By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Danny Ainge should host one of those ubiquitous home renovation shows.
Entering his 18th season as head of basketball operations for the Celtics, he’s overseen multiple gut jobs of the Boston roster. The needle dropped on the greatest hits of “Trader Danny’s” sledgehammer when he moved veteran All-Star Antoine Walker a few months after he got the job. When a 24-win campaign a few years later failed to produce Kevin Durant in the draft, Ainge pivoted and flipped eight players for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Six summers later, he shipped Paul Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn for draft picks.
And when the Little Engine That Could Celtics appeared to plateau after reaching the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, he signed Gordon Hayward and traded three players (one of them fan favorite and leading scorer Isaiah Thomas) for Kyrie Irving.
Teamed with incumbent Al Horford, the new arrivals gave Boston three All-Star caliber players and an expected spot in the NBA Finals. They almost made it, though not in the way many expected, with the freshly minted stars watching in street clothes as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum stepped forward, each averaging more than 18 points per game in the postseason as The Green took LeBron to Game 7.
Two and a half years later, Hayward, Irving and Horford are gone, with Ainge on to his latest project. And it’s a remodel that hasn’t been attempted in this city in nearly 30 years: turning a team with recent championship aspirations over to a young star.
Red Auerbach mastered the craft, keeping the Celtics in the title picture from the birth of rock ‘n roll to the days of disco and winning 13 NBA championships along the way. He took a brief detour into the tank (bottoming out in 1978 and ’79) before retooling with Cedric Maxwell and the legendary Big Three of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale for a highly successful Reagan Era run.
But efforts to keep the party going were railroaded by injury and tragedy, leaving Red and top executive Dave Gavitt in a bind.
In a twist of fate, Bird missed 76 games of the ’89 season due to Achilles surgery and second-year Northeastern product Reggie Lewis stepped up, pouring in 18.5 points a night. Within a few years, the two-way threat had developed into an All-Star and a natural choice to carry the franchise torch for the 90’s.
But the infrastructure around him was crumbling. Twenty-three days after Bird retired, Gavitt surprised everybody by signing tough, onetime high-scoring forward Xavier McDaniel to a three-year deal. X-Man’s best days were unfortunately behind him. With Parish and McHale on the back nine, he swapped 1992 draft pick Jon Barry for reserve big man Alaa Abdelnaby. Sherman Douglas, Kevin Gamble, and recent first rounders Dee Brown and Rick Fox were nice pieces, but nothing like what Ainge has at his disposal in 2020.
The 1992-93 Celtics won 48 games and were out in the first round of the playoffs, with Lewis’ heart problem rearing its ugly head in Game 1. We all know what happened that offseason.
We’ll never know what was to come for Reggie and those Celtics teams. Would he have stayed at an elite level – like Garnett in Minnesota – trying like hell to prop up a middling roster? Would he have become the prototypical disgruntled franchise player looking to move to a contender, like All-Star peers Tim Hardaway in Golden State or Derrick Coleman in New Jersey?
More recent homegrown stars debuted amid lowered expectations – the product of an uninspiring decade and a half of Celtics basketball. Walker’s first year was a miserable 15-win slog in a failed attempt to land Tim Duncan. Rajon Rondo’s rookie campaign was the aforementioned tank for Durant. Even franchise icon Pierce had his maiden voyage dampened by a lockout and the Charlie Brown rain cloud that accompanied Rick Pitino’s tenure in Boston.
The city’s sports scene has changed so much since then. Imagine those Celtics acquiring three All-Star players over the course of 13 months?
Irving, Hayward and Horford were Plan A. It didn’t work out.
Brown and Tatum are Plan B. Or maybe they were the plan all along. Ainge has them signed for the next half-decade along with veteran Kemba Walker, who, if healthy, is better than any running mate Lewis had. Marcus Smart, Jeff Teague, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson are veterans with playoff experience. And they’ve got a slew of young guys with upside.
The East in the ’90s had Jordan, Shaq, the bully Knicks and the pesky Pacers. It could be even tougher now. The Nets have Irving and Durant. The Heat are defending conference champs. Milwaukee has the MVP, and the already formidable Sixers might trade for James Harden.
You might think the Celtics should trade for Harden, or that they should have at least received a warm body in exchange for Hayward.
Ainge opted to go with his young guns, add some vets, keep his fingers crossed on Walker, and grab a huge trade exception. What he does with that chip might ultimately define the era.
His 2017 summer splash didn’t pan out. He had two talented former top-three picks ready to assume the mantle. Red and Gavitt had Lewis, and that was about it. With all the griping about the Celtics not going for it and the hand-wringing over whether or not Tatum will want out in a few years, let’s take a moment to appreciate something we haven’t had here for 30. We get to watch a couple of homegrown talents mature into superstars and go after a ring.
Maybe that’s not your thing. Maybe you’ve grown accustomed to instant gratification as a Boston sports fan. But Tom Brady’s not walking through that door. And certainly not in Kelly green.
A couple of decades ago, we would have killed for this. I plan to enjoy it. And I reserved the right to get ticked off if it doesn’t go to my liking. But I think it could be a lot of fun.
Try it. You might like it.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.