BOSTON — Give Danny Ainge credit for framing the conversation. The agreement to send Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets was not even finalized Thursday night when the Celtics president of basketball operations did his best to set expectations extremely low for the coming season, and possibly beyond.
Draft night is often the time for NBA team executives to act like the collection of teenagers and early 20-somethings they just acquired are the second comings. A year ago, Ainge and then-assistant general manager Ryan McDonough spoke glowingly of Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph. Only Sullinger spent considerable time with the Celtics last season, but listening to the Celtics’ brass on that night in the bowels of TD Garden, an observer could have been convinced to run out and pre-order his No. 43 Joseph jersey that night.
Ainge made no such effort to pump up Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, the No. 13 pick the Celtics acquired in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks, on Thursday. He praised the 7-foot, 238-pound swing forward’s shooting ability, passing skills and basketball IQ, but he left little doubt that Olynyk is merely a piece in the rebuild that is already underway. Olynyk is far from a franchise centerpiece.
At least Ainge knows what he is getting, and at least he is honest.
“Kelly was a guy we think complements [Rajon] Rondo and Avery [Bradley] and Jeff [Green],” Ainge said. “He’s just a really good complementary player. He’s not a go-to guy. He’s not a star player. He’s a really good teammate-type of player for those other guys.”
Conspicuously absent from that list of players, of course, were two future Hall of Fame players who will one day have their digits hanging from the rafters of TD Garden. Without explicitly stating that Pierce and Garnett had been dealt — league rules prohibit Ainge from discussing the trade publicly before it is official — Ainge implicitly confirmed reports of the deal not just by leaving their names out of his comments, but by referring several times to his plan to for a long-term rebuild. It goes without saying that such a rebuild doesn’t happen with two stars in their mid-to-late 30s.
Olynyk is not Garnett’s replacement, even if his lithe frame and penchant for taking 18-footers may resemble the late-model Garnett. Olynyk is not even a true big man, not really, and Ainge acknowledged that playing Olynyk and incumbent power forward Jared Sullinger together could be complicated.
“I look at [Olynyk] as a four,” Ainge said. “I think both of them are bigs. The game is getting smaller. I think they could easily play backup four and five. As a combination playing a lot of minutes or being a starting championship tandem, I don’t really see that fit, but I do see them being able to complement each other on the court and playing together for long stretches.”
When an executive comes out immediately after drafting a player and states that player is probably not capable of leading his team to a championship, that says a lot. Surely, Ainge likes Olynyk as a player. He would not have traded up to 13th from the 16th slot otherwise.
Ainge obviously wanted to set the benchmark, though. He set it early, and he set it low. When he said of Olynyk, “We liked him enough to get him,” Ainge may have set a new standard for the most tepid praise ever given by an executive about a player he had just drafted. In a way, he is doing everyone a favor. The Celtics are probably going to be remarkably mediocre for a while. Ainge just wants to make sure nobody is surprised when next season rolls around and Olynyk is just another nice player who may or may not be around once the Celtics get good again.
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