Over the past seven years, Danny Ainge has been the perfect example of a polarizing figure in Boston. The trade of Antoine Walker left many people shaking their heads. Many of his draft picks, particularly in the second round, seemed puzzling at the time. However, over the course of seven years, Danny Ainge managed to turn a middling NBA franchise into a perennial title contender that has been in the finals two out of the past three years.
To really understand the improbability of it all, let's go back to the 2007 offseason. The Celtics had just finished a 24-win season, complete with a franchise-worst 18 game losing streak. The highlights of the season? Gerald Green winning the Slam Dunk Contest and maybe the game against the Bucks that ended the aforementioned losing streak. The lowlight (apart from the longest month of our collective lives when the Celtics simply could not win) actually came after the end of the season, when the one true star on the team at the time, Paul Pierce, conditionally requested a trade.
Pierce's ultimatum--which essentially boiled down to "trade me or get me help"--could have marked another downward turning point for this storied franchise. The simplest reaction of the front office would have been to simply blow it up. With a high draft pick on its way to town and a core of young middling role players, Ainge and Co. could simply have granted Pierce his wish and traded him to a contender, most likely condemning the franchise to another (at least) three years of watching the lottery balls bounce around aimlessly in their plastic cage.
Then, the unbelievable happened. Ainge was able to catch lightning in a bottle--twice. On June 28, the night of the NBA draft, Ainge shipped out the Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the 5th overall pick in exchange for Ray Allen. Initial reaction to the trade was mixed. Surely an aging 2-guard was not exactly what Pierce had in mind when he asked for a veteran to help shoulder the burden. In fact, many accused Ainge of mortgaging the future in order to simply save face. It's true that had the offseason ended there, the Celtics would certainly not have been title contenders. Sure, they may have backed their way into the playoffs with 40 wins or so, but the franchise would not have been "saved."
However, the acquisition served a much more important role than returning the Celtics starting five to mediocrity. It convinced Kevin Garnett that the franchise was committed to winning and led to his willingness to accept a trade to the Celtics. This paved the way for Ainge to send Al Jefferson, two draft picks, and a handful of also-rans to the Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Garnett, who immediately signed a lucrative extension (and in reality, Wyc should get a nod in the discussion of the Celtics turnaround for his willingness to pay the luxury tax). Apart from the speculation that Ainge had given up too much in exchange for Garnett--which would have been credible if, and only if, Big All turned into the next, well, Kevin Garnett--most fans were excited. We had a solid team with three stars. A new Big Three that hearkened back to the days of Larry Bird. Thus, without losing its starters at the 1, 3, and 5, Ainge was able to acquire two perennial All Stars to play at the 2 and 4.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The Celtics managed a run at 70 wins (falling 4 short) and went on to win the NBA title one season removed from having the second worst record in the NBA. The following two seasons saw another playoff appearance and another improbable run to the NBA finals where, if not for a Kendrick Perkins knee injury, we would most likely be talking about winning two titles in three years. In addition, we saw the Ainge's moves to be even more shrewd than we had expected. Jeff Green has not turned into a superstar. Big Al, bless his heart--I would still love to see him in green again, is not the second coming of KG. Gerald Green, the other X-factor of the KG trade, has essentially played himself out of the league.
And then came this past offseason. Tom Thibodeau departing for the Bulls, Doc contemplating leaving coaching, Pierce opting out of his contract, and Ray Allen a free agent. This was the year that our supposed three-year window was supposed to close. It was a good run, but it was time to move on... But Danny had other plans. With a lockout looming over next year's season, and uncertainty as to what the structure of the salary cap will be following that year, Danny pulled off the exceptional. He managed to keep the team relevant for this upcoming season (and next if it is played) while maintaining our flexibility following the new CBA.
Ainge convinced PP to stay on with a new, team friendly deal. Ray Allen re-upped with a two-year deal, an event that would become a theme in the coming weeks of the offseason. Ainge kept the Shrek and Donkey show intact, by resigning Nate Robinson, who had shown a surprising willingness to accept his role as a second or third point guard option on the bench, acquired the first O'Neal (Jermaine) with the mid-level exemption (for two years), and then somehow convinced Shaq and Delonte West to join the team for veteran minimum contracts. These moves combined to turn two weaknesses of the 2009-10 Celtics that may have cost them the title, bench depth and size in the frontcourt, into a strength for the 2010-11 Celtics.
The Celtics are primed for another run at the title this year, despite the new-look Miami Heat and the always present LA Lakers. When you're having a particularly fun time watching this team during the upcoming season, be it following a win where Nate Robinson took over the game in the second quarter or after a thunderous Shaq-sized dunk from, well, Shaq, take a moment to pause and thank the man behind it all. Danny Ainge has worked miracles over the last 5 years and has proven himself to be the most valuable man to the franchise.