they look like poker chips.
Ainge is not particularly sentimental, but scanning his office, it’s hard to miss the handful of reminders of the not-so-distant past. A large 2008 championship banner hangs on the wall behind him, while a pair of unpopped champagne bottles from the celebration stand sentry beside the championship ring gleaming from the front of his desk.
That team was Ainge’s crowning achievement as an executive. It took five years of dealing and scheming to get sure-fire Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Garnett to join Pierce and lead the Celtics to their first championship in 22 years. It took him less than a week to tear it all down.
The machinations started in late June, when Ainge released coach Doc Rivers from his contract to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, in exchange for a first-round draft pick. A few days later, Ainge made the blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets, swapping Pierce and Garnett for three more first-round draft picks, giving him a total of nine over the next five seasons—more than any other team in the league—and, crucially, even more chips to play with.
Ainge says he would have made the trade a year ago if he could have found a taker, even though his team was still wildly popular, having come within a single game of reaching the NBA Finals. “We didn’t get anywhere close to the amount of picks we ended up getting this summer,” Ainge says. “Those weren’t available. Anywhere. Even one first-round pick.”
Ainge has now brought the Celtics to a franchise-altering crossroads. And today, as he leads basketball’s most storied organization down this uncertain path, he’s come to work dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and a team polo shirt. Even at 54 years of age, Ainge still carries himself with the jockish confidence that defined him during his 14 years playing as one of the premier agitators in the NBA.
During his glory days with the Celtics, he once proudly borrowed a T-shirt from heckling fans in Detroit with the words “I hate Danny Ainge” written across the chest and wore it during warmups. Not much has changed. Last season, hours after he chided Heat star LeBron James for complaining about officials, his Miami counterpart, Pat Riley, said, “Danny Ainge needs to shut the fuck up and manage his own team.” Ainge, who has never appeared to care much what people think of him, doesn’t seem likely to take that advice. “The criticism doesn’t bother me, if it’s informed,” he tells me. “If it’s not informed, then it doesn’t bother me.”
It’s that carefree ease—or, from a less-charitable perspective, arrogance—that forms the popular perception of Ainge as a guy who lives life hitting on 17 while wondering why everyone else is content to stand. But his bravado is balanced with a meticulous, analytical approach, more calculated than impulsive. He may not have a master plan, but he does have a method. And though Ainge is not positive that his method will be able to bring the Celtics another title, he is extremely confident that his method is right.
“I don’t do this job because I have to have it,” Ainge says. “I’m not afraid of making a mistake. I do have a fear of failure that drives me. At the same time, the people I admire in the business are the people who are willing to take some chances. There are no guarantees. You have to be willing to take the shot.”
With the Celtics now on the brink of sweeping change, we’re about to find out just how well earned Ainge’s confidence is. There’s a chance that he will lead the Celtics back to championship glory, just as there’s a possibility that the team will go tumbling down the NBA’s rabbit hole. Confident as ever, Ainge can live with the uncertainty. Whether Celtics fans can is another question.
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Ainge was a three-sport star of such magnitude that in 1999 Sports Illustrated named him the greatest athlete in the state’s history. He was drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays and was playing second and third base in the majors by his 20th birthday. “The NBA didn’t really inspire me as much as Major League Baseball,” he says. “Playing in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, those were inspirational places for me.”
Ainge hit just .187 in his third and final big-league season, yet when I asked him if he would have become a successful baseball player, he didn’t hesitate to answer, “I know I would have been.”
But baseball was just his summer job. During the school year, he was earning All-American honors at Brigham Young University on the basketball court, winning numerous player of the year honors during his senior season. When Ainge joined the Celtics in 1981, his new teammates, fresh off winning a championship, couldn’t wait to take the fair-haired golden boy down a peg. As he bricked shot after shot in his first scrimmage, his new coach, Bill Fitch, mockingly said to him, “Not as easy as you thought, is it?” Actually, Ainge was thrilled. “In my mind, I’m thinking, Holy crap, I got any shot I wanted,” he says. “I’m used to facing box-and-ones and double-teams in college.”
But his early years with the Celtics were difficult, as he clashed repeatedly with his hard-ass coach. “He buried me, and I became a whipping boy,” Ainge says. “I had no confidence for the first time in my life. I had no rhythm. My game was a disaster. Peter Vecsey called me Danny Aint, which I thought was really funny and clever. But it was true. I wasn’t a player.”
Basketball was far from the only thing weighing on his mind. In the first week of training camp before his second season, his mother, Kay, committed suicide, following a lengthy battle with depression. Things came to a head with Fitch later that season, when the coach yanked him out one too many times and Ainge cursed him out on the court. The confrontation continued in the locker room before they finally made peace. Ainge still doesn’t think much of Fitch’s old-school approach. “Personally I think it’s all crap, and I don’t think he toughened me up,” Ainge says.
He eventually found his groove with the Celtics and went on to win two championships, carving out his own niche alongside five future Hall of Famers. After being traded to Sacramento in 1989, he appeared in the NBA Finals with the Blazers and Suns, retiring finally as the NBA’s third-leading all-time three-point shooter.
Less than two years after he retired, Ainge took over coaching duties with the Suns, winning 60 percent of his games before abruptly leaving, saying that he wanted to spend more time with family. In 2003 the new Celtics ownership group, led by Irv and Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, brought him back to Boston to take over basketball operations. Ainge was now in charge of a team that hadn’t won a championship since he’d been in uniform.
It was not long into his tenure before Ainge earned the nickname “Trader Danny.” Raef LaFrentz was in for Antoine Walker—and soon LaFrentz was sent packing himself. Gary Payton made an appearance and then was traded for Walker, who was gone again less than six months later. Round and round it went. Ainge’s moves didn’t always appear to have a clear purpose, as building a coherent roster became less important than collecting players, contracts, and draft picks—“assets,” in NBA parlance—that other teams might find valuable. It was all with an eye toward ultimately building up enough assets to trade for a franchise player.
By the summer of 2007, Ainge was targeting Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett. Many around the NBA think that Ainge was ultimately able to make the KG deal because of his friendship with former Celtics teammate Kevin McHale, who was running the Timberwolves at the time. “I don’t really have a lot of respect for that opinion,” Ainge says. “Kevin ain’t helping me. Kevin and I are very close friends, but we’re trying to compete with each other.”
What did help, Ainge says, is that the Celtics had Al Jefferson, a young, low-post scorer whom McHale coveted. McHale and Ainge had actually worked out a deal for Garnett on draft day in 2007, but when KG balked at signing an extension in Boston, it fell apart. Ainge says he then turned his attention to acquiring Ray Allen—whom he nabbed from the Seattle SuperSonics in a five-player deal.
“I knew that McHale still liked Al and so that allowed us to keep talking, but it didn’t appear there would be a deal,” Ainge says. With Allen in the fold, though, Garnett felt assured that the Celtics could compete, and dropped his opposition to Boston.
With the Big Three in place, the Celtics went on to win the title, and seemed poised for a run of dominance. But just as Ainge was basking in the afterglow of the 2008 championship, he found out that his next year was going to be even more complicated than he thought. He was called to serve as a bishop for the Mormon congregation encompassing Wellesley, Needham, Natick, Dover, and Weston. Forget 15 basketball players—he would now essentially be responsible for more than 400 members of his congregation.
“I honestly didn’t know how I would do it,” Ainge says. “I’m grateful that I did accept the calling. I’m grateful that I had enough faith to accept it and receive it and I don’t think it hindered my job. If anything I think it helped me become a better person and a better leader.”
Ainge and his wife, Michelle, have six children and 11 grandchildren, and he has served numerous callings in the Mormon Church. He rarely talks publicly about his work with the church. While he was bishop, even his closest spiritual advisers didn’t always know everything he was doing, including opening his home to members of the congregation who needed help. “I would find out through third parties they were hosting so-and-so for a month because they had gotten evicted, or so-and-so had run into issues with drugs or alcohol, or they just needed a place to stay,” says Brendaen Makechnie, who served as one of Bishop Ainge’s counselors.
Ainge believes his calling as bishop was aided by his experiences working with players. “I always sort of felt like I was the grandfather of some of the players, particularly the younger players, and Doc was the dad,” Ainge says. “And he was a tough dad. They would come up here and talk to Grandpa, and I would try to calm them down.”
If Ainge was a grandpa, he was a uniquely Machiavellian one. He spent the next five years wheeling and dealing—willing to ship any of his “grandkids” out of town at any moment—to try to get his team another title. But it never happened. The Celtics stumbled through a season of unremarkable mediocrity before suffering a painful first-round playoff loss to the Knicks, during which scoring points seemed like an impossible chore. As the proud Celtics core limped off the court one final time, an air of impending doom hovered around the Garden. No one knew what the future would bring, not even the man responsible for making the decision.
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.
Ainge may lack a master plan, but that’s not to say that he and his front office haven’t pored through countless scenarios and possible outcomes. He’s stockpiled the assets and created the flexibility he wants—from there he’ll take his chances. That tends to make people uneasy, but Ainge shrugs. Even Celtics legend Red Auerbach caught some breaks.
“Building a championship team is blown a little bit out of proportion,” he says. “We can all say there’s been pretty amazing luck in every championship team ever made. Whatever the story is of how Red landed Bill Russell, there was some good fortune there. And Bill Russell turned out to be Bill Russell.”
In the interim, the Celtics will almost certainly struggle. The main criticism of Ainge’s plan right now is actually that they won’t be bad enough to take advantage of what’s expected to be a deep draft next spring. In other words, that they aren’t tanking to “win,” as one of the league’s worst teams, a top pick.
“It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to live that,” Ainge says. “You have sponsorships, you have television, you have players that you’re trying to develop that become of no value when your team just can’t win a game. You have season-ticket holders that don’t get their value. You have coaches that get critiqued and blamed. There’s nothing good about losing except the possibility of a good draft pick.”
Some have suggested that Rajon Rondo should be dealt so the team can truly bottom out. But Ainge says he wants to see how the mercurial point guard adjusts to life asthe team’s undisputed best player. “There’s a lot of questions that we don’t know the answers to,” Ainge says. “And so I think that’s always fun.”
Ainge is also all too aware that tanking can be a bad bet. In 1985 the NBA instituted a lottery designed specifically to prevent the practice. All of the non-playoff teams are given a shot to win the top three picks—the worse you are, the better your odds—but even the bottom team has only a 25 percent chance of getting the top selection.
In 1997 the Celtics assembled the worst team in franchise history in an obvious ploy to draft Tim Duncan with the top pick. The Ping-Pong balls bounced wrong, and it would be five more years before they made the playoffs again. Ten years later, with Ainge in charge, the draft prizes were Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, and the Celtics willingly went into free fall after Pierce suffered an injury. They wound up with the fifth pick. By then Ainge knew he needed a backup plan, and he was eventually able to turn his collection of interesting assets into Garnett and Allen.
At that time, Ainge placed his trust in coach Doc Rivers, despite many calling for his head. Now, Ainge has gone all in on another coach: His final big splash of this summer was the hiring of 36-year-old Brad Stevens from Butler University to replace Rivers. As is typical with Ainge, the move caught almost everyone off-guard, but was, in truth, long in the making. Ainge studied Stevens for years, scrutinizing his Butler teams and picking the coach’s brain about players around draft time. Ainge likes to know how people think as much as what they think, and he was drawn to Stevens’s analytical approach, as well as his low-key demeanor.
Ainge had observed Stevens up close before, too. When Ainge attended the 2010 national-championship game between Butler and Duke, moments before tip-off, he turned to Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, a Duke alum, and said, “There’s the best coach in college basketball.” Pagliuca thought Ainge was referring to Mike Krzyzewski. He wasn’t.
Stevens’s name was discussed by several other NBA teams with coaching vacancies, but nobody else was prepared to offer what Ainge could: an unprecedented six-year contract. No other coach in the NBA has a six-year contract. Not one. On the one hand, it’s audacious—college coaches with no NBA experience have often faired poorly. And on the other, it virtually guarantees that Stevens will have time to grow into his job along with his players, who now know they won’t be able to easily run him out of town. It’s also classic Ainge: Even if Stevens struggles, it only means that he needs more time.
As the Celtics enter a new phase that will be marked by an inexperienced roster and a rookie coach, Ainge knows that his role in the organizational patriarchy may have to change. He’s not about to become Bill Fitch, but the days of playing indulgent grandfather to Rivers’s tough-love dad, he says, appear to be over: “Maybe I need to be a more stern grandfather now.”
“It just feels like now there’s a freshness,” Ainge says. “It’s a restart, a reboot, and we’ll see if we can do it again.”
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