Tonight Danny Ainge can pat himself on the back one more time for his signature move, as the payoff concludes and releases the Nets from its grasp.
The Celtics will head to the playoffs for the third straight year, following only one season away in 2013-14. First, they’ll say goodbye and thank you to the Nets, who will head home after finishing at the bottom of the east for the second straight season.
Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett, a move that brought Boston its 17th championship, but his rebuild through Brooklyn that followed by boldly dumping Garnett and a still-productive Paul Pierce might supersede the original move as his best. It opened one of the fastests rebuilds in NBA history, that still hasn’t reached its climax. This could still become the move that conceives a championship.
It’s hard to imagine that the deal was controversial at the time. Sides debated whether the Celtics were giving up too soon, or if the return dumped too much dead weight on Boston. But given the context, the Celtics were going from perennial Finals discussion to a rookie head coach and future seemingly dedicated to Rajon Rondo. The regret remained that Boston could’ve won one more with this group had a few factors swung the other way.
The immediate outcome flipped Finals contender status on the Nets, including a now-infamous Sports Illustrated cover, and mounted Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and the unbearable thought of eating Gerald Wallace’s three-year contract on the Celtics’ hands.
It was hard to look past all that to the future; 2014, 2016 and 2018 first-round picks with absolutely no protection, along with an overlooked 2017 pick-swap. Even with Pierce and Garnett’s final iteration of the Celtics fizzling out in the first-round to the Knicks, few expected Brooklyn’s run to end as quickly as it did.
But after a brief year of watching the Celtics flip nearly a trade per week while Brooklyn battled into the second round behind Pierce’s heroics, things capsized in Brooklyn and began to shift in Boston’s favor.
Signing Brad Stevens emerged as a top-three Ainge move, up there with the summer of 2007 and the Brooklyn trade. He somehow orchestrated 25 wins out of a team that rarely had Rondo, was led by Jeff Green in scoring and whose salary leader (Wallace) spent more minutes leaning on the table by the end of the bench and heaving half-court shots before games than he played in games (58 played).
That season yielded Marcus Smart, a successful tank job, but the potential of the Brooklyn pick seemed to hold little potential in the near future. This rebuild would take time.
That was until Pierce left Brooklyn for the Wizards, an unimaginable twist that cast the Nets into dire straights. Through a mix of Stevens’ establishment of a hustling culture, and sensational Rondo, Isaiah Thomas trades through the winter, the Celtics improbably surmounted the Nets’ record in 2014-15.
Brooklyn let Joe Johnson and Deron Williams go, traded Garnett to the Timberwolves and suddenly Brook Lopez was all alone. The KG-Pierce era lasted one season, and in the first of two consecutive draft-day payoffs, Boston rode into the playoffs while also watching the lottery race daily.
Enter Jaylen Brown, then Jayson Tatum and an additional pick from the 76ers for positioning that Brooklyn bought Boston in the 2017 NBA Draft. The last of the Nets’ seemingly never-ending payment to Boston was used as the centerpiece of a trade that brought Kyrie Irving to Boston. Now the Cavaliers can enjoy a round of #NetsPick on lottery night in June.
Tonight, Brown and Tatum will lead Boston into their season finale as their greatest hope for postseason contention. Their immediate impact, consistent double-digit scorers and dynamic offensive talents with potential superstardom in their future, helps ease the pain of injuries to Gordon Hayward and Irving that derailed championship hopes to Boston.
Brooklyn will look on horizontally, again finishing out a season defined by all the losing with none of the fun of anticipating draft night. Few of the masterminds behind one of the worst blunders in NBA history remain, even Jay Z skipped out as their celebrity face for the moment, but they’ve done some things right. They ate salary in the name of gathering assets and middling picks, but nothing will make up for the thought of what could’ve been.
Brooklyns’s officially free from their captivity next year, when De’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jeremy Lin and Spencer Dinwiddie could lead a high-paced, fun offensive attack that they hoped would emerge this season under Kenny Atkinson.
Their run-and-gun system, predicated on everyone shooting, produced one of just five seasons with 1,000 three-pointers converted by a team in league history, even after suffering their own season-ending injury on opening night when Lin went down.
But they still must be patient; for next fall, then for bad contracts to get off the books, then for the first true fruit of their losing efforts to fall their way in 2019.
For Brooklyn, the waiting game that many in Boston expected after waving goodbye to Pierce instead fell on the team originally expected by some to win the trade.
Thanks to them, the Celtics might already have their next Pierce.