Is it time to blame Danny Ainge?

In case you’ve been totally ignoring the Celtics this year (in which case good for you) allow me to fill you in on what’s been going on. We’re now 26 games into the season and the Celtics are a .500 team. They currently sit at 5th in the East with a record of 13-13 and are 4.5 games behind the first place 76ers (yuck). Before the season started, I expected a slow start with Kemba and Romeo being sidelined for the long term, losing Hayward in the offseason, and the shortened break between seasons, not to mention that our first two games were against the Bucks and Nets. After starting 1-2 they went on a solid stretch at 8-1 over their next 9 games, albeit against teams that currently have a record of .500 or worse with the exception of Indiana. Since that stretch, the Celtics have gone 6-9 including losses to the Pistons and Washington, both teams at the bottom of the East. The season looked hopeful at first but now is quite worrisome. I know how a lot of Celtics fans are going to answer this question, but it time to blame Danny Ainge for the team’s performance?

The answer is no. At least not yet. I will admit that I am frustrated hearing that the Celtics are always rumored to be interested in major free agents and trade targets but rarely pull the trigger. That being said, a lot of the Celtics fans I see on twitter seem to be very short sighted or have unrealistic expectations of the team’s championship timeline. While it would be nice to have a championship under our belt and it’s felt like we’ve been close, we were not expected to be title favorites by this time if you go back and look where we were 5 years ago. Tatum and Brown are 22 and 24 years old, respectively. They are a top 5 duo in the league and have been to the conference finals 3 times in the past 4 years already. Neither of them were consensus picks when Danny took them, and in fact many people ripped Danny for picking them when he did. Both of them were taken 3rd in their respective drafts and both of them are now the best players from their draft classes.

Beyond those two, Danny has tried to put some solid pieces around them to build a real championship contender. He’s signed major free agents like Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker. He also made the blockbuster trade to bring Kyrie Irving to the Celtics. For one reason or another none of these transactions have translated to championships yet, but Danny cannot be blamed for a lack of trying. All of these players were All-Stars at the time the Celtics acquired them, if not better. On top of these major transactions Danny has also tried to bring in impactful role players with Marcus Morris, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe, and now Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson. I can’t be the only one who was happy with each signing at the time but was then disappointed after watching them play on the team with the exception of Baynes and Morris.

Again, Danny has put in effort to bring in the pieces, but the team has failed to execute, and I don’t think he deserves the blame for it. Yes, there were other bigger free agents and trade assets who were available at the times, but who knows if they even wanted to play in Boston or if the other teams believed they were getting enough back?

Danny catches a lot of flak for “hording” draft picks instead of throwing them for big name players, and admittedly he has had some misses, but I think a lot of fans overvalue the picks when it comes to trades, not to mention that fact that other teams seem to be scared of trading with Danny after what happened with the Nets. Beyond that there is a lot of potential on our bench, all in the form of draft picks. Payton Pritchard, the 26th pick in this year’s draft has been exceeding expectations and playing like a vet. Rob Williams has slowly been going from an end of the bench guy to a promising piece for the big man rotation. Grant has been having a rough season so far, but he was a solid role player during the playoffs in just his rookie season. Semi, similarly, to Rob, has never been a major contributor to the team, but this season he is the only player on the team not named Jaylen, Jayson, or Kemba to lead the team in scoring in a game. His shot has dramatically improved, and if he keeps improving his all-around play on the court, I could see him turning into a PJ Tucker Lite type of player. All of these guys are within their first 4 years in the league, and while they don’t exactly translate to a championship-caliber bench, they have a future in this league.

Then there’s other guys like Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, and Tacko Fall who we just haven’t had much opportunity to see play yet. I’ve seen countless fans ripping Danny for drafting them over some of the other players who seem to be playing better so far, and then see the same fans turn around and rip Brad Stevens for not playing them enough. There’s only so many minutes to go around in a game, and I’m sure these guys have potential to be contributors in the future, but at this point Brad does not think they are consistently NBA ready yet, and being that he knows what goes on during practices he should be trusted to be able to judge that.

Now looking at the position the team is in right now it’s hard not to panic and say that we need to have a fire sale with the exception of Jayson, Jaylen, Marcus, and maybe Pritchard. I won’t say that we should stay pat with what we have because it’s clearly not working right now, but things are not as drastic as they seem. When I said Danny should not be blamed yet I really want to emphasize the yet. As a result of the Gordon Hayward sign and trade the Celtics have an opportunity to bring in a great player who might not normally fit under the cap by using the TPE (Traded Player Exception). There have been some big names floating around in trade rumors (ex. Andre Drummond, Kyle Lowry, John Collins, Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, etc.) but it’s not likely that any of them will be moved until much closer to the trade deadline if at all.

While some of those names may not fit under the TPE (Beal), fit the Celtics style/timeline (Drummond), or just cost too much or not really be available (Lowry), there are pieces that could compliment the Jays nicely and provide some good depth in areas that the team is lacking. To know more about those guys go check out my fellow writer, Andrew O’Connor’s “Trade Exception Targets” articles (which are still being updated so keep an eye out for future articles) *here*. The important thing, however, is that Danny makes use of that TPE. 

This team is not better than it was last year despite the elevated play of the Jays and a few other guys. Kemba has not been playing at the same level as he was last year and the team is really feeling the loss of Gordon Hayward. Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson don’t seem to fit in to the Celtics’ system and have been disappointing so far. This team is in desperate need of size and scoring, and if Danny cannot make it happen and lets the TPE go to waste then I will join you guys in saying that he is responsible for the team’s lack of success. Right now, though, I believe that Danny has handled the team pretty well. Being a GM is not as simple as many people make it out to be, and something that shows that perfectly is the loss of Hayward this offseason.

Whether as a result of following the twitter buzz too closely, listening to guys like Nick Wright and Max Kellerman, or just not following along very closely at all a lot of folks blame Danny for “missing” on Myles Turner and Doug McDermott in a potential Hayward sign-and-trade with Indiana. What these people don’t seem to realize is that Danny had no real power in the situation. Gordon Hayward was technically a free agent at the time, so in the end he got to pick his final destination. Charlotte offered the most money and gave him an opportunity to be the star again. Danny would not have been able to send Hayward to Indy for Turner and McDermott without Hayward also approving it, so the fact that he was still able to get a TPE out of the situation should be a relief for C’s fans.

I, just like almost all Celtics fans, am pretty frustrated with the current state of the team, but Danny should not be the scapegoat. I’m sure he will make a significant push to bolster up the roster closer to the trade deadline and this season is still very salvageable. Honestly, even if this season does end up being a wash the future still looks bright with both Jayson and Jaylen under contract for at least another 3 years. Keep your heads up, C’s fans. It may be a bumpy ride but it’s not time to turn back just yet.

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