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Danny Ainge’s unmatched trade “math”

Ainge swung 66 trades in 18 years while leading the Boston Celtics front office

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Danny Ainge took over as the head of the Boston Celtics front office on 2003. By the time Ainge wrapped up his tenure in Boston, he had the title of President of Basketball Operations. If that title seems confusing, it’s ok to think of the more traditional General Manager moniker. Or to make it even more simply, when it came to the roster and hiring coaches, Ainge was the final decision-maker for over 18 years.

And make some final decision in 18 years, he did.

In those 18 years, Ainge earned the nickname “Trader Danny” by doing just that: making trades. He got started at his first draft with the Celtics by swapping Darius Songaila to the Sacramento Kings for 2003 second round pick (became Brandon Hunter) and a 2005 second round pick (became Oren Greene). From there, Ainge barely stopped the dealing.

In many ways, the Ainge era can be split into two distinct periods. There was everything he did to build the 2008 championship team featuring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and everything he did to stretch that window. The second period was everything from the time he traded Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn in 2013.

We’re going to call the first 10 years the pre-Nets trade period and the last eight years the post-Nets trade period.

Let’s take a look at the number of Ainge trades by year:

Pre-Nets trade:

· 2003-04 – 6

· 2004-05 – 4

· 2005-06 – 3

· 2006-07 – 4

· 2007-08 – 2

· 2008-09 – 3

· 2009-10 – 1

· 2010-11 – 3

· 2011-12 – 3

· 2012-13 – 3

· Total – 32 trades

Post-Nets trade:

· 2013-14 – 6

· 2014-15 – 11

· 2015-16 – 3

· 2016-17 – 1

· 2017-18 – 3

· 2018-19 – 2

· 2019-20 – 3

· 2020-21 – 5

· Total – 34 trades

In the pre-Nets trade period, Ainge swung 32 total deals, starting with the Songaila trade and ending with trade of head coach Doc Rivers to the LA Clippers.

The other 30 deals in that period were a mixed bag. Kendrick Perkins, who anchored the defense of the 2008 title team, was acquired at the 2003 NBA Draft for Boston College product Troy Bell. In that first season at the helm, Ainge made six trades. He slowed down a bit the next season with just four trades, but a fun one happened in there. Ainge acquired and then traded the pick he would eventually re-acquire later that became Rajon Rondo!

In August of 2005, Ainge and the Celtics were part of the largest trade in NBA history. Boston helped pull of a five-team trade that included the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, the then-New Orleans Hornets and the Utah Jazz. This deal included 11 players, draft rights to two players and two second round picks.

Boston’s haul from that mega trade? Qyntel Woods, the draft rights to Albert Miralles and two second round picks that later became Edin Bavcic and Nikola Pekovic. The Celtics gave up Antoine Walker (the second time Ainge traded him!) in exchange for four guys who never wore the green and white.

A few other highlights from the pre-Nets trade period? Acquiring Michael Olowokandi and Wally Szczerbiak and a first round pick in a 2006 pre-trade deadline deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves that helped set the stage for the Kevin Garnett trade a year-and-a-half later was a pretty big one.

Later in 2006, at the NBA Draft, Ainge acquired the draft rights to Rajon Rondo, after previously acquiring that pick and later trading it. Ainge moved on from once-savior Raef LaFrentz later that night as Boston acquired Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair, in a trade where there was much handwringing over losing Randy Foye’s draft rights.

Then Ainge got serious. Real serious.

At the 2007 NBA Draft, he traded Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the draft rights to Jeff Green to the Seattle SuperSonics for Ray Allen and the draft rights to Glen Davis.

Many wondered how Allen, on the wrong side of 30-years-old and with ankle issues, was going to help a team that had struggled to rebuild around Paul Pierce. But this trade was the first indicator to Kevin Garnett that Ainge and Boston were serious about winning.

Approximately a month later, Ainge swung the most-important trade of his 18-year tenure by acquiring Garnett for five players and two first round picks. That trade directly got Boston their 17th championship.

For the next six seasons, Ainge’s trades were around the edges for the most part. Many were designed to strengthen the bench. In 2011, with Shaquille O’Neal getting healthy (that lasted for about five minutes), Ainge dealt away Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to give Boston a depth upgrade.

A couple of years later it was a trade for Courtney Lee to fill out the bench. And then acquiring Jordan Crawford for more of the same.

And then that first phase of Ainge’s Boston front office career ended.

With the team signaling they were going to rebuild, Ainge traded Doc Rivers to the LA Clippers for a first round pick that later became R.J. Hunter. The NBA shortly thereafter let teams know that trading coaches wasn’t something they necessary wanted to see.

A few days later, at the 2013 NBA Draft, all hell broke loose. News broke that Ainge was trading Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for five players, three first round picks and the right to swap picks in two years. Later that same night, Ainge traded up to draft Kelly Olynyk.

The rest of that season saw four more trades, as Ainge tried to rebuild the team for Brad Stevens. It was in 2014-15 when things really got wild.

After a quiet draft night, Ainge pulled off two summer deals when he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers clear some cap space by acquiring Tyler Zeller, and then later moved Kris Humphries on to the Washington Wizards. On the eve of training camp, Ainge again hooked up with Cleveland by moving some contracts around to create flexibility.

Then Ainge got going.

Up to the 2015 trade deadline, Ainge made seven more trades. This included making four trades in one week from January 9, 2015 to January 15, 2015. Some players were acquired and then traded away in the span of just a couple of months on the team, including Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright and Austin Rivers.

At the buzzer of the 2015 trade deadline, Ainge completed his final trade of the season by acquiring Isaiah Thomas in a three-team deal with the Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons. That traded also netted the team Celtics legends Gigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko.

Things got quiet for a couple more years, then in the summer of 2017, Ainge had to get creative to create the cap space to sign Gordon Hayward. That started with a gutsy move to trade back from the first overall pick at the 2017 NBA Draft to acquire the third pick, which was used to draft Jayson Tatum.

That trade saved a bit of cap space, but something else had to give and Avery Bradley was shipped out of town for Marcus Morris. The cap space to sign Hayward was there, but Ainge wasn’t done.

At the end of August, after some back and forth and medical mishaps, Ainge traded for Kyrie Irving. He spent the last of the picks from the Nets to do so, along with Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder.

After the big summer of 2017, things went pretty quiet again. Then Terry Rozier was signed and traded for Kemba Walker in 2019 in the rare double sign-and-trade. Then Boston hooked up with Charlotte again a year later on a Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade. That created the largest trade exception in NBA history, of which a chunk was used to acquire Evan Fournier.

All in all, Ainge made 66 trades in 18 years while leading Boston’s front office. There were some stinkers in the bunch for sure, but more often than not, he came out ahead as he made an average of 3.6 trades per year.

Trade analytics aren’t really a thing, because it often takes years to know who truly won or lost a trade. Sometimes, trades can’t even be evaluated that simply. But when you build a title team around older players, and stretch that to a six-year window, you’re doing something right.

When your second act is to rebuild a team on the fly into a title contender around a rookie coach, with a revolving door of a roster, you’re doing something right.

Danny Ainge was never afraid to go for it. He made 66 trades and probably 10 times as many “almost” trades. As a fan, all you can really ask for is for your GM to be aggressive.

Ainge did it for as long and as well as anyone in an era where NBA teams stay together for about two or three years. By making trade after trade, Ainge had Boston in contention for over half of his run. That’s doing something right.

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