Ainge’s Legacy in Celtics Front Office Goes Beyond Basketball
The Boston Celtics made two monumental moves within their front office Wednesday following the conclusion of their season. Danny Ainge, to much public surprise, retired from his post as president of basketball of operations, and was replaced by Brad Stevens, who was officially elevated from his head coaching position in order to step up into Ainge's vacant role.
Of those two moves, Stevens only wished to highlight an outgoing Celtics legend as opposed to concentrating on his new position.
“Today, I’m not the story,” he emphasized while alongside Ainge, managing partner, governor and chief executive officer Wyc Grousbeck, and managing partner and alternate governor Steve Pagliuca during a formal press conference at the Auerbach Center.
And he’s right.
There will be plenty of time to dive into to the new era of Celtics basketball under President Stevens, but today is about the legacy of the man who prepared Stevens for this job. Today is about giving thanks the man who has bled green dating back to 1981 as a player, and who has put his heart and soul into shaping a contending team since the beginning of his career as an executive in 2003.
Today is about celebrating Danny Ainge.
When Ainge first stepped into his front-office role on May 9, 2003, he made it clear how much he was invested in the organization based on one statement: "The reason I'm here is because it's the Boston Celtics,” he said. “There are better rosters, better cap room, better circumstances around the league. But it's not the Boston Celtics."
Ainge believed in the Boston Celtics, and the Boston Celtics believed in him.
“This guy will get it done,” Grousbeck said that day, declaring how Ainge would someday lead the franchise to his 17th championship.
And get it done, he did.
Ainge began building toward those championship aspirations immediately, starting with the hiring of head coach Doc Rivers in 2004. The team was in rebuild mode during those early years, but Ainge put his foot on the accelerator in the summer of 2007 by pulling off two blockbuster trades, landing future Hall-of-Famers Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to play alongside longtime franchise cornerstone Paul Pierce.
That season, the Celtics pulled off the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, going from a 24-win lottery team to a 66-win contender that would wind up bringing home Banner 17 just five years after Grousbeck made his promising claim.
That Celtics team remained a contender until the waning years of Pierce and Garnett’s careers before Ainge made the toughest move of his 18-year tenure: trading those two generational talents.
During the summer of 2013, he dealt Pierce, Garnett, Jason Terry, D.J. White, and two future draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, and four coveted future first-round picks. He then fully committed to pressing the restart button by hiring Stevens to be the new head coach, beginning the second era of Celtics basketball under his watch.
Eventually, two of those draft picks turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who have already established themselves as two of the brightest young stars in the league, while also helping to lead the Celtics to multiple Eastern Conference Finals appearances.
With such a young, bright core under his watch, Ainge could once again dream of building a bright future of basketball in Boston. However, over the past couple of years, he began thinking about more important future aspirations outside of the game.
After experiencing his second heart attack during the 2019 playoffs, Ainge knew that it would soon be time to step away from the stressful general manager lifestyle so that he could devote his days toward enjoying his life and spending time with his family.
Ultimately, he made his decision to step down during Boston's season that came to an end Tuesday night.
“I trust my instincts and my instincts told me a couple months ago that it was time for me to move on,” said Ainge, who helped lead the C's to 15 playoff berths and six Eastern Conference Finals appearances over his 18 years as GM. “That's what's best for us, that's what's best for the Celtics."
Before officially moving on, Ainge took the time to reflect back on the past 18 years he spent with the team, although he didn’t have much basketball to talk about. After living and breathing the game for so many decades, he just wanted to take a step back and appreciate all of the relationships that he made along the way, thanking the people who made his experience worthwhile.
“It’s rare in this business where there’s so much public scrutiny about every decision you make where you come in and you leave 18 years later and you’re closer and better friends than when you came in, and you have great respect and lifelong (relationships) that will never end,” Ainge said. “That’s what I’m most proud of, is those relationships. And I’m looking forward to the next chapter – looking forward to the next chapter for the Celtics and for us.”
As for the next chapter for the Celtics, Ainge has already left his mark by penning the introduction. Thanks to him, the franchise has a promising future in store under their two star players, their new president of basketball operations in Stevens, and whoever Stevens chooses to be his successor as head coach.
For Stevens, it will be a challenging step up into a new role, but it’s one that he feels prepared to take on thanks to Ainge.
“It's so important to be surrounded by people that have a great understanding of the challenges, that truly love the joys that come with it, but also find great joy in overcoming the toughest of days,” Stevens said. “And Danny has provided that support as my boss, of constant empowerment for the last eight years.
“Today, I'm not the story, and so I'll let this be what it should be, and that is a great, great celebration of a person who I've learned a lot from, and who I've really enjoyed working for. I know that if any of our assistants were sitting here, if anybody on Danny's staff, if anybody around the Celtics were sitting here, they would all say the same thing.”
They would say how honored they were to have worked with Ainge – to learn from him as a colleague, but more importantly as a friend who provided endless support to the franchise and those around him throughout his 18 years leading the team’s basketball operations.