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In defense of Danny Ainge following the departure of another All-Star

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Boston watching Gordon Hayward walk out the door isn’t an indictment on Danny Ainge’s ability to keep them as much as it is the unfortunate reality of business in the NBA.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

On September 1st, 2017, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sat in front of reporters as new members of the Boston Celtics. Al Horford was coming off his first season in Beantown where he displayed his trademark two-way versatility while averaging a career-high five assists per game.

Stars are the linchpin to any title contending team yet are increasingly difficult to come by. In Irving, Horford, and Hayward, Danny Ainge had assembled an impressive trio in by convincing two to sign while seizing an golden opportunity to trade for another.

Those moves returned the Celtics to their comfort zone among the league’s contenders. If Ainge was the maestro behind their coming together, what is to be made of his involvement in trying to keep them after the final remaining player just bolted to Charlotte? Not as much as some still in a fit of rage and disappointment would like you to believe.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the one whose departure is easiest to explain. Despite what his words during his tenure would have led you to believe, Irving never wanted to be in Boston. The Celtics were not among the preferred teams he listed when he unexpectedly asked out of Cleveland.

“Kyrie Irving didn’t like Boston,” ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan said back in the summer of 2019. “I’ve been told this by many people. He didn’t like living in Boston. He just didn’t. By the end, he had issues with Brad [Stevens]. By the end, he had issues with Danny [Ainge]. By the end, he had issues with pretty much all of us.”

Does Irving’s desire to play elsewhere make sense considering the keys the Celtics were willing to hand over to a historic franchise on the cusp of championship glory? For someone whose desires to split from LeBron James stemmed largely from the pursuit of his own team, not really.

Nevertheless, when a player has the freedom to choose where they play, it’s hard for any front office to make a compelling argument for one of the places they don’t want to. Even more so when the chance to team up with a close friend was put on the table, Irving happily joined Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If Boston had any chance of re-signing Horford last offseason, the starting salary would have had to equal the $97 million given to the five-time All-Star by the 76ers.

For Ainge to acquiesce to those demands would be to make the same mistake Philly did. It took only one season for the Sixers to sober up and ship Horford’s bloated contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, for which Daryl Morey had to attach a first and second-round pick to get off of. Doesn’t that validate Ainge’s decision to let Horford walk to a division rival in the first place?

In Horford’s defense, he would’ve looked far more impressive as the lone big in Boston than he did within the Sixers’ cluttered starting unit sharing the front court with Joel Embiid, but not enough to earn north of $26 million a year until age 37.

Ainge’s refusal to match the Hornets’ four-year, $120 million offer for Hayward was not indicative of an indifference to the former All-Star’s return. The Celtics wanted Hayward back, so much so that their offer exceeded nine figures.

But in the same vein as Horford, paying an injury-prone 30-year-old $30 million a year for the next four years would do more harm than good in elevating Boston to The Finals.

An offer by Indiana also fell somewhere in the $100 million range with talks of a sign-and-trade with Boston to make it happen, which would’ve left the Celtics with something rather than nothing in the wake of Hayward’s departure.

“It’s not like the Pacers and the Celtics were offering $80 million dollars,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his latest Lowe Post podcast. “They weren’t offering $120 (million). But my best intel is something like 105, 108, 102, 110.”

Compared to your normal trade scenarios, S&T’s involve complicated negotiations that require the agreement of an added third party (the player) — see Milwaukee and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Hayward was “fully focused and wants to sign a deal with the Pacers.” If the rumors are true and the only reason Hayward is not a Pacer stems from Ainge’s greedy refusal of Indy’s trade offer (Lowe posited that the Celtics weren’t high on Myles Turner and the remaining three years on his contract), questioning his asset management skills is justified.

The more likely scenario is simply that neither Boston nor Indiana was going to match the $120 million Charlotte happily offered and the allure of championship contention or a heartwarming homecoming wasn’t enough to make up those missing millions, not when the Hornets also offer Hayward the role that has escaped him in Boston these last three seasons as a primary scorer and initiator.

“I don’t know if you can blame this on Danny Ainge,” wrote CelticsBlog’s own Jeff Clark in regards to Hayward’s departure. “If some random team was going to be willing to give Hayward that much money, he’s right to take that money and Danny is right to wish him happy trails. Maybe we all should have seen this coming based on the ‘it only takes one’ rule.”

The general consensus among NBA circles is that Horford’s contract is one of the worst in the league. The same now applies to Hayward’s new deal with Charlotte. So why the animosity towards Ainge for two bad contracts he clearly avoided?

Letting them walk doesn’t mean Ainge believes the Celtics are better off without either on the roster. He set a price point and was right not to exceed it. Those who think otherwise would likely be the same to chide Ainge down the road for having hamstrung Boston’s cap space in a way that leaves little room for improvement elsewhere.

Like nearly all contenders, the Celtics can only put so much money on the table to further their title hopes. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a more lucrative offer to poach away free agents like Horford and Hayward.

If you want to be angry at Boston’s ownership for not replicating Golden State’s luxury tax bill, then go for it. However, that they have avoided it is not an indictment on Ainge’s ability to retain star players. His perceived shortcomings are a product of the up-and-down business of the NBA every team has to maneuver around.