By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
For most of the last decade, NBA wisdom has dictated that building from the middle of the pack is impossible. If you’re not tanking or constructing a super-team, then what are you doing?
The Golden State Warriors had some down years, sure. But they also proved that you don't need a No. 1 pick, or even one in the top-5, to move to the head of the class. Out-of-this-world drafting and shrewd trades combined to make them the most attractive free-agent destination for one of the best players in the game in Kevin Durant.
And oh, by the way, NBA champions three of the last four years.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Celtics seemed destined to tank after they propped a three-year window open for six with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But in the end, they spent just one season out of the playoffs, as Ainge pulled off a flurry of deals to improve the team on the fly. Armed with a trove of Brooklyn Nets first-rounders, the last couple of years have been, really, the only opportunity for Ainge to do some real damage in the draft, maintaining momentum and enhancing an already-talented roster. And he has taken advantage.
For all the flak Ainge received for failing to secure big names in recent years - Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Jimmy Butler – he’s added Kyrie Irving via trade, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford via free agency, and has a history of not only mixing things up on draft night but also utilizing his picks and young players toward larger goals.
Across 15 years as head of basketball operations, he's been a chameleon, adapting to a variety of draft day situations to better the team.
There have been times he’s failed, and others where he’s perhaps missed opportunities. But it is the rare NBA executive who has been able to sustain success like Ainge with the Celtics, and that prosperity is largely owed to his maneuverings. The proof is in the pudding: 12 playoff appearances in 15 seasons, five trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, two appearances in the Finals, an NBA title, and a roster in really good shape headed into 2018.
While Ainge’s 2018 NBA Draft prognosis, currently just the 27th pick in the first round, isn’t particularly juicy, he’ll undoubtedly be in the mix in his never-ending effort to improve the team. Just look at his track record.
Flying by the Seat of his Pants
Ainge’s hiring was announced May 9, 2003, with the Celtics in the midst of a second-round playoff sweep at the hands of the then-powerhouse New Jersey Nets. Just a season before, a team largely comprised of holdovers from Rick Pitino’s tenure had advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Recognizing the smoke-and-mirrors success of that squad, his early signature move was shipping shimmying, three-point jacking, then-franchise icon Antoine Walker, at one point the only Celtic to appear in an All-Star game for a decade, to the Dallas Mavericks.
Just 16 months after the hire, the entire roster - save for Paul Pierce, Mark Blount, and Walter McCarty - would be wearing different jerseys.
A little over a month into his tenure, the Celtics appeared primed to add established collegiate talents in Boston College’s Troy Bell and Duke’s Dahntay Jones at the 2003 NBA Draft. The man who later became known as “Trader Danny” pulled off a trade with Memphis for 13th overall pick Marcus Banks and Texas high schooler Kendrick Perkins. "Perk" wound up being the best player in the deal, plying his trade in Boston for parts of seven seasons and winning a championship. Ainge perhaps thought he had the next franchise point guard in Banks. It was not to be.
The following year, Ainge landed Al Jefferson at No. 15, probably the best pro Ainge has drafted with the Celtics’ own pick. The high schooler would become the eventual centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett deal. Delonte West and Tony Allen at 24th and 25th, respectively, were both good value for the position. Particularly considering that Allen is still around and West eked out nine sometimes ... turbulent ... seasons in the NBA. West would also later pop up in the Ray Allen trade.
By Ainge’s third draft, the Celtics remained a playoff team, though they’d just parlayed the best record in the Atlantic into a first round exit against the Pacers. The next two drafts continued the task Ainge alluded to in his introductory press conference: “I use a golf analogy for taking over a playoff team ... [as] opposed to a team starting from scratch ... it’s easy to go from 100 to 85, but it’s harder to go from 75 to 70.”
Boston landed two more players with zero collegiate experience in Gerald Green (18th in 2005) and Sebastian Telfair (in a package for 2006 No. 6 pick Randy Foye, among others). Both Green and Telfair would exit with Jefferson in the KG trade, and although both made money in the league and the 32-year old Green just appeared in the playoffs for Houston, neither lived up to the expectations initially foisted upon them.
Ainge did nail a transaction later in the 2006 draft when he acquired 21st overall pick Rajon Rondo from the Suns. We all know what happened with that one.
Georgetown product Jeff Green (fifth overall in 2007) served to acquire veteran scorer Ray Allen from the Sonics. We know what happened there, too.
It’s interesting to consider the Celtics’ fate had they not landed Foye and swapped him for Telfair in 2006. Brandon Roy was selected just a pick before - would Ainge have taken Roy if available? Rudy Gay went a pick after Foye and within two years, averaged 20 points a night for Memphis. Would Ainge have elected to push forward with Roy or Gay flanking Pierce and Jefferson?
Would he have thrown one of them into the KG package? Would either have stuck around and contributed to the 2008 championship team?
Had Roy or Gay signed long-term deals with the Celtics, would Ainge have traded Perkins to get back Green in the winter of 2011?
The Big Three Era
Typically, a contending team picks from the back of the first round, as Red Auerbach often did in the 1980s. But with the 19th pick in 2010, Ainge snagged guard Avery Bradley, easily the best pick from this era. Bradley helped the team stay relevant as one regime wound down and was one of the key cogs in the team’s unexpected resurgence.
Other late first rounders included J.R. Giddens (30th) in 2008, JaJuan Johnson (27th) in 2011, and Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo (21st and 22nd, respectively) in 2012. These are comparable spots to where Ainge will likely be drafting tonight.
Giddens and Johnson combined to play just 74 games in the NBA, though the hype was significantly higher for the latter selection. This was perhaps a product of the fact that the team was getting older and an infusion of young talent, particularly the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, was desperately needed.
Following the Johnson bust, the hype rose even higher in 2012, when the highly-touted Sullinger fell to the Celtics much like Bradley did two years prior. Many thought Ainge had done it again. While the Ohio State product did contribute in the early stages of the Green’s turnaround, he’s now out of the league.
After converting late first round picks in Perkins, Tony Allen and Rondo, only Bradley stands out from this period. Teams picking late weren’t completely bereft of options: for instance, Ryan Anderson, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and George Hill all went in the 20’s back in 2008. They were gone by the time Boston was on the clock, but it does illustrate the presence of value. Unfortunately, with the Johnson pick in 2011, Ainge wound up leaving Jimmy Butler on the board, and he was among a cavalry of executives to pass on Draymond Green and Khris Middleton the following year.
Hopes were high with Ainge’s first pick of 2013, when he traded up to nab Kelly Olynyk with the 13th pick. Of all of Ainge’s selections, this one probably hurts the most in hindsight. While Olynyk was a helpful player during his tenure in Boston, he went off the board two picks before the Milwaukee Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you thought the Celtics rebuild was fast, just imagine how it would have gone with "The Greek Freak" in the fold.
You could argue Ainge converted the majority of his other first rounders during this era. Marcus Smart (sixth in 2014) looks like the right call for that slot. The Terry Rozier pick (16th in 2015) was nearly universally panned after Ainge reportedly spent the evening trying to get into the lottery. But three years later, Rozier at No. 16 looks great.
The Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum selections (third in consecutive years, with the Tatum pick coming after trading out of the top spot) look like home runs. The jury is out on a couple of late first-rounders during this span - but 22-year old Guerschon Yabusele at least sees the floor, and Ante Zizic’s value may have been maximized as part of the Kyrie Irving deal.
James Young (17th in 2014) couldn’t hack it, and R.J. Hunter (28th in 2015) is a case study of what happens to most teams drafting in the 20’s. Perhaps that’s why the Celtics are rumored to be working to get into the top-10, just as they supposedly did the year Hunter was drafted, dangling a trove of assets in an attempt to move up and get Justise Winslow. Winslow’s been an OK pro, but no more impactful than, say, Smart. So even moving up isn’t a guarantee.
Remember how high everybody was on Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle a few years back? None of those guys look like franchise-altering players now.
The NBA Draft is an exercise in uncertainty. That’s also why it’s packed with drama. Some teams desperately try to move up to plausibly reduce the risk of a flop. Others have something else up their sleeve in the form of a trade. Some occasionally convert on the rare, late-first round talent, or even a second rounder. Still others are hunting for a nice, safe rotation piece.
It is the rare draft where Danny Ainge stays the course, and that’s why the next 12 hours will be scintillating for Celtics fans that love draft rumors and are excited for what the future holds.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.
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