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The Danny Ainge story: damned if you deal, damned if you don’t

Trading Boston’s beloved Isaiah Thomas was supposedly a bad look for the Celtics. Separating Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens would have been bad optics, according to some. So why the strong reaction now?

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Since trading Isaiah Thomas, I’ve been told ad nauseum that Danny Ainge’s reputation is permanently damaged and free agents don’t want to sign here anymore. Since then, we’ve seen Kemba Walker wiggle his way out of Charlotte and into a Celtics uniform. Sure, Michael Jordan didn’t want to pay him, but why would Kemba want to play here after the IT trade?

The answer is pretty simple: he was recruited by Jayson Tatum to play on a good basketball team. We don’t now if Kemba weighed the Isaiah trade before he agreed to the sign-and-trade, but we can conclude it wasn’t meaningful enough to keep him away. And if that’s not enough, Isaiah Thomas himself has contacted Ainge on a return to Boston since being traded.

“If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back,” Thomas said he told the general manager.

According to Thomas, Ainge was receptive to the idea but indicated that his team needed to first see how Marcus Smart’s restricted free agency unfolded. By the time the reserve guard returned to Boston last week on a four-year, $52 million contract, Thomas had gone with the bird in hand, settling for the veteran’s minimum in Denver.

Isaiah’s desire to return and Kemba’s acceptance of his new team don’t necessarily dictate how other players view coming to Boston, but how many examples do we need? Are we sure the supposed stench of the trade is still lingering over three years later? Was Kyrie Irving’s subsequent meltdown not enough karmic retribution?

If anything, trading Aron Baynes to make room for Kemba was the most cutthroat Ainge move in recent years. Baynes re-signed under the impression he’d be staying, only to be moved for cap space to a floundering Suns franchise shortly after. That’s rough.

Then, we had to have the whole “bad optics” conversation again with the idea of moving Hayward at the trade deadline because it would have supposedly damaged Ainge’s reputation for similar reasons the Isaiah trade did. Except it’s even more baffling with the Hayward situation because there was a equally frustrating narrative attached to him that he was Brad’s favorite player and therefore received more playing time than he deserved after coming back from injury.

The idea that Gordon Hayward starting in fifteen of the team’s first sixteen games derailed an entire season is insane. And the funny thing is that it was hardly Kyrie who sabotaged the regular season. I’m not sure how he got away with it, but I respect Terry Rozier’s ability to hijack the offense for 20+ minutes per night and dodge any negative coverage. Truly, without any sarcasm attached—I’m happy that he got paid somewhere.

More to the point, Max Kellerman makes a fantastic prediction after Stephen A. drags Hayward:

“There’s going to be a good test case to see who’s right about this, you or me. Let’s see how they function as a team next year, ‘cause you know Kyrie’s out of here. And I’ll bet you Hayward’s not. Right? If Kyrie’s gone and Hayward’s not, my prediction is they’ll function very well as a team without Kyrie next year.

Now you might sit there and say ‘Well ok, Max, Hayward had a year to get better, and so now he’s a baller. And so it’s a little different.’ And it will be a little different. But what you will notice next year if when you take Kyrie out, everyone else is gonna get more involved.”

So first, the fuss is over Hayward holding the team back. Then, it becomes taboo to suggest trading him because of how it’ll affect the team’s reputation with future free agents. Now, the rage is over not trading him.

The bottom line of this isn’t complicated. Ainge does not have any control of where any unrestricted free agent signs. If you think Ainge let him slip away because the Boston/Indiana trade didn’t go through immediately, then we have to ask ourselves this: why not? Here are two possible answers:

1) The two teams couldn’t decide on what salary filler should go to Boston in addition to Myles Turner.

2) Something was holding up Hayward’s decision to agree to the sign-and-trade.

The issue I see is that people may have combined these two issues to come to the following conclusion: the time it took to negotiate was too long, and therefore Hayward had enough time to talk himself out of going to Indiana. Had the deal already been done, Hayward would have signed off before the Hornets could swoop in. This is only possible if there was no offer from Charlotte on the table until several hours after the Boston/Indiana negotiations started. I don’t think that was the case, and here’s why.

MJ didn’t call Hayward to offer him a contract. He called him to close the deal on an offer that was already on the table. I’m not sure the phone call was the deciding factor, but Lowe’s intel seems to imply that the offer had been ruminating in Hayward’s mind for a bit.

So, what am I supposed to be mad about here? Am I supposed to feel strongly about the Charlotte Hornets maxing Hayward after choosing not to pay Kemba Walker? Supermax deals are usually a trap, but Walker would have taken less, according to ESPN:

“Yeah, why not? I would take less, for sure,” Walker said Thursday during his youth basketball camp at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte.

The eight-year NBA veteran said the Hornets remain his first priority, but he said he is “pretty sure” he will meet with other interested teams before making a decision about his future.

Walker, 29, said he is eager to hear what other teams have to offer.

“That all factors in [to my decision] when I sit down with the teams and hear what guys have to say,” Walker said. “I think that will all come into play. I’m not really sure right now. Like I said, Charlotte is my first priority and I have to see what [the Hornets] have to offer, as well as other teams.”

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak previously said the team will do “everything we can” to re-sign Walker, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Sure, it’s mildly disappointing that Boston didn’t get the chance to turn Hayward’s departure into a sign-and-trade with Indiana. Truthfully--and I know this is unpopular--I didn’t really want to buy into Myles Turner. At the time of writing, it’s still possible for Boston to turn Hayward into a gigantic trade exception if the Hornets want to swing something that doesn’t force them to waive and stretch Nic Batum’s contract to make space.

Hayward was undeniably a great player when he was healthy last season. He also missed over 100 games in the last three seasons, and the Celtics weren’t far from making The Finals without him on not one, but two trips to the Conference Finals. He is not replaceable, but the core of the team is already acclimated to playing without him and very good at that.

For Ainge, it’s ultimately a lose-lose affair. He’s either a war criminal for trading players or he’s an asset hoarder for not pulling the trigger. Maybe it comes with the territory of being one of the longest tenured executives in sports and working with one of the most historic franchises in basketball. Sam Presti is currently being showered with praise for turning three MVP’s into 25 draft picks. Why isn’t Ainge held to the same standard?

Look, we’re on the Tatum timeline now. He’s only 22 and just signed the max rookie extension. The only path forward with Hayward was to out-bid everyone else, which is not something I would have done either to optimize Tatum’s contract. A sign-and-trade with Hayward would have been preferable, but dealing with it ten months ago would have been ideal, but that’s revisionist history, the same revisionist history that damns Danny time and time again. I didn’t see widespread panic about not trading Hayward back then, so there’s really no reason for it now.

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