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Translating Danny Ainge before the trade deadline

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In a wide-ranging interview with MassLive, the Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations seemed to not only map out the franchise’s moves for the next week, but also the next few seasons.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kemba Walker & Enes Kanter Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

In a wide-ranging interview with MassLive’s Brian Robb, Danny Ainge not so subtly mapped out the rest of the season for the Celtics. With the trade deadline a week away, all eyes are on how he chooses to use the Traded Player Exception and whether or not he cashes in on some of the young players on the roster and trades them for an impact player.

Spoiler alert: none of that seems likely before March 25th.

Here’s a brief GM-speak to blogboy translation:

“I like the guys on the team, but I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit, and we have to try to find, you know, fit, along with the right talent, but each and every player on this team, I do like and think that they can help.”

And later...

“I mean, I always go into the trading deadline, thinking that there’s something that we can do to help our team. And whether it’s 2018 or 2010 or 2021, like I always try to go in thinking but I’ve also been around long enough to know that sometimes change in even personalities, even if you get an upgrade and talented (player), personalities don’t work.”

The Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals two of the last three years and yet, over the last three off-seasons, Ainge did not trade draft picks to bolster those rosters. Instead, he’s brought in nine players on rookie contracts (including Tacko Fall and Javonte Green). If you include Semi Ojeleye, that’s ten players on the current roster playing on their first deals in the NBA.

While the team isn’t exactly gelling on the floor, I don’t doubt that Ainge is trying to rebuild a locker room and more so, a team culture that was wrecked after the 2019 season. He obviously likes these players and I’m assuming that Brad Stevens and the two young stars, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, do, too. At 20-20, it’s just a matter of whether or not team chemistry will supersede a demand for change in order to win.

“You know of course we want, you know some of these players that are mentioned and names that were mentioned but unfortunately they’re not gettable, just like (some) players on our team aren’t gettable, especially right now.”

And later...

“We all see, we all see the world differently in the value of players, and it’s not that, you know, I value our players more than anybody else values their players, like, we all like and dislike some things about our teams. But finding the right fit, finding the right partner in trades is, is not as easy as people think. And then, a player that our fans will think that we should acquire, we probably have tried to acquire.”

I think we can all put aside any thought of adding Harrison Barnes, Aaron Gordon, or Nikola Vucevic. Not only does it sound like the Kings and the Magic have no interest in dealing them, but Ainge seems content standing pat and riding this season out. The combination of this unique season and time in history coupled with a lack of a full training camp and practices and a new playoff system could turn 2020-2021 into a acceptable gap year for Ainge and ownership.

“That’s another thing is with all the free agents that we have in the market this year. There’s a lot of players in the last year of their contracts. We really don’t have interest in acquiring a player that’s going to be a free agent (in the offseason) that’s probably going to get a lot more money than we think he’s worth.”

As vague as that sounds, that seems oddly specific to a very popular name out there in the Twitterverse: John Collins. Collins is the final year of his rookie deal and reportedly turned down an extension with the Hawks in order to pursue a max or close-to-max contract this summer. So, while Boston might be interested in bringing him into the fold as a player fit on the floor, his demands and self-valuation might put him out of the Celtics’ price range.

The most notable free agent for Boston is Daniel Theis. He signed a two-year, $10 million contract in 2019 but he’ll be worth at least double that this summer. For Ainge, even at, say, two years for $25 million or three years for $30 million, that might be a more effective use of that cap space vs. giving up future assets for Collins and signing him to a hefty contract. And you also have to remember that next year is the final season of Marcus Smart’s deal. Retaining him will at worst be a consideration and at best a priority.

“And so, it almost appears that, you know, we’re looking at, we don’t just look for trade deadline right this minute. We’re looking to try to build our team, you know, over the next year, two years, three years. And so the trade deadline is probably the least important time in building a team as you just pretty much agreed, based on the history of our league.”

We’ve discussed this ad nauseum in our CelticsBlog Slack for the last week: are the Celtics rebuilding or are they in win-now mode? On one hand, they have two current All-Stars, a four-time All-Star, and a First Team All-Defensive player. Everything should be done to maximize that window of opportunity. On the other, the Celtics and Danny Ainge are so obviously embracing the youth movement. It’s why Robert Williams will likely still be a Celtic on March 26th and why Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford will (probably) soon supplant Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye in the rotation.

Maybe this is all smoke. Maybe Ainge granted this exclusive interview as part of a posturing strategy to force another front office’s hand.

Or maybe he’s just telling the truth.

Make sure to check out Brian Robb’s full interview with Danny Ainge over at MassLive.