The Celtics have a complicated history with trades, rumors, and free agency. Danny Ainge was labelled both as an asset hoarder and someone who would trade his own son if it helped the salary cap situation.
He was lambasted for trading Isaiah Thomas and skewered for not trading everyone else. Letting star free agents walk away crippled the franchise, and yet the same free agents were holding the team back. Accurate or not, every compliment and criticism of Ainge was burned into the Celtics’ DNA, which is what happens when you’re one of the longest tenured GM’s in the league.
It was a common refrain to say that teams were hesitant to trade with the Celtics after they came out comically ahead on several trades. The truth is that Boston’s trove of assets always dictated the price of their potential trade targets, meaning that nothing was getting done if Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and multiple early-to-mid first rounders weren’t on the table. In reality, everybody wanted to trade with the Celtics because they had attractive pieces that ultimately, Ainge valued more.
Case in point, Evan Fournier was acquired for two second-round picks at this year’s trade deadline. How did the Celtics get him for so cheap? I’m not sure how nobody outbid them, but the main takeaway is that deal was only possible because the Celtics only had so many assets left to give. The “fleece or no deal” narrative was fun, and I even believed it for a while, but the evidence pretty clearly states that trade value changes based on what teams are negotiating and more importantly from the Celtics’ perspective, what Boston has to give.
What about the time Anthony Davis’ dad said he wanted AD to stay far away from Boston after how they treated Isaiah Thomas?
And the plot thickens ... pic.twitter.com/FTkmkTtePY— Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix) February 2, 2019
To some, this adds to the idea that stars don’t want to play in Boston. Kyrie Irving put an exclamation point on that narrative during the playoffs. To me, this was a godsend. The more the AD saga played out and seeing how much the Lakers were bled for to obtain him, the less interested I was in giving anything up to get him.
The same can be said about Blake Griffin, who was supposedly told to cross Boston off his list of potential destinations because the Celtics were dysfunctional. Forget the fact that Brooklyn was clearly primed for a deeper playoff run, and forget the fact that Griffin doesn’t have it on defense anymore. Yes, Boston had their internal issues this season, but Griffin’s final decision had more to do with external forces. Still, this will somehow be framed as Danny’s fault.
Don’t take this as me running interference for Ainge. I still can’t believe he got off scot-free for sending Aron Baynes to Phoenix shortly after re-signing him to a two-year deal. I also don’t understand why he doesn’t get more flak for using the Desmond Bane pick to dump Enes Kanter.
Legitimate criticisms of his tenure are ripe to be discussed, but it’s always the fabricated outrage that makes headlines. This is all an excessively roundabout way of saying the only headlines that matter are the ones that stick. The NBA might be the most narrative-driven league in all of pro sports, which is to say when something sticks, it sticks. Forever.
Does a fresh face mean a clean slate? Newly minted President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens hardly let a moment pass after his promotion before trading Kemba Walker, which could be a signal to the league that Boston’s front office philosophy is unchanged. Basketball, it seems, remains a business.
After bringing back Al Horford (and clearing the deck for a potential big move down the road) and hiring Ime Udoka, the consensus has been generally positive for Stevens’ first month on the job, but it’ll only remain positive for as long as the Kemba Walker/Al Horford swap looks profitable and Udoka energizes the team after a mediocre season. Whether or not that sounds threatening or promising is up to your interpretation.
The Celtics tend to make big picture trades that allow them to be competitive in the short term while creating flexibility in the future (see: Al/Kemba swap). Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the only Celtics under contract for the 2023-24 season, pending extensions for Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier. That’s where the Brad Stevens era truly starts. He’ll be judged under intense scrutiny in the short term, but it’ll be a year or two until there’s a roster attributed to his own name. I mean, some more trades could change that, but I’ve assumed that Brad’s hiring is a signal that a more significant roster shakeup isn’t coming.
So, we’re at a crossroads. One sign says, “it’s potentially easier to negotiate trades now that the spooky, scary Danny Ainge isn’t around anymore” and the other says “the Celtics might not be looking at any big trades if they’re replacing Ainge with Brad Stevens and maintaining status quo.” Where do we go from here? Maybe trading Kemba renders all the speculation useless and the Celtics will continue to be as ruthless as ever. Maybe the national media will move on from the idea that the Celtics have everyone on the trading block at all times and they can’t be trusted. All I know is that if everything is a “maybe,” then the Celtics have a clean slate moving forward.
Why is that important? Because the players read everything. Simple as that. A soft reset could benefit the Celtics, who could seriously use some bench depth this offseason. Nothing dramatic, but some solid veteran signings would go a long way. This is the most pressure to improve the team that any Celtics GM has had on them in a long time, so let’s hope this offseason is a good one.