When your team wins a title, it changes the nature of your fanhood. The losses don't hurt as much, the wins are more expected, and a special place in your heart is carved out for all the players that contributed. The coach and the general manager, regardless of their prior reputations, acquire a certain cachet that only comes with a ring.
Bill Simmons described the concept of a "grace period" as far back as 2004, noting that teams (and their fans) are extremely reluctant to move on from a general manager that brought them a title. Simmons argues that no fan should complain for five years following a title, regardless of how the team does.
While it is difficult to measure fan satisfaction with a general manager, ownership satisfaction is not hard to gauge-- If the owner isn't satisfied, the general manager loses his job. Recent history certainly supports Simmons' claim, as Joe Dumars is the only title-winning general manager in the last 20 seasons forced to end his tenure, and the Detroit Pistons fired him almost ten years after winning their championship in 2004.
The Boston Celtics won the NBA title on June 17th, 2008. It is now October 15, 2014. Danny Ainge's grace period is over. Let's take a quick look back at some of his notable moves while it lasted.
2008-2010: Maintaining a title contender
When Ainge landed Kevin Garnett to pair with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in the summer of 2007, he expected a three year window for title contention. After winning the title in 2008, the Celtics rightly expected to compete for the title each of the next two years with the same core Big Three. Danny Ainge won Executive of the Year for the 2008 season, and erased his reputation as a tinkerer without a plan. He was now a free-thinker, a contrarian, a mastermind.
He set out to reinforce the team, not to remake it, signing veterans like Stephon Marbury, Rasheed Wallace, Mikki Moore, and Marquis Daniels in an attempt to strengthen the bench. Ainge also took chances on low-risk, high-reward signings like Patrick O'Bryant and Darius Miles, two former top-ten picks.
A 2009-2010 mid-season trade saw Eddie House shipped out in favor of Nate Robinson, exchanging one inconsistent bench gunner for another.
None of these moves panned out as planned, as injuries to Kevin Garnett one year and Kendrick Perkins the next exposed the Celtics' lack of depth in postseason losses to the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. Wallace memorably asked out of Game 7 of the Finals loss to the Lakers, citing exhaustion.
The team's over-reliance on aging, past-their prime supporting players was due partly to Ainge's inability to find players late in the draft that could contribute. J.R Giddens, Semih Erden, Bill Walker, and Lester Hudson, all drafted after the title, found themselves on the end of the bench for the duration of their short stints in Boston.
2010-2013: The title window closes
With Kendrick Perkins rehabbing the ACL he tore in Game 6 of the Finals, Ainge for the first time since the Big Three arrived was forced to find a new starting-caliber player to fill in until Perkins returned. He signed Shaquille O'Neal to fill that role. The once dominant O'Neal was 38 years old at the time, and had just come off career lows in scoring and rebounding, averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds over 53 games for the Cavaliers. He wouldn't meet either of those marks in Boston, as injuries and weight issues limited him to a measly 37 games, during which he averaged only 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. Ainge added another old center in Jermaine O'Neal, but injuries severely limited his playing time while in Boston.
Ainge also struggled again to find bench scoring in free agency, as guards Von Wafer and Delonte West never earned coach Doc Rivers' trust. As the trade deadline approached, Ainge admitted to failing in the off-season by reiterating the team's need for bench scoring.
A quick aside: The Celtics' preferred starting five, consisting of the Big Three, Perkins, and point guard Rajon Rondo, never lost a playoff series when all five were healthy. This point was made repeatedly by Doc Rivers as the team, first in the Eastern Conference when the trade was made, awaited Perkins' return to form.
Ainge swung for the fences, trading Perkins and Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green, the immortal Nenad Krstic, and a 2012 first-round pick from the Clippers. Since this trade, the Celtics have never been considered a favorite to win the title. The trade weakened the Celtic's interior defense, their biggest strength and one advantage over the newly formed Miami Heat superteam, in order to upgrade their backup forward slot.
Ainge also added Troy Murphy before the playoffs, who continued the aging veteran big-man tradition of Wallace and O'Neal by failing to live up his past performance while in Boston. Carlos Arroyo came in to back up Rondo, and he did that, albeit without much production or defensive ability.
As Garnett, Pierce, and Allen declined, Rajon Rondo's ascension helped the Celtics claim a top-4 seed in 2011 and 2012. His play also helped mitigate Ainge's resistance to change the roster dramatically by trading one of his top four players, instead scraping the bargain bin for players who provided average play at best, acquiring Brandon Bass, Sasha Pavlovic, Chris Wilcox, Keyon Dooling, and Greg Stiemsma on team-friendly contracts.
When Ray Allen left the team in free agency after the 2011-2012 season, Ainge attempted to drag a 6th year out of his three year core, bringing in Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to replace Allen's shooting. Avery Bradley's development the year before had moved Allen out of the starting lineup and injected the team with some much needed youth.
Ainge deserves credit for picking Bradley 19th in 2010, but misses on Luke Harangody, Jajuan Johnson, and E'Twaun Moore left Ainge shooting 1-8 on picking prospects since the title. Ainge continued to invest in high-upside young players like center Sean Williams, with minimal returns.
The 2012 draft offered a big opportunity to add more youth to one of the oldest teams in the league, as the Celtics had two first-round picks, courtesy of the Perkins trade. When the trade was made, supporters of the move pointed to the Clippers pick as a move for the future.
Ainge evidently saw the pick the same way, drafting Fab Melo, a developmental prospect at center out of Syracuse. Ainge said Melo would take a few years to develop, but a few years later Melo is already out of the NBA after lasting just one season in Boston. Kris Joseph joined the growing list of second round picks Ainge missed on, while Jared Sullinger was considered the steal of the draft after back issues caused the projected top five pick to fall to the Celtics at 21. But he then missed 37 games and the playoffs due to back issues.
Mickael Pietrus, brought in after Pierce was injured early in the year, never played well offensively and defensively at the same time. Jason Collins signed a one-year deal, and averaged over 1 point a game. Leandro Barbosa, four years removed from his last productive season, played 32 games. Darko Milicic became another buy-low candidate to not pan out for Ainge. Terrence Williams, D.J. White, and Shavlik Randolph all had cups of coffee with the team as Ainge shuffled through retread after retread, searching for a combination that could lift up the anemic bench. Barbosa and Collins were flipped for guard Jordan Crawford, who didn't earn consistent playing time until 2013-2014.
The Celtics finished 41-40 in seventh place in the East. The Knicks handled the Celtics in six games, as the Celtics' once-dominant defense could no longer prop up its ever-flailing offense.
With their disappointing first-round loss in mind, Ainge closed the window on the Big Three once and for all, trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for a bounty of draft picks and salaries to match. The move, in conjunction with Rondo's delayed return from his own ACL tear, signified a decided step back for the Boston Celtics, an admission that a rebuild was necessary.
Ainge brought in Butler coach Brad Stevens to lead the arduous journey back to contention. In a weak draft, Ainge surprisingly moved up three picks to get Kelly Olynyk, whom Ainge himself admitted probably wouldn't be a starter in the NBA.
The Celtics threw away the 2013-2014 season in their quest for a top-five pick. There's no need to rehash the horrors of last year here, but it should be noted that the Celtics ended up with the 6th overall pick.
Ainge has acquired countless draft picks and young players since the end of the Big Three era, and while a few look promising, they have little value around the league. Avery Bradley just signed a 4 year 32 million dollar contract with the Celtics, and he is the best regarded of their young prospects. His obvious talent is undermined by his inability to stay on the court. The most damning indication of this lack of value was Ainge's inability to entice Timberwolves President/GM/Coach/Parking Lot Attendant Flip Saunders with anyone on the roster when the Kevin Love Sweepstakes were underway.
Moving forward, it is unclear what the plan is. The team seems primed for a run at the 10th seed in the lowly East, too young to overcome their obvious lack of rim protection and perimeter scoring, yet too well-coached and too talented to fall low enough for a high lottery pick. Marcus Smart looks promising, Sullinger continues to develop, and Rajon Rondo should be healthy at some point. But the cupboard is being restocked frantically after years of ignoring the need to find and develop young talent.
The San Antonio Spurs have remained relevant for years because they have committed to developing their young players even after achieving success. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, among others, were added after the Spurs had already won titles. None of them were picked higher than 15th overall. Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger are all Ainge can point to, both fell to the Celtics due to injury concerns that have been realized. Bradley has played 205 of a possible 328 games, and while Sullinger played 74 last year, he shot 42% from the field and 27% from behind the arc, both numbers far below what are expected of a starting big man.
In the 6 years since the Celtics won the title, Ainge has drafted 2 promising players and 8 players who never produced in Boston or anywhere else (I'm ignoring Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and James Young because it is too soon to judge any of them). Ainge supporters will say that half of those picks were second round picks, but finding value late in the draft is what separates a good draft GM from a decent one.
During the lost 2013-2014 season, Brandon Bass averaged 11.1 points and 5.7 boards in 27 minutes a game for a Player Efficiency Rating of 15, exactly league average. He is the only veteran Ainge acquired after 2008 to have even one season with a league average PER, a relatively low baseline for a solid bench player.
Fans and ownership may have overlooked Ainge's questionable drafting and his predilection for bargain veterans that disappoint over the last 6 years, choosing instead to bask in the glow of the franchise's 17th NBA title. But the glow is gone, and the basking must stop now -- Danny Ainge must be held accountable.
The Celtics window got smaller and smaller as Ainge repeatedly paid for past performance instead of finding someone new, and ownership has done the same with him. The former Executive of the Year has not matched his 2007-08 performance since, but his reputation has not changed. Facing another lost season, Celtics fans and ownership must start asking some hard questions about Danny Ainge, or accept another decade-plus stretch of enduring mediocrity on the court and in the front office.