NBA Trade Season, Upheavals in the East and a Recent History of Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s Moves Leading to Turbulent Possibilities for Boston
Two seemingly conflicting things can be true at the same time. Our social media age loves conflict and verbal jousting, but if you step back from the bottomless pit, you realize life isn’t usually black-and-white. The layers of gray are endless…or at least 50 shades deep. Is Kyrie Irving going to stay in Boston? Is he allowed to decide at the last moment? Are NBA fans just vessels for clickbait rumors?
In July 2013, Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded longtime Celtics legend Paul Pierce and shorter-time Celtics legend Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for a boatload of likely-high-value lottery picks, and keep in mind the lottery odds were even better for awful teams then.
Ainge, Stevens and Celtics Team-Building Strategies
Since that moment, Ainge has skillfully bought low and sold high. The Celtics collective ability to increase individual player’s value made the transaction-heavy approach a win-win for team and players.
Thanks in part to Brad Stevens’ ability to minimize individual deficiencies and create good offensive looks for players who often struggle to create their own, Ainge was able to craft a contending team, that seemingly overachieved, while amassing more valuable picks. Look no further than Evan Turner’s basketball reference page, to see the impact of Brad Stevens on a player. Sometimes a young player languishes in the wrong situation. Some don’t develop in their early 20s as much as hoped. The “second draft” strategy has become a popular GM strategy.
It’s hard to argue with the results of most of Ainge’s decisions. In December, 2014, he and the Celtics staff targeted Jae Crowder, a high-energy, versatile forward in Dallas. The Mavs were eager to land a point guard, and took on a post-injury Rajon Rondo. By then Rondo was still a passing savant, but questionably committed to defense and the Celtics. I hated to see Rondo go, but as soon as Crowder put on a Celtics uniform, it was clear how valuable he would become.
A few months later, Ainge and his staff traded a protected 1st round pick and Marcus Thornton for Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko and the inimitable Gigi Datome. This was one of the best deals of the last several years. Tempting to call it a swindle, when you consider how instantly IT became the offensive weapon the team had been sorely lacking.
Isaiah Thomas’ Rise…Injury…and Danny’s Trade
Between February 2014 and August 2017, Isaiah developed into one of the most dominant scorers under 6 feet in the history of the game. At his peak, in 2016–17, he averaged 29 points, 6 assists, connecting on 38% of his threes, and making 91% of his 8.5 free-throw attempts per game. The hip injury that lingered at the end of the season into those playoffs didn’t deter him from unleashing that scoring in the playoffs. Neither did the tragic death of his sister after Game 1 of the First Round series with Chicago. Thomas kept going through the adversity and emotional roller-coaster, propelling Boston into the East Finals by torching the Washington Wizards in Game 7 classic. It was likely he aggravated that existing hip issue over that incredible stretch. He was the people’s hero and was an insanely clutch 4th quarter scorer in Boston. Then he was out with the hip. Then the Celtics lost easily to those LeBron-led Cavs. Two months after the Finals, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the last of those valuable Brooklyn lottery picks (which turned into Collin Sexton with the 8th pick) to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving and filler.
From a buy-low, sell-high perspective (the stock market has seeped into NBA talk so insidiously over the last decade I can’t take it), Ainge did everything right. Fans in Boston were torn. Kyrie seemed like an ideal superstar to build around and his hip wasn’t a question (his knee later became a question…all NBA players are humans with bodies that will eventually sustain injuries). He was a few years younger than Isaiah. Still…for those that watch the game for more than the thrill of a Celtics jerseys beating other team’s jerseys, and who watch for more than the chance for “their” team to win a title, the trade was a gut-punch. No, it was a one-two punch. Gut then jaw.
“There is no loyalty in professional sports.” We hear when athletes use their hard-earned rights as free-agents to choose their next career destination. We’ve only more recently started to hear it from the player perspective. In the past, players who were traded were not given a mouthpiece to express what that meant. Fans could call in to talk radio and complain, but nobody really thought deeply about the power structure.
Most New England Patriots fans seem to worship Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for their consistent success. The idea that players are supposed to “do their job,” is a badge of honor for the team and its fan-base. The “shut up” is implied. “Shut up and do your job.”
As if the job is in a factory, the factory workers have no union (as is the case these days) and they should feel privileged for the honor to bash their brains in on a weekly basis…until some other body part gives out and their very short careers are over and they’re forgotten about.
Not the same in the NBA or Major League Baseball (though the modern free-agency/team collusion issue in baseball is a whole nother topic). In the NBA, the balance of power has shifted from team to player, as the value of individual player’s to team success is so clearly obvious, and even more identifiable in the analytics-age.
Back to the Celtics: Kyrie exercised his own power in demanding a trade from the LeBron-led Cavs. This was unprecedented. Nobody ever went out on a professional limb and expressed a desire to leave LeBron. Always the other way around. Kyrie is not a follower. He is a leader. Or at least wanted to become one. Drafted onto a moribound Cavs team, then given LeBron’s return, Kyrie’s ascent into superstardom was attached to LeBron’s dominance. Kyrie used that newfound prominence to beat LeBron to the punch and demanded to leave Cleveland before James, who eventually signed with the Lakers last summer.
A team that again over-achieved last year with those picks (Tatum, Brown, Rozier and Smart, with Horford’s leadership (sensing a trend?), was getting two All-Stars back from injury. Kyrie and Gordon Hayward. The excitement and expectations ran wild. Taking the East now that LeBron moved West!
Expectations Breed Turmoil
Fast-forward to a few months ago. During the preseason, Kyrie expressed his desire to return to Boston when he hit free-agency in July 2019. I repeat: there is no loyalty in professional sports. But when a player of his caliber says he wants to stay, fans run with it. It becomes a given. Maybe he said it then so he wouldn’t have to deal with the rumor madness that he’s dealing with now. Maybe he believed the Celtics would be the best team in the East and he’d be entirely out from under that shadow he used to feel. Maybe he thought Gordon Hayward’s explosiveness would return by December (it hasn’t). Maybe he thought Jayson Tatum would more eagerly take a back seat (he hasn’t). Maybe he didn’t realize how young his teammates were. Maybe he minimized how important their own individual careers would be them. It was nice to imagine Terry Rozier (soon to be free-agent who excelled in his starting role in last year’s playoffs) taking the enormous pay-cut he is likely to receive based on a lack of opportunity. Rozier could have demanded a trade, but he was likely right to realize he doesn’t have that clout established yet, and it might have backfired and created a reputation he doesn’t want. It was nice to imagine Jaylen Brown was now going to hit 38–40% of his three-pointers while enjoying a reduced role. It was nice to imagine Gordon Hayward would regain his All-Star form. All of it was nice.
Still, after starting 10–10 and creating endless debates about what went wrong, the Celtics have regained their mojo. Every Stevens team seems to hit its stride around the 50-game mark, thanks in part to all the roster flux.
Eastern Conference Contenders in 2019
With Toronto and Milwaukee establishing themselves early in the season, it appears all-but-certain that the Celtics can realistically hope to capture the 3rd seed in the East. All of this before the Sixers decide to go for broke, trading for Jimmy Butler two months ago, and now Tobias Harris. The Sixers starting five is now as talented as any roster outside of the Bay Area. Their depth and chemistry is yet to be determined. In the East, there are clearly four teams with a realistic shot at the NBA Finals. Indiana was creeping into the discussion until Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury.
Back to Player Power: Anthony Davis Wants Out
Then Anthony Davis demands out of New Orleans, a year and a half ahead of his free-agency. Anthony Davis is so dominant, so valuable an asset, he has the power to do this. He has the leverage to say where he’s “likely” to re-sign. Now we come full-circle. The players as human beings, whose careers are often dictated by general managers. His father says he won’t re-sign with Boston after Ainge’s treatment of Isaiah (trading the heart and soul of a team after a devastating injury). As a quirk of the collective bargaining agreement (known as the “Rose Rule”) the Celtics can’t trade for Davis while Kyrie is still on the original rookie extension (expires at the end of June, when Kyrie becomes a free-agent). The Knicks, who appear to be going all-in on this summer’s free-agency, clear enough for two maximum slots by trading their future center/centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis, to Dallas. Davis’ demand puts pressure on New Orleans to trade him or create a circus…even though the future of the franchise is completely uncertain and will be determined by the ripple effects of this deal. The Lakers offer everyone not named LeBron. But the Celtics have all those extra 1st round picks Ainge has been collecting…and they have the arguably the best young scorer in the NBA, only in his second year: Jayson Tatum.
All NBA fans outside of Golden State are in a holding pattern. The Warriors will deal with their Durant situation in late June and early July.
What to make of all of this: there may be no loyalty in the NBA, or the NFL, or MLB…but there does seem to be karma.
We’ll see how the playoffs unfold. We’ll see what Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and the majority of the best NBA players want to do with their decision-making power. Don’t expect the rumors to stop anytime soon. And don’t blame the players for this. They are doing their jobs.