BOSTON — This is not going to be easy — or pretty.
Danny Ainge has quite the challenge ahead of him, and while he sounds resolved to face it, he has not tried to hide the enormity of the situation in the past few days. He has freely used the word “rebuild,” foregoing euphemisms like “retool” or “reload” that his fellow executives in the four major sports love to kick around when they want to relay the idea that their teams are probably going to stink for a while.
The rebuilding process is underway on Causeway Street. It says a lot about the disingenuous nature of pro sports that it’s actually refreshing to hear a team executive own up to it for once.
Granted, Ainge is not a pillar of honesty. He has said quite a few things over the years, then gone out and done exactly the opposite. When he says he is not interested in trading Rajon Rondo, just about everyone understands that to mean he is interested in trading Rondo. But Ainge cannot hide from and is not glossing over the reality that a post-Paul Pierce, post-Kevin Garnett, post-Doc Rivers era of mediocrity has descended on the Celtics.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exciting,” Ainge said on Monday at an event to introduce Celtics draft picks Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson, as well as to unveil the renovated Mildred Avenue Teen Center in Mattapan. “It’s a challenge and I welcome that challenge. I’m re-energized to do it again. Being through it, I think the experience will help me. I think we’re a lot further along than we were before. It’s almost like I’m walking with a limp and I need surgery on my foot, and right now we’re going through surgery. You hope that everything’s going to be better, and I’ll be able to play again.”
This is as close as Ainge gets to playing the game at the NBA level anymore. As the director of basketball ops, he puts together what he thinks can be a winning team, then leaves it to the coaching staff and the players to figure out how to work it all together. With all his executive power, Ainge spends every game as a helpless bystander, just like each of the 18,624 fans at TD Garden.
Now, Ainge gets to play. He gets to compete, not just against 29 other teams, but against the rigid rules of the collective bargaining agreement. The Celtics roster does not offer much in the way of options this season. Ainge admitted that they have “too many” players, with logjams at power forward, small forward and shooting guard, while heading dangerously close to luxury tax territory in the coming season. No team envies the Celtics right now: expensive, not very good, yet not so bad that a high lottery pick is assured.
One, two, three strikes for Ainge, who was once a heck of a baseball player.
There is still a lot of work to be done, though, and to accomplish that, Ainge will have to get creative. He will have to compete. He will do all he can to get under the tax line, since there are few things worse in the NBA than paying the tax as a non-contending club. Celtics ownership is not hesitant to pay the tax — not even the prohibitive “repeater tax” that begins to kick in this season — but only when the situation is right. With a team stalking a low lottery pick or an even lower playoff spot, the situation is decidedly not right.
As dispassionate as Ainge is, part of him had to have a tough time dealing away Pierce and Garnett after watching Rivers depart. He’s only human. But he has said before that he does not want to repeat the errors toward the end of the last “Big Three” era in Boston, when the Celtics held onto Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for too long and took more than a decade to dig themselves out of the hole of irrelevancy. The hard decisions of the last week were an unfortunate necessity that, honestly, may not have a payoff.
“When you trade players of the significance of Paul and KG, and you talk about moving those guys, people expect that it’s some sort of guarantee that we’re going to rebuild and we’re going to be successful again,” Ainge said. “This just happens to be the best way, but it’s certainly not a guaranteed way to return to where we were. It just seems to be the only way. Our hope is to accumulate a lot of draft picks and younger players. We have a core group of guys we’re really excited about developing and continuing to watch their growth as the responsibility and expectations for them grow without the veteran players that have been so successful for us the last six years.”
Ainge, a born optimist, does not think that success is unachievable.
“There are no guarantees, but I expect us to be a championship contender again, absolutely,” Ainge said. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe we could get it accomplished.”
To use Ainge’s own analogy, the surgery he is about to put the Celtics through is far from routine. There is even a chance he could lose the patient. He was asked, jokingly, if he had consulted McHale, who went through his own debilitating foot issues during his career and walks with a limping gait to this day.
“No, because [McHale] didn’t do his rehab,” Ainge responded with a glint in his eye. “He’s still limping. He didn’t pay attention to the details.”
Unlike his former teammate, Ainge plans to pay attention to the details. Every last ugly one of them.