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The magic of Danny Ainge

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With Magic Johnson leaving the Lakers, it’s time to appreciate Danny Ainge’s job during this rebuild.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In the entertainment world, there are different mediums for different artists. If you’re an actor, the stage is where you have the most control of your performance. Television, on the other hand, is a writer’s playground where you can craft a story over multiple episodes and seasons. Directors are the auteurs of film. You know what you’re getting from Scorsese, Hitchcock, and Tarantino.

In sports, there are similar comparisons. Nowadays, baseball teams are seemingly built in a lab with analytics and moneyball economics guiding their front offices. The NFL belongs, well, to its owners and a league office that rules with an iron fist. The NBA, especially in this modern age, is run by its players. To large effect, they say who they’re going to play for, when they’re going to play, and where they’re going to play.

We can have our fun in light of Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation as President of Basketball Operations of our rival Lakers. The coming autopsies of the troubled franchise will be amusing. (Editor’s note: Bill Oram’s dissection of LA’s season dropped less than 24 hours before Magic’s impromptu press conference.) Adrian Wojnarowski’s Twitter timeline already reads like a true crime novel with either Magic killing off the Lakers or the Lakers killing off Magic.

At its core, Magic’s divorce from the Lakers feels like an ex-player uncomfortable with a new role, like an actor turned director not wanting to be too harsh on their cast. Tuesday night, Johnson talked about wanting to be an “ambassador” to the sport again, the Magic who could help guide the careers of opposing players and rising stars, without the scrutiny by the league office or the LA media. Running an NBA basketball team is an unforgiving business and one that few people can do and even fewer people can do well.

In this clip from Red Auerbach’s Winning Basketball video, Larry Bird is teaching the fundamentals of the pick-and-roll. The Chief is as stoic as ever, a willing statue in this X’s and O’s exercise. Bird and Kevin McHale are going through all the PnR scenarios and Danny Ainge is cast as the heel. As the three Hall of Famers dance around each other, Ainge is hit with pick after pick and scored on repeatedly.

It’s an unheralded role and not unlike what Danny Ainge does now for the franchise. It’s certainly been a frustrating year for the Celtics, but little blame can be laid on the feet of Ainge. He’s put together a roster with the best of both worlds: a veteran core of stars, a handful of promising young players, and first round draft picks to boot.

He’s built this enviable position with cold and calculated focus. Fans can fall in love with players; GM’s can’t. Over the years, Ainge picked up the nickname “Trader Danny” for his propensity to always be looking for the next deal and there are times when his business sense has overruled his heart, like when he dealt Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for a bag of basketballs and draft picks or when he traded Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s most beloved player in years. These are the kind of decisions that frankly, Magic failed to make.

Ainge has also rebuilt the franchise in his image. As a player, he was known as a feisty competitor. He was a good athlete with gifted IQ, but not the transcendent talent to be a superstar. You can see those fingerprints all over the selections of Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and particularly, Marcus Smart. None of them were the flashiest pick, but all had that common thread of scouts and experts doubting their ability in the pros. He’s taken what he’s learned as an ex-professional athlete and successfully applied it to being an executive.

Magic made the mistake of thinking that he couldn’t be himself running Showtime again. It’s not that he was prohibited from talking to Ben Simmons. It’s that he should have taken that hands-on approach with Lonzo Ball. During the playoffs, we’ll see Ainge in his familiar seat on the visitor’s baseline of TD Garden. He’s much more reserved now than when he was a player on the parquet, but once in a while, you’ll see him mix it up with a ref or the opposing team. He’s never changed and for that, I appreciate him.