Danny Ainge is a nice enough guy, and a smart enough guy, and he’s someone who has made his mark as a successful athlete-turned-sports-executive, and without his contributions at the helm of the Boston Celtics – our Boston Celtics – we would still be wandering the desert in search of our first NBA Championship since 1986. So I can’t really bust on the man, if you know what I mean. The Celtics have won a title under his watch and came damn close on another occasion, and he’s done a pretty good job of keeping things interesting. In many respects he’s succeeded far more famously after retirement than the stars he played alongside of during those championship runs of the ’80s.
Think about it: Has Larry Bird really knocked our socks off with the Pacers? He coached the team to the Finals and he’s had a decent team or two after stepping into the front office, but Bird really hasn’t had the success that Ainge has had in Boston. And then there’s Kevin McHale. One could argue that McHale is indirectly responsible for the Celtics’ 2008 title run, thanks to the gifting of Kevin Garnett to Mr. Ainge. Kinda feels like McHale may have lost a bet to his good buddy back in the day, maybe during a card game during one of those long flights out west.
So while Ainge has gotten the job done in Boston, having a heart attack along the way, I can’t help but think about those who keep talking about how smart he is. There are those out there that call Ainge a genius, that say he’s a basketball savant. I’m not one of them. I think he’s plenty smart, a great evaluator of basketball talent, and one of the best in the business at running an NBA franchise. But I also think he’s gotten lucky (see KG), and the next phase of his stewardship is going to help define his legacy in terms of being a truly elite executive.
In 2004, the late Ray Charles had an album posthumously released in his name, titled Genius Loves Company. I think about the late Red Auerbach, and few would doubt the genius that was Red. The man won 9 championships as a coach, and 7 more as an executive in some form or fashion. Like Ainge, Auerbach got lucky – he was able to ship “Easy” Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for the draft rights to Bill Russell. Before that, he had dismissed Bob Cousy as a guard he could win with, only to end up “stuck” with Cooz after coming up last in a dispersal draft.
But Red was more than lucky. Red was a genius – look at how he gambled on taking Bird a year early, this at a time when many people thought Bird would be an ordinary NBA player at best. And then later, maneuvering to select Len Bias. Forget the fact that Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Red had no control over that. The universal thinking is that Bias was a once-in-a-lifetime player, a hybrid of Michael Jordan and LeBron James, a player so good that he would likely be the top overall pick if he were alive and coming out of college today.
So, in my mind, these are the types of things that separates Red from Ainge. Danny was clearly one of Red’s favorite players, and he thought highly of him in terms of his ability to run a basketball organization. So Red would certainly welcome Ainge into his inner-sanctum of greatness, if only Ainge can find his way there. And in order to do that, he will need to make the right decisions to get this team back on track and ready to compete for another championship.
It won’t be easy.
The Miami Heat are poised to dominate the Eastern Conference for the rest of this decade. The Bulls look good. Philadelphia is showing glimpses of what used to be. Anyone else might rise up at a moment’s notice. And that’s just the East. Ainge needs to do something truly special to make Boston relevent again, or the Celtics may end up being a (gulp) mediocre team for the foreseeable future.
Again, I think Ainge is smart enough to make the moves needed to avoid that fate. I think he has the moxie to bold and daring when it’s called for. I just hope that he knows the difference between being bold and being stupid, because there’s a fine line separating the two. And the first order of business is what to do with Rajon Rondo. Keep him? Trade him? Not my call, because I’m not the expert. Whatever decision Ainge makes, and it could come prior to March 15th, everything else that happens will be based off of that.
It makes you wonder: What would Red do?
Danny, the next play is all yours.
Just remember, genius does indeed love company.