The great ones, the great ones measure themselves not by what others think of them, but rather what they think of themselves. Does anyone truly think that Bill Belichick cares what you think of him? What the media thinks of him? Second guess him? He couldn’t give 2 ducks less.
The joke making the rounds on social media was that I hoped someone loved me as much as Danny Ainge loves draft picks. Boogie Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Blake Griffin. All had either been rumored to be targeted by Boston, or their lack of acquisition was lamented as an example of Danny Ainge being gun shy.
What had Ainge done lately anyways? Sure, he put together the 2nd coming of the Big 3 (The original Big 3 in Boston will always be Bird, Parish, and McHale),and he fleeced Brooklyn for their future, but what were all these draft picks worth if he wasn’t going to do anything with them (Besides of course, use them for players)?
June 2016, with the 3rd pick in the draft the talk of the town is moving the pick to Chicago for Jimmy Butler, or possibly keeping it for local(ish) college star Kris Dunn. Does Ainge care? Nope. He goes ahead and drafts the raw Jaylen Brown out of California. A kid widely considered a top prospect coming out of high school the previous summer. But folks said he couldn’t shoot, that he was raw. Many analysts agreed that there was a drop off after the top 2 picks, and that Brown was in that next tier, they just thought that he was towards the bottom of that pecking order, not sitting atop it.
All Brown did was come in, keep his head down, bust his ass in practice, earn every minute given to him, display the raw athleticism that made him so highly touted coming out of high school, go head to head with the game’s best while not backing down an inch, and oh yeah, shot 34% from three point land for the season. Not Steph Curry levels, but not exactly brick city either.
This offseason began after a deep run in the playoffs. A run that saw the Celtics lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 4 games to 1. The Celtics may have won the regular season eastern conference crown. That and a Charlie Card will get you onto The T in Boston.
This was a city feeling pretty high. Yes, King James still resided in Cleveland, a road block to be sure, but this team was fun to watch, they won more than their share of games, they had won the draft lottery, that number 1 overall pick was on its way. Fan favorite, the little guy, Isaiah Thomas, had finished in the top 5 for MVP voting after what has to be considered a magical year. Things were all lucky clovers in Boston.
A tweak here or there, add consensus top prospect Markelle Fultz with that pick, and this team will be back in business.
Well, Danny Ainge had other plans. Undoubtedly, he had many plans. I’ve met Danny Ainge once. I was about 5 when he made an appearance at a bank opening in Brockton, Massachusetts. I’ve stood next to him in the Red Rock Casino sportsbook watching some of the late games. And I’ve been to his office a couple of times at the Celtics’ Healthpoint practice facility (granted, he wasn’t there at the time), so really, its safe to say that I’m close personal friends with Danny.
As Danny’s close personal friend, I’m going to share with you what his doctors found during his last physical. It was a bit off putting at first, the doc asked him to turn his head and cough, but when he reached down he felt something odd.
That’s right, he was feeling Ainge’s balls of steel. He walked out of that office, he had the #1 pick in his side pocket, a little bit of cap room in his hand, and in his back pockets he had an All NBA defender, and the league’s second leading scorer. Everything after that was Ainge saying Duck It!, I’m gonna do what I feel is best, and don’t really care what yall think.
Step one, take that number one pick and flip it for the number three pick. Allude to the fact that you think you can get your target. In the meantime you add another premium draft pick to your cache of picks.
You go ahead and select Duke’s Jayson Tatum. Some people are happy, some wanted Kansas’ Josh Jackson once you slid down to 3. Again, you don’t care what others think. All Tatum will do in his first professional game is to hit the game winner against number 1 pick Markelle Fultz and the Philadelphia 76ers.
By time summer league is over no one in Boston is asking about Fultz, they’re all too busy thinking of nicknames for the Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum pairing.
After a year of the will they-won’t they, Ross and Rachel thing that Ainge had going with the Chicago Bulls and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls tell Ainge that they were on a break, and consummate a deal with Minnesota sending Butler north for Kris Dunn, Zach Lavine, and Lauri Markannen. The national media takes to questioning if the Bulls could have gotten more, and the local Boston media is wondering if Ainge is asleep at the wheel, letting his white wale slip through his fingers, or at least that was the perception.
The next rumor is that the Celtics have a sequence of moves lined up, each one contingent upon the other. The end result being the additions of Gordon Hayward and Paul George. The order of operations though required the commitment of Hayward, a free agent, before George could be acquired via trade.
Seemingly out of no where the Indiana Pacers decide they can’t afford to wait on the Celtics and what may happen and send George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Again, it seems like Ainge was asleep at the wheel while a prime NBA veteran was moved. Why is he so afraid to make a move people ask. Maybe the Celtics would be better off if hometown boy Sam Presti was the GM of the Celtics instead of Oklahoma City.
Again, Ainge didn’t care. He refused to be influenced by public opinion. Instead he went out and wrestled Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz. To clear room, he sent Avery Bradley to Detroit for forward Marcus Morris, the same Marcus Morris that averaged 14 points a game and is scheduled to make only about $5 million a year for the next couple of years.
People were upset. Bradley had grown with the team, and was the last remaining vestige of the Garnett/Pierce/Allen era of Celtics basketball. But at least they still had “the little guy” Isaiah Thomas.
The addition of Hayward also meant the team had to renounce the rights to some veterans the fans had come to know. Kelly Olynyk, the hero of the Wizards series. Jonas Jerekbo, Gerald Green, Tyler Zeller, James Young, Amir Johnson, Jordan Mickey, and Demetrius Jackson, all gone.
Gutted was the veteran core of the team. In coming were rookies like Jayson Tatum, Abdel Nader, Guerschon Yabusele, Ante Zizic, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis.
NBA free agency had died down, the majority of the big names had been taken off the board and the league was settling in for their lone quiet month, August, before training camps ramped up in September. Then news broke that former Duke star and number one overall pick, Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. Just 25, the young star, and former champion, wanted out of Lebron’s shadow, a chance to spread his own wings and lead his own team.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst had reported that Kyrie had listed 4 teams that he’d like to be sent too, the Spurs, Wolves, Heat, and Knicks. Certainly, as he didn’t have a no trade clause, he didn’t exactly have the leverage to dictate where he went, but none the less, that was the info that was being made public.
Twitter exploded with numerous trade scenarios and proposals. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons had daily hypothetical Kyrie trades. Even YoureDuckingRight.com threw out some ideas:
It was generally expected that the Celtics would at least reach out, send some feelers, and that would be it. Why would the top 2 teams in the Eastern Conference do business? You generally don’t see the Yankees and Red Sox make many trades. There’s a reason, you don’t want to be on the bad end of any deal, but that is multiplied ten fold if you lose a trade to your primary competitor.
If the Cavs traded Kyrie away, and it was to a team that eventually beat them, it’d be like losing your girlfriend to some dude, AND having them drive away from the bar in your car. As such, the suggestion of Irving landing in Boston was fairly easily dismissed. Besides, if Ainge wouldn’t pony up one of the valued Brooklyn picks for Butler, Cousins, or George, why would he do it for Irving?
The reason is, Ainge thinks Irving is THAT good. News broke Tuesday that the Celtics and Cavaliers were seriously engaged in talks. Suddenly the cryptic way former Cavaliers GM David Griffin let out in an interview that Boston was one of Kyrie’s preferred destinations (it hadn’t been previously reported anywhere) seemed like more than a slip of the tongue.
For a brief few minutes, the twitterverse was all a flutter waiting to see what the deal would look like. What did the Celtics have that the Cavs wanted? Surely they wouldn’t give up the prized rookie Tatum, or all star Isaiah Thomas? Was Ainge finally going to part ways with a draft pick?
Then the news hit Boston like a ton of bricks, the little guy was leaving. Isaiah Thomas was headed out as part of the deal. It seemed like the fan base was split. Some believing that Irving was a downgrade from Thomas, and some that didn’t see the world through green colored lenses that recognized that as fun as Thomas was to watch, and as much as he had captured the hearts of the city, Irving was the superior player.
Suddenly the plan came into focus. After years of patiently waiting, Ainge had finally found the superstar he had yearned for. Make no mistake about it. Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, these are all stars. Gordon Hayward, an all star, a top 15-20 player in the league for certain. But Kyrie Irving is a superstar. It can be tough for the casual fan to recognize how good a star is, when he is developed under the shadow of another superstar. Klay Thompson is a stud player on both ends of the floor, but will always be overshadowed in Golden State by Steph Curry (and now Kevin Durant). Russell Westbrook had to have Durant step away to post an MVP season. It is clear, that Danny Ainge believes Kyrie Irving is THE guy.
With 60% of the roster already turned over, what was a couple more guys? Jae Crowder? A tremendous value of a contract, a very solid overall player. Defensively versatile, respectable outside shooter, and a gritty veteran that had endeared himself to fans.
Isaiah Thomas…. FAN FAVORITE, the mascot of the team, a nearly 30 points per game scorer who had come back to lead the team to playoff victories just days after the death of his little sister. … that’s what the outraged fan will say.
The reasonable fan will point out that it’d be a huge mistake to pay Thomas what he felt he was worth on his next contract. That he was a 5’8” (being generous) guard who relied on quickness that would be deep on the wrong side of 30 during his next contract, and was coming off a major hip injury. That in spite of what Thomas HAD done for the Celtics, it was the right time to move him.
Ainge took a page from the Book of Belichick. The one where it says he’d rather trade a player a year too early, than a year too late. That is exactly what Ainge did here. Thomas’ value was never going to be higher (and it was never THAT high, he is still an absolute defensive liability). If Ainge let him walk for nothing after the season, where would that leave the Celtics? And if they signed him long term? That’d probably be worse.
So Ainge made the move that he was looking to make all along. He wasn’t looking to make the Celtics better for one year, which the trade for Paul George would have done. Are the Cavaliers the favorite in the Eastern Conference in 2017-2018? Yeah, as long as Lebron James is healthy they are. But the 25 year old Irving is much more likely to be with the team when its time for 19 year old Jayson Tatum and 20 year old Jaylen Brown to shine.
Its been reported since the deal went down that Irving is ecstatic to join the Celtics and is very amenable to staying with them long term. Not a huge surprise given that he is a northeast kid from New York (New Jersey). His mother was from Boston, and his father has his number retired at Boston University. Kyrie even used to spend parts of his summer at Boston University’s basketball camp ( ONE TIME AT BBALL CAMP…. ). Add in the fact that while the youngsters mature their immense skill sets, the Celtics will be more than competitive. A threesome of Irving-Hayward-Horford is nothing to sneeze at, throw in contributions from Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart (who btw is now the heart and soul of the team. Others may be more skilled, but the intensity will emanate from Smart), and this is a team that, while they may not beat them, will stand toe to toe with the Cavaliers.
This move makes the Celtics’ ascension to the Eastern Conference thrown seem like a forgone conclusion. Like the Pistons had to push over the Celtics, like the Bulls had to move past the Pistons, so will the Celtics move past the Cavaliers when Lebron’s reign comes to an end. It may not come this year, but make no mistake, its coming.
The expectations will be high, this team could very well struggle out of the gate. After all only 4 players from last year’s squad returns. It will take a bit to build chemistry, as well for the team as a whole to find it’s identity. Also, they still will have 5 rookies on the roster, a high number to be sure. But Danny Ainge is the LittleFinger of the NBA, playing the long game, as long as the team is ready come March, April, May he’ll be okay. And if the struggles result in a less than stellar playoff result, it’ll be okay, Ainge and his balls of steel won’t care what you think anyways, and that it how the best in the business handle their business.
Last I checked the commissioner doesn’t hand out championship trophies to the most popular GM. While others out there are playing checkers, Ainge is once again showing that he is a grandmaster chess player. Making you feel like he’s foolish for sacrificing his knight, all the while he’s 10 moves ahead plotting his checkmate.
Don’t look now, but he just captured his king.
Find me on Twitter at @TopDucker