Danny Ainge is receiving his fair share of criticism of late, and a lot of it is in reaction to the Boston Celtics’ recent slump. The much talked about “window of opportunity” has come and gone, and everyone from Ainge to the fans on the street are in agreement on that point. Boston is having trouble competing in a weak, top-heavy Eastern Conference, and it pains everyone to see the redux of the Big Three Era coming to an end like this. But this more than about the Big Three. This is more about the big picture, and there is much debate over where we are now and where we’re headed as a franchise. At the center of it all is Ainge, and only he has the power and authority to write the next chapter. Only he can return this team to its former place in the league’s elite.
Before we look forward, perhaps it makes sense to take a look at Ainge’s body of work leading up to a very important summer of free agency. It’s safe to say that Ainge has a great eye for talent, and that he’s done a very good job of identifying solid players late in the draft. Al Jefferson is an excellent example. Big Al has proven to be a solid pro, and Ainge snagged him with the 15th overall selection in the 2004 NBA Draft. Ainge also selected Delonte West and Tony Allen with his other two first round picks that year. E’Twaun Moore and JuJuan Johnson have been revelations at various points this season. Avery Bradley continues to improve. So there is a body of work that supports this notion. But Ainge isn’t perfect in this regard. In 2008 the Celtics had the final pick in the first round. Ainge chose J.R. Giddens. Mario Chalmers and Bill Walker were still on the board. In 2005 he selected Gerald Green. High-energy David Lee went 12 picks later.
What this illustrates is that identifying NBA-caliber talent is a tricky proposition for even the best evaluator. It also illustrates that Ainge’s track record isn’t as sterling as it might appear on the surface. And when you project what Ainge might do with future picks, it’s hard to find comfort in the 2012 NBA Draft. Ainge might find a contributor, but he won’t find the next face of the franchise. And you know what happens to these types of pieces; Ainge bundles them up like a collection of toxic mortgages and ships them off in the name of upgrading the roster. Trade fodder. Every NBA exec does it. Ainge is no different. Only thing is, he really hasn’t been too swift in the trade department.
Before I go on, I know what you’re saying – he made the trades that made the Celtics into world champions. Indeed he did. But this may have been more about a confluence of events rather than a shrewd trading parnter. In other words, Ainge got lucky on two fronts. First, he tried to get Garnett but couldn’t. So, desperate to make a splash, he made the draft day trade that brought Ray Allen to the Celtics. Suddenly, Boston looked like a decent landing place for the ever-loyal Garnett. It also didn’t hurt that the Timberwolves were losing their grip in KG, and that Kevin McHale and Ainge are great pals. I’m not insinuating anything, but let’s just say that knowing McHale didn’t hurt.
Speaking of trades, the centerpiece of the Ray Allen trade was none other than Jeff Green, the same player that Ainge traded for last season. You know how I feel about the Kendrick Perkins trade. Horrible decision. It just is. Green may never play another minute for the Celtics. Perk, at last check, was healthy again and doing his usual solid job as center for the OKC Thunder. So I can’t give Ainge a pass in this department either. He’s hit or miss - just like any other average NBA exec.
And yet there is a contingent out there that thinks Ainge walks on water.
If he were, would he have signed Stephon Marbury or Rasheed Wallace? Would he bring in Shaq-geezer and jettisoned Perk to the Thunder? How one-sided does that trade look now?
But the Celtics couldn’t have afforded to keep Perk! That’s how that argument goes, right? Well, if I’m Ainge I don’t make that trade. Remember – the Celtics never lost a playoff series with the starting five of Perk, Pierce, KG, Rondo and Allen intact and healthy. Perk worked his ass off to get back on the court and help his boys win a title they should have one the season before.
So, all things considered, Ainge’s track record isn’t the gold standard. It’s just that you can’t name 5 truly premiere executives in the NBA. Riley had the cred and the smarts to bring LeBron and Bosh to Miami. There are some nice things going on in Chicago and OKC. And despite the Chris Paul fiasco that ultimately sent Lamar Odom to Dallas, Mitch Kupchak continues to beat out Ainge on almost every front. Don’t be surprised if you see Dwight Howard in a Lakers uniform soon. And don’t be surprised when the Lakers surpass the Celtics for all-time NBA championships shortly after Howard dons a Lakers jersey.
Now we look forward. The window of opportunity has slammed shut. Ray Allen is still capable of incredible shooting nights, and there isn’t a better citizen in the league. Allen is a family man, and he isn’t going to embarrass himself or his franchise. And he is the king of the deep ball – when he’s on, nobody can stroke it like Allen. But Allen can’t maintain that standard of on-court excellence like he used to. It happens to them all. Remember when Dr. J couldn’t cut it, and the Sixers moved him to the wing? Erving shot the ball from outside about as well as Rondo. Allen is still a fine player, but the Celtics need more than Allen. Will Ainge trade Allen before the deadline? Attempt to resign him after the season ends? Let him walk away an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season? Only Ainge has the answer to that, but I do know this: Based on past history, whatever Ainge decides to do with Ray Allen will be a complete and total crap-shoot.
The same goes for Garnett. It’s time to cut ties with KG, but the sad thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. Garnett just doesn’t have a reliable enforcer beside him, the guy willing and capable of doing the dirty work night in and night out. When Ainge traded Perk he immediately diminished KG. No ands, ifs or buts. KG is not the same player without Perk by his side. So, Ainge has another dilemma on his hands. Keep KG, trade KG, let KG walk. I don’t think Ainge even knows what to do with the Garnett card in his hand. My guess: He does nothing prior to the March 15 trade deadline and decides to ride this out and see where it goes. Talk about your irony – what if he’d done the same thing with Perk…?
Next up, Paul Pierce. Pierce’s name never seems to come up in trade rumors, and that’s probably because Ainge wants Piere to retire as a Celtic, like so many of the other Celtics greats. Again, no one knows for sure, but it’s hard to imagine Ainge parting with his captain.
If not Pierce, then what? Rajon Rondo? This is another area where Ainge’s dealings (or potential dealings) leave a lot to be desired. What good comes from trading Rondo, one of the league’s premiere point guards. You can’t convince me that the Paul trade scenario didn’t wound Rondo’s immense pride. And now Ainge is left to pick up the pieces. He’s left talking out of both sides of his mouth, telling Rondo that he should be flattered to even be considered for a potential trade. Whatever. I’m not buying it, and I’m sure Rondo isn’t, either.
So, where to from here? Only Ainge holds that key, but what we know says that the Celtics will only be marginally improved once the smoke clears. Perhaps it’s time for ownership to pull the trigger on a trade of their own and go in a whole new direction. How about someone like Bryan Colangelo? Geoff Petrie? Larry Bird?
At the end of the day, it will still be Ainge’s show to run, for however long he decides to run it.
And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.