At this point the NBA summer madness has embarked on its downward slide towards training camp. Executives formerly entrenched in round-the-clock pursuits of some of the NBA’s biggest stars are now heading from making short, morning telephone conversations to golf and the beach.
As the Celtics’ director of player personnel Austin Ainge put it, the offseason isn’t over but, it has certainly slowed down. He appeared on Larry H. Russell’s “Celtics Beat” podcast this Sunday and revealed what ultimately became the theme of the team’s summer, taking the monster swing for the fences.
Boston went into the offseason aiming to put a championship cast together and took an aggressive first step towards that goal, aiming for the two most distinguished free agents on the market in Kevin Durant and Al Horford. This was their “Plan A.” One ended up in Boston, one went to a certain team out West, and in the aftermath the Cs couldn’t generate enough momentum on a trade to bring another front-line contributor to the team. A central point of frustration for Ainge was the calendar set-up. Ainge believes that slating the draft weeks prior to free agency opening up would actually be the best way to set the table on the offseason.
“Most teams, the free agency determines the direction of the offseason...the calendar should be flipped...this summer there were 20-something teams with maximum cap space...many of those teams were sitting on that money at draft time...for the 1% hope of a maximum free agent coming to them”
There were holes to patch (the lack of shooting that haunted the Celtics in their six-game loss to the Hawks specifically), but on draft night they geared themselves more towards roster management. At that time they still had ambitions of adding two max players, and as tempting as it would have been to fill spots of need, the flexibility had to be maintained in his eyes. The need for flexibility is part of the issue with having free agency follow the draft, along with the fact that teams still had little idea of what direction they would take.
Boiling it down, Jaylen Brown checked every box the Celtics were looking for, so they made the pick instead of reaching for a trade. Brown’s signature hard-working personality impressed, and his potential versatility between the three and four positions is valuable in today’s league. Those qualities put him in a spot conducive to finding minutes—the key to development in Ainge’s eyes. Elsewhere the team drafted players they liked, but as he put it, you can’t develop six to seven rookies and “expect to win.”
“We thought he was the best player available and the best player to fit our roster. He fits very easily...playing time is a huge factor in development...most scouts would have ranked Jaylen extremely high before his freshman year...we felt like he had a solid freshman year, maybe not as high as expectations...it’s just amazing the expectations these highly rated high school prospects have...they’re narratives that don’t tell the whole story.”
An offseason development that Ainge began to see was that “price matters,” and with a massive cap spike, price was no option for teams across the league. That’s what hit Boston hardest: there was no pressure on the opposition to get a deal done.
When July opened up in a whirlwind of rumors and speculation that culminated in a rare Adrian Wojnarowski misstep, Horford ended up in the Celtics’ grasp. Landing Horford was all part of the Cs’ original plan and fit into the team’s vision of this summer, making them an instant contender.
“We had no idea on Al’s intentions...no idea on how much he liked us. Our goal last deadline was to maintain double max cap space...we were holding out for the home run...the home runs are what help you win championships.”
Everything was in place. Between role players, another max cap position, favorable contracts, and a fantastic coach. The final piece to “Plan A” had to fall into position, and unfortunately the fruit of the West proved to be too tempting for Durant. Looking around the league, Ainge didn’t see available players who could immediately improve upon what they already had in place.
What’s surprising is the Celtics may never have seriously sought complementary pieces like Jahlil Okafor, Gordon Hayward, and other often-mentioned names. They were holding out for the “home run,” as Ainge put it. They were only really interested in using assets to acquire someone to propel them into the championship conversation. Their players fill fantastic roles across the board in this system, and there simply didn’t seem to be a need for others of that caliber to management. But as his father said in the past, they realized again that a trade takes two.
We were aggressive in trade talks but those depend on price. We were just trying to make the best decisions we can....We’re trying to get a star but price matters. If our fans saw the prices on some of the trades, they’d say ‘Yeah they made the right decision.’
It’s hard to improve via trade on the guys we have. You can’t just go pick up guys better than Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder -- they usually aren’t available. We feel good about our players.
As hectic as the offseason got from an outside perspective, watching rumored Celtics connections fly from Russell Westbrook to Blake Griffin across the country and back, the period didn’t sound any less confusing to management. Ainge described the process of fighting for a move, calling other executives and touching base on certain players, hoping to hear back in the aftermath. The conversations never carried quite to where they wanted them to, and they could never develop a grip on how seriously other teams were taking their inquisitions.
Ainge didn’t get into who they were asking about specifically, but he did attribute the hard grasp teams generally showed towards their coveted players to the financial security present across the league.
“These are unprecedented cap spikes...now everybody can afford everything in these next two years because of the cap spikes...but I don’t expect those changes to be permanent”
There wasn’t any indication in the interview that the Celtics are done, because they’re always listening. But with the first preseason game just over a month away, Ainge did seem to speak about the offseason in a slightly retrospective tone.
As far as goals ahead, he stressed the importance of seeing young players finally make the jump and even placed an emphasis on two elder statesmen in particular to finally grab their hold of the team.
“Avery Bradley what an amazing year he had. It was unfortunate to see him go down but to see him receive the third most votes for defensive player of the year...with the way he shot the ball and helped us offensively it’s unbelievable. We need him to keep growing, we need Marcus Smart to make a jump...all of these guys focusing on progressing in their career.”
Bradley’s scoring was certainly a luxury before his season-ending injury. Elsewhere, Smart continues to be a name everybody is interested in discussing. Evan Turner does leave a grey area in his absence, and there doesn’t seem to be a player in a situation more qualified to take a leap with those minutes floating around than Smart entering his third year.
Ainge overall seemed extremely thrilled with what’s in place, and that’s exciting for fans. This team is incredibly talented, and Horford is a player that can further gel the personalities and skill-sets in place as he has his whole career. The interview closed with Ainge handing the team a generous “A-” on its offseason. It certainly fits with the biggest free-agent acquisition in team history landing here. They’re continuing to dream big when it comes to their future vision, and with an arsenal of assets still in place. If any move comes down the line, it’ll likely be low-risk high-reward in the mold of Gerald Green, or that home run we’ve all been craving.