He's been making slim, under-the-radar moves since the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett explosion went final on July 12, 2013. Everything from bringing over Vitor Faverani from Spain through the recent contract for Chris Johnson, as reported by Chris Forsberg of ESPN, has been subtle.
In between those two moves, there was the salary-shedding trade of Courtney Lee for Jerryd Bayless and the space-clearing deal to send Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks out west. Ainge did that to open up minutes in the backcourt for Phil Pressey and a returning Rajon Rondo.
Ainge's reputation has him playing the boisterous trade-maker, wheeling and dealing big pieces and talking a big game to opposing GMs—sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes not. Wherever he could find an edge to exploit, Ainge was there to finagle a deal.
There is no doubt something big in the back of his mind right now, but when there isn't a ton available on the market, Ainge still has to satiate that reputation. He'll do so by seeking out these mini deals involving role players, and he'll try to pull one over on someone.
It is all a game, and Ainge remains one of the best and most active players. Go ahead, flip the jackal switch.
Flipping Brandon Bass for expiring Washington Wizards contracts
Brandon Bass' role on the Boston Celtics roster has been shrinking for some time now. Jared Sullinger has performed at such a level that he has supplanted him as the starting power forward. Thanks to a fairly weak frontcourt and non-existent center depth, Bass has still been playing and starting games at center, but the writing is on the wall.
Boston would like to see more of Kelly Olynyk before the year is through, and Kris Humphries is on a valuable expiring contract. He could also be re-signed after the season for possibly a chunk less than the $6.9 million Bass will make. He would likely also return at least a second-round pick from Washington.
To find a suitor for Bass, it makes sense to look for a contender—specifically one needing to add depth to its frontcourt. Bass would make an excellent addition to the Washington Wizards.
Washington is currently in fifth place in the Eastern Conference but is only a couple games out of a No. 3 seed. That would mean home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Trevor Booker has been doing a solid job as the team's third big but hasn't played a lot of high-profile games. He's never seen the NBA playoffs and never made it out of the NCAA tournament's first round with Clemson. Bass is also a player that will provide more range. On mid-range jumpers between eight and 16 feet, Bass is 63-of-126, per NBA.com.
The Wizards could upgrade from Booker to Bass for the price of a couple expiring contracts. Really, pairing anyone from the grouping of Booker (restricted free agent), Jan Vesely (unrestricted free agent), Kevin Seraphin (RFA) and Eric Maynor ($2.1 million player option) would make up enough salary to equal Bass.
This move wouldn't turn many heads, but it would definitely bolster the Wizards' chances at a better seed and will help their performance when they get to the postseason. It would also shed another chunk of salary for Ainge this summer, which will be useful when it comes to possible extensions for both Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and a free agent to be named later.
Dealing a Jerryd Bayless package to Chicago Bulls for Mike Dunleavy
This deal is heavily predicated on what the Chicago Bulls' plans are moving forward. Shedding Luol Deng a few weeks ago means they aren't 100 percent in on this season, despite a seemingly inevitable playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls have their own 2014 first-round pick and possibly an additional one from the Charlotte Bobcats (top-10 protected). If they are looking to really supplement and overhaul their roster this summer, every little bit of cash helps. Therefore, dealing Dunleavy's 2014-15 $3.3 million contract for Jerryd Bayless' expiring $3.1 million makes some sense.
The Celtics would have to make the deal a bit more enticing, likely, since Dunleavy is playing very well and is more valuable than Bayless. He isn't playing first-rounder valuable, but a second-round pick or two could do the trick.
Dunleavy gives Boston a much better backup wing option than Gerald Wallace and insurance to start if there is a bigger Jeff Green trade on the horizon.
According to Tom Thibodeau, Dunleavy is a perfect player for Brad Stevens to have as a rookie head coach. Guys who understand their role and the role of others while also knowing how to play off different types of players are crucial. This is especially true for a team with a ball-dominant point guard like Rajon Rondo.
"Obviously, Mike is a very good catch-and-shoot player and provides space for your post-up players. But he feeds the post extremely well," Thibodeau told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "I think he understands ball movement, knows when to make the extra pass. I think he also knows how to move without the ball."
On the other side, the Bulls shed an additional $3 million or so from next year's books. The small forward position is now wide open, and they have some more money to go after the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony/Rudy Gay/Gordon Hayward class of potential free-agent wings.
This alone doesn't give the Bulls enough money. However, coupling a small move like this with an amnesty of Carlos Boozer might free up enough for a max contract this summer.
Sending big-man help to Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks are another Eastern Conference team duking it out in the playoff race of mediocrity, currently holding on to the No. 4 seed. After Al Horford went down for the season, they lost their only real advantage over any of the other teams filling up seeds three through eight.
The rest of that roster is still too good to tank, though, and thus they are stuck around .500 and looking at a middle seed in the postseason. If their focus is on improving what they can to get through this year and making another run next season with Horford, the one area needing major improvement is rebounding.
Horford led the team in scoring and rebounding. They are still scoring the ball well in his absence but grabbing a 26th-best 40.8 rebounds per game right now. That number dropped to 38.5 in January. The Celtics are an average rebounding team but have a few individuals who excel at it.
At least two of those guys are available right now. Depending on the route Atlanta wants to go, Kris Humphries could provide immediate rebounding help. The Hawks are actually one of the few teams in the league capable of taking on his $12 million salary this season. Humphries is a perfect one-year stop-gap, whose contract expires before Horford returns next season.
The other options would be Vitor Faverani or Brandon Bass. Both are longer-term commitments contract-wise. Faverani is a solid rebounder with center size, while Bass would bolster more the offensive side of the ball and bring extra postseason experience.
What the Hawks have to offer in return is little in terms of NBA players.
Perhaps Elton Brand's expiring $4 million along with small expirings in Jared Cunningham and Gustavo Ayon would be worth it. There is also quality youth, though the Hawks are using most of it. Shelvin Mack, the current backup point guard, has obvious history with Brad Stevens, and Atlanta has Dennis Schroder waiting in the wings.
Even more attractive is the Hawks' right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets first this summer, before the Celtics get that pick. They also hold rights to swap with Brooklyn in 2015. Incentives like those are very attractive to Ainge.
None of these deals will make or break a team's season, but Ainge is building something brick by brick. Right now, those bricks are scarce and he is taking what he can get, where he can get it.
Salary information provided by Basketball Insiders.