Three first-round picks and solid salary cap flexibility give Boston president Danny Ainge much to mull in the days ahead
POSTED: Jun 21, 2016 9:18 PM ET
Boston's Danny Ainge has amassed a wealth of assets in recent years. Now it's time to start putting them to good use. (Getty)
Trades tend to happen in the final hours before the NBA Draft, says Danny Ainge. And so the Boston Celtics president may find himself with little more than a few seconds Thursday night in which to decide the future for his team.
Since 2013 he has been plotting and sequencing this next potential step. Three years of rebuilding will hinge on the trade he makes or doesn't make. The tension, building for all of this time, will peak around the Celtics' No. 3 pick, and the No. 16 and 23 picks they own later in the first round; and yet, if you could be in the room with Ainge on Thursday, his conduct probably would not divulge the significance of his choices.
It's one thing having all these picks; you've still got to balance a roster, and there is a lot going on with that. And he's the leader of that.
– Celtics coach Brad Stevens, on Danny Ainge
"He's calm pretty much anytime," says coach Brad Stevens, who will be in the Celtics' room Thursday. "Obviously he's got a competitive side, a very fiery side. But he's very measured in his approach in that room -- and for 365 days a year with us."
There is much to be gauged. Ainge and his staff will be sorting through that trio of first-round picks as well as their five second-rounders, many of which will be stashed overseas or traded for future choices; a young roster filled with cost-efficient contracts which could be packaged into a trade; and enough cap room for the potential of two max deals this summer or in 2017.
"He is trying to balance everything as far as Draft needs -- including where you are in the Draft, Draft position, plus drafting for need -- and then whether he can fill that need later on with free agency, hopefully, or with a trade," Stevens said. "It's one thing having all these picks; you've still got to balance a roster, and there is a lot going on with that. And he's the leader of that."
Three seasons ago, the Celtics' elderly roster was faced with a slow rebuild. For Stevens, who has endured 133 of Boston's losses since his hiring in 2013, three years can feel like a long time.
By NBA standards, however, the turnover of the Celtics has been brief. Ainge has seen the transformation of Stevens from NBA rookie to one of the league's most respected coaches. The new roster won 48 games last season and has made two playoff appearances since a 57-loss run in 2013-14. The Celtics have established an identity of sharing by the pass offensively and by their rotations on defense.
Most promising of all, in terms of acquiring stars, they are cashing in on the No. 3 pick of the Brooklyn Nets this week -- with potential No. 1 picks to come in 2017 and '18 -- without tanking. Knowing how rare it is to access high picks like these, Ainge has invested hours in talking through a variety of Draft and trade scenarios with Stevens and his coaches, principal owner Wyc Grousbeck and his partners, and the front-office staff.
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The NBA Draft is getting closer and David Aldridge stops by to discuss the top prospects and more.
"You've got a lot of people, and in those moments it's hard to communicate everything to everybody," Ainge said. "So the preparation leading up to those draft decisions in the days and weeks before, it makes those a lot less stressful. It will happen this year -- there will be unforeseen circumstances potentially placed before us. I think we can pull the trigger very quickly, because most of the scenarios we've gone through before. You say, 'Here's what we're going to do, here's what this team wants.' You just go."
The question, dating back to three years ago, is whether the Celtics would have agreed to the Nets trade with protections on the Draft picks.
"No," says Ainge.
Nets Introduce Garnett, Pierce & Terry
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry talk to the media after being introduced to the Brooklyn Nets.
The Draft-day trade of 2013 with the Nets has the potential to become one of the biggest NBA moves in recent memory. It has provided Boston with unfiltered access to Brooklyn's No. 1 pick for each of the next three years just as the Nets have hit bottom. Such were the terms by which the Nets acquired Paul Pierce (who would be 36 that season), Kevin Garnett (37), Jason Terry (36) and D.J. White. In addition to sending Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph and Keith Bogans to Boston, the Nets provided Ainge with a trio of unrestricted No. 1 picks (in 2014, 2016 and 2018) as well as the option to swap first-rounders in 2017.
Billy King, who was removed as Nets GM in January, declined to comment on the trade. But the details are well known by league insiders. Initially, King sought a more limited package in which he would send Humphries, Brooks and a single first-rounder to Boston for Pierce.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the ambitious owner of the Nets, wanted Garnett as well. The Russian billionaire had previously owned the champion club CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague, where there is no salary cap, player contracts are short and rebuilding campaigns last for months rather than years.
In that spirit, entering a new arena in Brooklyn and girding for a rivalry with the New York Knicks, Prokhorov was willing to invest more boldly than his peers. After all, he had vowed to get married if he didn't deliver an NBA championship within five years of his 2010 acquisition of the Nets. (Prokhorov remains a bachelor.)
I wouldn't have traded them for one of the picks or for just a little bit of those picks. I would not have done that. We weren't looking to get rid of those guys. If they would have retired as Celtics at the end of that year, or the year after, I would have been fine with that too.
– Danny Ainge, on the Pierce-Garnett trade of 2013
Understanding that the Nets were under pressure to win big as soon as possible, Ainge held out for unprotected access to three additional first-rounders.
"I wouldn't have traded them for one of the picks or for just a little bit of those picks," says Ainge of Garnett and Pierce, who keyed the Celtics' 2008 title run. "I would not have done that. We weren't looking to get rid of those guys. If they would have retired as Celtics at the end of that year, or the year after, I would have been fine with that too."
Ainge had never been able to negotiate anything close to such a big deal for his Pierce and Garnett. He acknowledges that he would have traded them one year earlier if such an offer had been available in 2012.
"It was more than I was offered in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 for those guys," Ainge says. "Not that I was shopping -- I wasn't shopping the day Billy called and wanted to deal. It wasn't like I was calling Billy and trying to pawn them off. I was OK with the idea that they finish in Boston. It's not the worst thing in the world, two legendary players that can teach our young guys how to play. But the opportunity presented itself. I was ready for it. The patience paid off."
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Watch as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce return to Boston for the first time since being traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
At that time the Nets were applauded for assembling a title-worthy lineup of Garnett, Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. With a luxury tax bill of $90.6 million, they were taking on the most expensive roster in league history. They were willing to forego protections on the Draft picks because the plan was to keep spending on players, regardless of the tax, which would keep Boston's picks out of the lottery.
But the recession of the Russian economy, in combination with the Nets' dearth of athleticism and energy, contributed to an abrupt change in the high-spending strategy. After one season in Brooklyn, in which he led them to the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Nets decided to not re-sign Pierce. Doing so freed him to sign for a relatively cheap $5.3 million with the Washington Wizards, whom he led to a first-round sweep of the Toronto Raptors in 2015.
Johnson was bought out in February by new GM Sean Marks, who has promised there will be no "skipped steps" in the long-term plan to rebuild the team despite the loss of its high picks. Having lost 61 games last season, Marks cannot afford to worry how his moves will affect Boston over the two seasons ahead.
I wasn't shopping the day [Nets GM] Billy [King] called and wanted to deal. It wasn't like I was calling Billy and trying to pawn them off. I was OK with the idea that they finish in Boston.
– Danny Ainge
By the time Ainge made the Nets deal in 2013, he had already "traded" coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for another first-round pick (which was spent on sharpshooter R.J. Hunter at No. 28 last year). Ainge's initial thought was that the last of the Brooklyn picks might pay off in a big way. Though he squeezed the Nets for zero protections, he was never counting on a No. 3 pick as soon as in this year's Draft.
"There's always a hope when you get an unprotected pick way down the road, in 2018 maybe -- when KG and Paul are gone, and Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are gone," Ainge says. "You hope but you never know. You're giving away two really good players to a team that's trying to win a championship, and that's the gamble that you take and they take."
The new TV money flooding the market over the next two summers is going to make things harder on the Celtics and other teams that have been hoarding salary cap space.
Most of the NBA's blockbuster trades of recent years have been made for financial reasons: Garnett, for example, was dealt to Boston in 2007 because the Minnesota Timberwolves couldn't afford to keep him. He was an older player whose $22 million salary ate up close to 30 percent of their budget, making it difficult to rebuild around him.
The same circumstances are harder to find today. The relief provided by the TV deals -- elevating the cap to $94 million, a gain of $24 million from last season -- will suddenly liberate capped-out teams to engage in free agency this summer. It will also lessen the pressure on many franchises to trade their expensive stars.
In his ongoing trade talks leading up to the Draft, Ainge has been selling rival GMs on the value of his picks. While veteran salaries are expected to soar this summer -- Raptors backup center Bismack Biyombo is expected to command a salary of $16 million, for example -- a first-rounder will be locked into a low-scale rookie contract for three to four years.
"It still mostly comes down to how teams value players available at those picks," says Ainge. "I'm not sure that a lot of executives have moved to the viewpoint that picks are money.
"It's still: What player can I get with that pick? As opposed to what contract can I do? I think picks are valuable, and every team needs some to manage their payroll in the right fashion. Ideally, you want a top-heavy team with a few big contracts, and you want to manage a few middle-class players and a few draft picks to keep your payroll under check."
Draft Combine: Danny Ainge
Celtics' President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge speaks at the NBA Draft Combine.
Within seven months of the Brooklyn trade, Ainge had moved veterans Rajon Rondo (to Dallas for a first-rounder that will be spent this week) and Jeff Green (to Memphis) as the Celtics went young. Apart from 27-year-old All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, who has a bargain salary of $6.9 million, the Celtics have no star power. Unlike in 2007, when they were able to rebuild around Pierce, they have no All-NBA players.
Because there is so little financial pressure forcing rival teams to put a star on the market, Ainge appears more likely to invest the No. 3 pick in Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn or another prospect with long-term potential. Ainge may choose to set aside his cap space for another season while Stevens continues to develop the Celtics' young roster in hope of creating a hardnosed, defensive-minded infrastructure that may help recruit one or two max stars in 2017 -- another long shot, considering that Boston has never signed a major free agent.
Much as the Philadelphia 76ers have done, the Celtics have been rebuilding via the Draft without the pain of losing: Boston has been able to pursue a winning record while also targeting a high pick in the Draft, thanks to the trade with Brooklyn.
As demonstrated most recently at the 2015 trade deadline, when he knew the acquisition of Thomas would ultimately hurt the Celtics in the lottery that spring, Ainge's goal will be fast-track the process and grab established stars as fast as he can.
And yet, for all of the assets that Ainge has accrued, there may be no quick fixes. The new marketplace may force the Celtics to build patiently for the long term. Which may, years from now, turn out to be the wisest of all moves.
One thing Ainge can promise: When he is running the Celtics' draft on Thursday, it will be nothing like the recent movie "Draft Day".
"That was awful," says Ainge, laughing. "It was so unrealistic. That had so much potential to be a great movie. There were so many realistic scenarios that could have made that movie great."
Understanding that he will be one of the most active negotiators this week, Ainge has kept his plans secret. He has even been reticent to share some of his thoughts with son Austin Ainge, a Celtics' assistant GM.
"With my staff and Brad, I give them assignments to go look at players and I listen to what they say," says Ainge. "Often I don't share what I think. I want them to give me independent assessments, and so I keep it to myself. There's players I value more than my staff; and players that my staff is saying, I really like this guy, but I don't like him. So I'll go back to the table and study him a lot more, or vice versa. It's not a situation where we need to debate, and for me, I already know anyway. No reason to make a scene. I'll just do something on draft day."
And if there are no deals to be made?
"I could see us using three first-round picks, sure," says Ainge. "I already have players slotted for each of the spots. I don't know if I'll get them or not ..."
This is the favorite time of the year for Trader Danny. And yet his poker face remains stubbornly intact, perhaps because he knows what real excitement is.
"Playing is so much more fun," says Ainge, 57, who won two championships in Boston during his 14-year NBA career. "I don't really feel the adrenaline on draft day like I did as a player. There's no experience like playing. I love what I do and it's exciting and it's intense. But it's not like playing in the fourth quarter."
This is, however, a close second.
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