It might be time to start asking the question “what in the world was Danny Ainge thinking?” a lot more often.
Over the last five years, the ex-Celtics president of basketball operations had a variety of plans to build a superteam blow up in his face. Not all of it is his fault, like Gordon Hayward getting hurt and Kyrie Irving deciding to leave, he simply took calculated risks and they didn’t work out. It happens, and it’s worse if he constantly was risk averse.
But his final transaction as the Celtics boss was laughably bad, and it could hurt Boston for years.
With the Celtics visibly not going anywhere, Ainge made the baffling decision to use part of the Hayward trade exception to take on the expiring contract of Evan Fournier.
The 28-year-old elected not to re-sign, instead joining the New York Knicks on a four-year deal. The Celtics used the other part of the Hayward trade exception to acquire Josh Richardson. He’s a fine player, but not exactly the kind of guy that is going to be able to help Jayson Tatum carry the Celtics to the next level.
With all that in mind, this nugget from MassLive’s Brian Robb should make Celtics fans irate.
“If the Celtics had maintained their full Hayward traded player exception for use in the offseason instead of using a chunk of it on acquiring Fournier as a rental, Boston could have taken in Al Horford’s 2021-22 salary ($27 million) into the Hayward exception before it expired later this month. That transaction would have opened the door for Boston to create a new trade exception worth $36 million for Kemba Walker’s outgoing salary to Oklahoma City.”
Now, you could argue this is revisionist history. Who was to know that Jaylen Brown was going to get hurt and miss the postseason, effectively torpedoing any chance of a deep playoff run? No one, but the reality is the Celtics showed no signs of being a team worth investing in leading up to the trade deadline, and Ainge, for reasons that still remain unclear, pulled the trigger on an inexplicable move. This 2020-21 Celtics were doomed, some might say from the start, but certainly after the deadline and it was downright irresponsible for Ainge to use the Hayward TPE like that.
In doing so, Ainge made it nearly impossible for Stevens to make any moves of note. If the Celtics want to swing an impact player in a trade, then they all but certainly have to move out Al Horford, a contract probably only the Celtics think is a good investment right now.
It seems clear the Celtics are just waiting until 2022 to do anything. That might make sense in theory, but the other side of things is that top free agents don’t really want to come to Boston. No matter how much Celtics fans try to say otherwise, Irving is an influential voice in the league, and he made clear he loathed Boston. The way Ainge treated Isaiah Thomas — right or wrong — might still scare some players away, too.
So, what happens if the Celtics can’t get anyone next offseason, either? Well, that’s likely three years of mediocrity heading into the offseason of 2023, while wasting years of your top players’ primes. Congratulations on becoming the Washington Wizards.
But like the meme of that kid holding his breath and his veins popping out of his head, Ainge just couldn’t control himself. He had to make a move at the deadline for a team that didn’t deserve it, and in doing so he hosed his successor. Stevens should be commended for not getting tied up in all the bad deals going around right now, but the truth of the matter is he didn’t really have much of a choice. Ainge left him no other option.
But hey, he did build that title winner almost a decade and a half ago.