Danny Ainge may be one of the smartest men in the business of basketball, but, just as he did as a player, he still often wears his heart on his sleeve. Yet as a pivotal off season begins for Ainge and his staff, the Ainge-isms are nowhere to be found -- in stark contrast to this time a year ago:
Ainge has taken the same stance on the overall roster complexion, saying he has "no sense" of what the roster will look like. If you sense a disturbance in the force hearing such a renowned basketball mind professes to have zero idea what his roster might look like in the near future, then the era of media-savvy executives has taught you well. Because while Ainge may be telling the truth, he most certainly is not telling the whole truth.Ainge last year: "We're excited about Jae (Crowder)." Ainge today: "I can't talk about free agents, even our own free agents." Alright.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) May 4, 2016
What is the whole truth? That would be that it isn't that Ainge doesn't have a clue of what his roster will look like -- he just doesn't know which specific possibilities he effectively has in hand will come to fruition.
Return with me, if you will, to a simpler time -- a time when Kobe Bryant could score sixty points without taking 56 shots, and your choice of President was between a black man and a war hero and not between a walking tan and a robot. I speak of course of 2008, the last year the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship on the back of two stunning moves; the acquisition of both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
in the lottery, Paul Pierce, at the zenith of a Job-esque journey to the mountaintop, held the Larry O'Brien trophy aloft as he cried, while Kevin Garnett stood next to him declaring to the world that anything is possible, and the man behind the curtain, Ainge himself, simply stood amidst the crowd soaking it all in.
But what few of us remember is that those Celtics nearly had an entirely different complexion from the one that brought home banner 17. It is oft-repeated that the Celtics never could have convinced Garnett to come to Boston without first acquiring Allen, which is simply a fact. What the simplicity of that fact ignores, however, is that Sugar Ray was only one of a variety of possibilities Ainge had prepared to help bolster the roster around incumbent star Paul Pierce.
In fact, the Celtics had the framework of deals for both an in-their-prime Shawn Marion and Marcus Camby in place before both teams' pursuits of established players (with the Suns also angling for Garnett) derailed them. Despite losing out on his first two choices, however, Ainge finally made his way down the list and called then Supersonics GM Sam Presti about Allen. The rest, as they say, is history.
These factoids have more than just a nostalgic tint to them. Looking back at Ainge's history, it can be said with some confidence that Ainge probably already has something up is sleeve depending on a few key variables.There are three main takeaways to be had from this assumption, all of which come together to show that, while Ainge can't know what will happen, he already knows that something will. In a very particular order, they are...
1) If the Celtics are in the top 2 of the draft, no player is off limits
Much of the angst over the Celtics' chances at transforming into a true contender is the uncertainty surrounding the lottery. But the simple truth of the matter is, if the Celtics land in the top two, Ainge will have effectively won a free shopping spree at Superstars R' Us.
The hot name that comes up in a discussion around trading a top two pick is Kings' center Demarcus Cousins (the Lakers reportedly offered the number two pick for him just last year). But if the scenario actually arises, the number of players Ainge simply could not acquire is about as long as Charles Barkeley's version of the dictionary.
Players like James Harden, stuck on a mostly talentless Rockets team, or Paul George, who has seen three of his four starting teammates from the halcyon days of their playoff tilts with the Miami Heat, suddenly become feasible targets. And for an executive as aggressive as the man they call Trader Danny, trading such a pick shouldn't seem too far fetched.
Here again we can look back to 2008 and see how Ainge can almost be assured of acquiring some type of high-level established talent. While losing the lottery gave the Celtics Allen, and therefore Garnett, it is altogether possible that, had the Celtics won the lottery, that pick replaces Al Jefferson as the centerpiece in the Garnett deal. After all, though Ainge has admitted he would have drafted Kevin Durant over Greg Oden had they received the top pick, he has never made any assurance that they would not have used that pick as ammunition to acquire KG.
2) If the Celtics fall in the lottery, Ainge may already have a deal in place
While landing a top two pick is the optimal course for the Celtics, the fact is their most likely landing spot, statistically, is the fifth pick overall (26.5% chance, according to Brian Robb of boston.com). In what many consider to be a two-man draft many fans have decried that picking at the third or fourth spot will do nothing but add to Ainge's pool of "assets", rather than elevating the team a step closer to its 18th title.
That is probably true. And that is why Danny Ainge probably laid the groundwork to deal such a pick months ago.
Think back to this year's trade deadline. Rumors swirled in the days after, as multiple reports indicated that the Celtics had come close to acquiring a high-profile player before the deal fell apart in the waning minutes. Many pegged the target as the Pelicans' Anthony Davis, while a subsequent report stated that the prize was actually Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler and that the deal fell apart due to Chicago's insistence on the inclusion of Jae Crowder.
They had preliminary discussions with the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics, but when the Celtics wouldn’t put promising forward Jae Crowder in their package of picks and players, there was no realistic possibility of a trade. -- Vincent Goodwill, CSN Chicago
At the time, many pointed to the uncertainty of the upcoming pick owed to Boston via Brooklyn as the catalyst for the mystery deal falling apart. After all, while Brooklyn was by no means playing effective basketball, the Phoenix Suns were hot on their heels for the third worst lottery odds, and a fall to the fifth worst record hardly seemed impossible.
At this point, however, it is almost a certainty that the Celtics will be in the top 5, and have a good chance to be in the top 4. If that is the case, then the mystery deal that was could easily become the megadeal to be.
Let us use Butler as an example. If a proposed deal to send him to Boston was discussed, it almost certainly included at least one of the three picks owed to Boston via the Brooklyn Nets. In the original scenario, the inclusion of Crowder gave the Bulls the assurance that, even if the pick fell, they would have received a viable player in the deal who still has room to improve -- a sort of fail safe to guard against the ravages of lottery luck.
With the pick firmly in the top 5, however, the dynamic changes drastically. The prospects in that range are several steps above those projected in the later lottery, especially in what many view as a weak draft. As such, the Bulls may no longer have the leverage to insist Crowder's inclusion -- and if they refuse to back down on the former Marquette star, then Ainge can really switch it up and include one of the other Nets' picks and use the current one to help fill the void left by Crowder (Jaylen Brown jumps to mind as a possible replacement).
The Butler example is just one scenario that we (pretty much) know Ainge has already engaged in. As the James Harden saga in Oklahoma City showed us, some deals never see the light of day until they are already in motion, and as we (definitely) know, Ainge will sniff around any player he thinks he could possibly get, at any time.
3) Regardless of the lottery, Ainge's free agent pitch will be improved by July 1
While shocking trades do happen, the vast majority of deals in the NBA are the result of predictable factors such as salary-matching, team style, and fit. Free agency is a totally different animal.
No trade is going to fall through simply because Kevin Durant can't stand cold winters, or because Al Horford really likes his children's school system (both hypotheticals, obviously). But when you pitch a player on joining your team entirely of their own free will, extraneous factors come into play, and it is damn near impossible to know how a player feels about every detail that could sway their decision.
The only universal factor that free agents find attractive is talent, both in the now and in the future. And whether it is drafting the next big thing, trading a top pick for a true superstar or having another star's signature already drying on a contract, by the time Danny Ainge sits down to a nice Chipotle dinner with Kevin Durant to sell him on his future with the Boston Celtics, his roster will be dramatically improved. Whether that sways Durant, or any other major free agent, is still anyone's guess, but it is true nonetheless.
So when Danny Ainge tells you he has no idea what his roster will look like when the team comes together for training camp, don't believe him. rather, look to his comments that this off season he and his team have "plan A-Z, when we normally have plan A-G", and remember what he really means; that at least one of plans A-Z is going to happen. We just don't know which one yet.
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Photo courtesy Brian Babineaux via Gettimages
All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com
Brenton Bauerle 5/06/2016 07:35:00 PM Tweet Edit