For the first two years of the rebuild, Danny Ainge had Celtics fans rooting for laundry. After gutting the final Big Three roster in the summer of 2013 and and turning the team into a revolving door the following year, he stopped swinging the wrecking ball and started putting mortar to brick with the rebuild.
“Trader Danny” has earned his nickname. Ainge is one of the shrewdest executives in the league. There isn’t a GM with his recent record of flipping every asset into another, collecting a war chest of pieces for future use, and being ready to deal when opportunity knocks. But that’s the business side of it. Over the last two seasons, his moves didn’t just amount to kicking the can down the road for future draft picks and expiring contracts.
Behind the curtain with Brad Stevens out front, Ainge carefully constructed a roster of “chip on their shoulder” players eager to prove themselves, underplayed and undervalued by the rest of the league. He didn’t start building this team with blue chip prospects; he first put down a foundation of blue collar workers. Consider the draft position of a majority of last year’s starters: Isaiah Thomas (60th), Avery Bradley (19th), Jae Crowder (34th), and Amir Johnson (56th).
But in this summer of change, “Trader Danny” might as well have traded his nickname too, because “Traitor Danny” might seem more fitting now.
Gone is Avery Bradley, the previously longest tenured Celtic with the only ties to championship teams past. Now, nobody will have KG on speed dial for a motivational pep yelling before a big game. Gone is Jae Crowder, whose TOUGHNESS can only be described in all caps. And gone is Isaiah Thomas, the undersized underdog who had become the living, breathing embodiment of Danny’s vision.
For now, we're just prisoners of the moment while Boston waits out the trade clock as Cleveland decides on their next move. Even if the trade goes through and we can officially call Kyrie Irving a Celtic, this pause in off-season action raises an important question: who are these Celtics?
The best teams know who they are. The Warriors have a style that dictates their game and their winning. History informs the future in San Antonio with Gregg Popovich bridging the ears together. And for better or for worse, the Cavaliers’ fate is directly tied to LeBron James. The Celtics are entering Year 5 under Stevens, but there’s more uncertainty now than there has ever been. The talent level might be higher. The expectations certainly are. But their identity is still undefined.
A part of me wants the trade to fall through. Call me an optimist, but I don’t think a voided trade burns down everything that the team has built. There may be some hard feelings between IT, Crowder, and management, but those guys made a connection with the city and its fans and I can see them coming back even hungrier than before because we’ll embrace them even harder.
But if the trade goes through, there are embers from last season’s team still flickering in the ashes. The fire will still burn between the two former Butler Bulldogs, Stevens and Gordon Hayward. Hayward mentioned in his Players' Tribune piece that the biggest motivation for coming to Boston was because of "unfinished business" between him and his college coach. Marcus Smart’s cobra strike will still have its sting. Al Horford’s veteran presence will still shepherd a youth movement with eleven new faces on the roster. Kyrie Irving will be motivated to justify his trade demand from LeBron after three straight Finals appearances.
This team has a chance to raise Banner #18 and if Ainge continues to prop open the championship window bigger and wider, #19 and #20, too. But what will define them? How will they win? What will we remember?
Training camp starts in a month.