As the clock ticked down toward the NBA trade deadline, Danny Ainge wasn’t standing on the corner of Causeway Street and Lomasney Way, desperately trying to pawn off the spare parts of this dilapidated roster.
That’s the image some have mistakenly conjured of the Boston Celtics’ president of basketball operations, one of fear and panic, a beaten man in a beaten season. The Celtics are 19-36, have lost three of their last four games and their best player, point guard Rajon Rondo, is still getting used to his surgically repaired right knee. Ainge’s job is to make the Celtics a good team.
Both before and after 3 p.m. ET Thursday, the Celtics were not a good team. So, by that measure, Ainge has failed.
Yet winning is not the only barometer of success for a team in the Celtics’ position. This isn’t some ingrained flaw unique to the NBA, either, so save your anti-basketball diatribes; teams in every sport go through rebuilding stages — remember, “Suck for Luck” came three years before “Riggin’ for Wiggins.” But thanks to his work to this point, Ainge was dealing from a position of strength heading into the trade deadline. He didn’t make a deal, because he didn’t have to.
Let’s reset for a moment. Coming into the season, the prime concerns for the Celtics were to capitalize on their draft position and allow for financial flexibility in the future. Just because the Celtics got off to a reasonably strong start to the season and have a couple of unwieldy contracts in Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green doesn’t mean either goal is in jeopardy. Only the most naive, unreasonable or disingenuous observers would demand Ainge shed more than $70 million in payroll overnight. The Celtics still have some $70 million on the books for this season. In the long run, though, they are sitting pretty.
Kris Humphries’ $12 million, Jerryd Bayless’ $3.1 million and the rest of Keith Bogans’ $15 million contracts disappear at the end of the season without Ainge lifting a finger. Brandon Bass’ $6.9 million and Rajon Rondo’s $12.9 million are gone next summer, too, if your sole concern is shedding salary. By the summer of 2015, the Celtics will had subtracted nearly $38 million from their payroll. And all they have to do to make sure that happens is to do nothing.
Meanwhile, those draft picks — as many as 10 first-rounders over the next five years — aren’t going anywhere for now. The Celtics have their own first this year, plus an extra first coming their way from Atlanta or Brooklyn. Ainge loves draft picks, and right now he’s flush with them.
This is why Ainge wasn’t desperate to make a move before the deadline. Perhaps he could have made a deal to put himself in a more advantageous position, but no rival executive was going to come along and make an offer that would make Boston’s already bright prospects even brighter. The Celtics held the upper hand.
Even more, they still do. Rondo has another season left on his contract, while Jared Sullinger should be a bargain next season at $1.4 million. The Celtics are flush with draft picks for the next five years, meaning Ainge can continue to put together low-cost talent for the foreseeable future or flip his high-value assets for franchise-changing stars. Either option is a potential winner for the Celtics. Draft night 2014 could be a interesting couple hours of wheeling and dealing for Ainge and his crew.
Remember, the last two rebuilding eras for the Celtics weren’t quick. They went six years between playoff appearances in the late 1990s and endured two terrible years before the process was fast-tracked in 2007. There is no easy way to a championship, otherwise the Celtics’ 17 banners wouldn’t be so impressive.
Ainge didn’t lay the foundation for the Celtics’ next great era on Thursday, because he’s still digging the hole. For now, it just looks like a hole — a really, really deep hole — but that doesn’t mean it won’t result in a gorgeous house by the time the construction is done.