Danny Ainge does not require much persuasion in order to admit, “The reality is that we haven’t done anything yet other than not falling to the bottom of the barrel.”
True, the Boston Celtics — the team for which Ainge serves as president for basketball operations — stepped into Madison Square Garden to play the Knicks on Tuesday night in line for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. But let’s apply some timely context: Phil Jackson, Ainge’s Knicks counterpart, might be held up as the executive of the year merely for restoring the Knicks to sub-.500 competitive, from abysmally unwatchable.
In his 13 years at the Celtics’ helm, Ainge, tagged with the nickname Trader Dan, has become a premier N.B.A. executive, no uncomplicated feat in a city still thick with the scent of Red Auerbach’s victory cigars.
Ainge, 56, at least has an organizational résumé, as a pugnacious guard on two Celtics championship teams during the 1980s, better known as the Larry Bird era. But Ainge also re-established the franchise as title transcendent in 2008 after roughly two decades as an also-ran and in doing so outperformed as an executive the legendary Bird, who now runs the Indiana Pacers.
Having launched the so-called Big 3 approach to contention by using young assets and draft picks to match Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with the holdover Paul Pierce in 2007, Ainge rode his veterans for as long as he could before dismantling the roster in the interests of another reconstruction.
Far from the anesthetizing tanking in Philadelphia, the Celtics — with the exception of a 25-57 season in 2013-14 — have stayed in the playoff picture under Ainge and Brad Stevens, the third-year coach hired straight off the Butler campus.
That is another trend Ainge has set, or reversed — the belief that the college game is no place to prepare for leading a team of multimillionaires. Since Ainge hired Stevens, Oklahoma City and Chicago have handed teams to Billy Donovan (out of Florida) and Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State) with considerably more talent than Stevens inherited in Boston.
We, of course, obsess about coaches as they X-and-O, come and go, but the back rooms are where the videos churn and brain cells burn and the least obstructed pathways to playing in late June are paved.
Arenas far from the home court — on scouting trips to college towns and other countries, perhaps — are where hushed conversations with N.B.A. colleagues beget rumored possibilities and, occasionally, a blockbuster deal.
So excuse Ainge for skipping the Celtics’ 97-89 win over the Knicks and keeping his office in Boston vacant for the rest of the week. He is out on the trail, February being one of those months for senior basketball executives, like tax season for accountants, with the college schedule heating up and the N.B.A. trading deadline bearing down.
In a telephone interview, Ainge said the pressure of the Celtics’ rebuild had been eased by the team’s squeezing into the postseason last season and its position this year — tied for the third playoff spot in the tightly bunched East.
In relatively short time, Ainge has developed a roster of solid, young veterans: guards Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley and the frontcourt players Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and especially the rugged Jae Crowder, heisted from Dallas along with a protected first-round draft pick in last season’s thanks-for-the-memories jettisoning of Rajon Rondo.
But Ainge also knows this solid foundation will never soar high enough without his reaching for or drafting a couple of prime-time stars. How he plays the enviable hand dealt to him by the Nets in the summer of 2013 will determine whether the Celtics can rise from the pack to challenge, or supplant, LeBron James’s conference supremacy in Cleveland.
The assets lifted from the Nets for what turned out to be a Barclays Center house call by Pierce and Garnett included the Nets’ first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2018 and the right to exchange first-round picks in 2017.
The deal has made Ainge look like a rock star. But hold off on the standing ovation, he suggested, insisting that only luck has thus far been the residue of design.
“I honestly did not look at that deal as a bonanza at the time,” he said. “We really thought the most likely scenario would be that all of those picks would be in the 20s. I mean, they had Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, and we believed that Kevin and Paul still had a lot left in them to be subservient players, in the way Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are now in San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.”
After a pause, Ainge added: “They had injuries with Williams and Lopez. Obviously, it hasn’t worked out the way they would have wanted.”
Basketball understatement of the century.
Ainge would not speculate beyond the likelihood of landing a top-five pick this year, but he could be in even better position if the Nets strike out in free agency in the summer and give the Celtics, via their right to swap picks, a prime lottery position in 2017.
Conjecture has abounded that Ainge is eager to move assets sooner than later for a big-name player, although, doubting that any transaction could vault the Celtics into title contention this season, he said, “You don’t want to panic and do a deal just to make one.”
The rebuilding process is fraught with temptation, risk and potential ruin.
“I’m not sure there is a right way to go about this process, whether it’s free agency, trades or bottoming out for the draft or the way we’re doing it by trying to stay competitive,” Ainge said. “Sometimes it takes a few years to land that special player. And then you had San Antonio getting Duncan because David Robinson got hurt one season, and that set them up for 19 years.”
The Knicks, he added, lost Carmelo Anthony to injury last season, plummeted in the standings and wound up with Kristaps Porzingis.
With Porzingis projected as a star and Anthony still in his prime, is Jackson in a better place to make the difficult leap forward than Ainge and the hated Celtics? Impossible to know, but Ainge does have in his favor an executive track record and the history of the Celtics, who have won six of their league-high 17 championships since the Knicks claimed their last one (of two over all) in 1973.
But as Ainge said, the Celtics, at least by their standards, have not done anything yet.
“I’m curious to see how this all plays out,” he said, speaking for the league, his fan base and the Nets, saddest spectators of them all.