The Boston Celtics are no longer championship contenders. They are, however, old and expensive, which effectively amounts to NBA purgatory. Many have rushed to blame Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge, for reasons including his cap management, personnel decisions and handling of the Doc Rivers saga.
While Ainge has certainly made his share of questionable decisions over the years, from the unpopular Kendrick Perkins trade to the mid-level exceptions spent on Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O'Neal, he has received too much blame for the Celtics' descent into mediocrity.
Here are three factors to consider when evaluating Ainge's role in how Boston ended up in NBA no-man's land.
Consistent Offseason Decisiveness
At the beginning of the season, Zach Lowe of Grantland had a great article about a theory on contention shared by most NBA executives. Dubbed by Rockets GM Daryl Morey as "the five percent rule," its premise centers on the rarity of even remote championship aspirations:
If you have some pieces, you're almost there, and if you're almost there, you go for it — even if the chances of toppling a superpower are slim. "If you've got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you've gotta be focused all on winning the title," says Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Mark Cuban, the Mavs' owner, agrees: "One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes," he says. "You don't want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself."
Danny Ainge has lived by this rule the past four seasons. The Celtics have consistently spent to the luxury tax in order to build the best possible supporting cast around their veteran core.
Yes, he's had his misses, but such is the nature of free agency when you can only use a mid-level exception and go bargain shopping for veteran minimums. Teams in similar cap situations haven't exactly fared well either.
At the moment, the Celtics are capped out for the next two seasons because of the moves Ainge made this offseason.
But hindsight is 20-20; many analysts were praising Ainge's free-agent signings at the time. Few expected him to lure Jason Terry away from the comfort of Dallas, and most saw Courtney Lee's acquisition for spare parts as a shrewd maneuver.
Only a tiny minority expected Terry to struggle so much as a catch-and-shoot option instead of a ball-handler, or for Lee to play his way out of the rotation come playoff time. The Celtics game within a game of making the 2012 NBA Finals, and these offseason upgrades gave them the best chance to make it back to that point.
Obviously the team never gelled and suffered a couple debilitating injuries, but no one can deny that at least on paper, the team looked better.
Of course, the Celtics would never have still had hope in Year 6 of a "three-year plan" if not for another one of Ainge's management habits.
Not Giving Away Trade Assets
Some believe Ainge's reluctance to trade Pierce and Garnett (and previously Ray Allen) is a sign of vacillation that has impaired Boston's rebuilding efforts.
However, it's not as if Ainge is unwilling to start over, based on the nonstop trade rumors swirling around the team the last two seasons. Rather, he is like a patient poker player who bides his time, not willing to go broke simply for the sake of action.
Pierce, KG and Doc Rivers (more on him in a bit) are the Celtics' best trade assets, since they will not be part of the rebuilding phase but can still help a contender.
In the past, Ainge has dangled his veterans and only received offers like Eric Gordon, Rudy Gay and, most laughably, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks. Some of those players have nice name value, but none is the type of player who will propel the C's to anything more than what the Atlanta Hawks have been the past few seasons.
The recent Clippers rumors have to make the Celtics faithful feel queasy. Does anyone really want to see Ainge ship away all of Boston's assets for DeAndre Jordan, a flawed young center with no post game and shakier defense than most realize? Or whose own coach said this about him following a playoff loss? Per Phil Collin of the Daily News:
I don’t know if crossroads is the right (word) but there’s definitely a level you have to play at right now that is much different. He has a much different responsibility now. He understands it. I haven’t seen the consistency that I like. He hasn’t seen the consistency he would like.
I didn’t see him controlling the game the way I thought he needed to, and at that stage you have to go with someone you feel can.
Moreover, Jordan's $10 million per year salary would have only provided Boston with minimal financial flexibility, even while shipping out Terry or Lee. Bad teams need to be young and cheap, and Ainge was wise not to relent simply for the sake of making a trade.
The Doc Rivers Saga
Of course, Ainge was nearly forced into making that trade because of the Celtics' suddenly tenuous relationship with Doc Rivers.
This conflict of interest lies at the heart of the Celtics' conundrum: They are a team that needs to move on, but the $7 million-a-year coach who is supposed to lead onward wants to jump ship instead.
Many point to Ainge as the root of the problem. For one, they argue, handing out an enormous extension to a coach leading a rebuilding effort is generally not the wisest plan, even if the Celtics were in contention for the first half of Rivers' contract. Second, Ainge's relentless shopping of Rivers has now arguably made the locker room a toxic environment.
Regarding the contract, $7 million per year is certainly a lot to pay any coach, let alone one who might be overseeing lottery teams for the next few seasons. Still, Ainge remains convinced Rivers is the right coach for the next era, as reported by Matt Burke of the Metro.
If that is the case, then it makes no sense to save a few bucks on someone like Vinny Del Negro, who would come cheap, but who also would likely leave the team in as bad a shape as he inherited it.
As for the potentially toxic locker room, that is entirely dependent on Doc Rivers' commitment to the Celtics. Rivers is one of the few coaches with the charisma and reputation where he could earn back his players' trust. Ainge was simply doing his job in shopping Rivers.
If Ainge could have stolen Jordan and Eric Bledsoe, plus future picks and meaningful cap flexibility, even the most stubborn Celtics fans would have to concede that deal. Now, with the Clippers rumors reopening as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, it appears the Celtics have the upper hand in leverage. By holding out, Ainge may get his franchise-changing trade after all.
Doc Rivers may or may not be the right man to help the Celtics transition into a new era. But Danny Ainge has already presided over one Boston turnaround, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. Like any championship contender, the Celtics will probably need another stroke of luck to turn around their fortunes. Ainge at least deserves a chance to prove he can do it again.