Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge Have Chance to Prove No Deal Was the Best Deal

Bill SperosSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 22, 2016

Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have the Celtics poised to make a strong run in the Eastern Conference playoffs
Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have the Celtics poised to make a strong run in the Eastern Conference playoffsGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The moment Tom Brady's two-point conversion attempt was intercepted in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game, the merciless and mythical 1 billion-watt Klieg light of New England's winter sports scene shifted toward the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.

The Celtics did not wilt.

They've responded to the Patriots' season-ending loss in Denver with a nifty 8-2 run that carried the team up through the Feb. 18 trade deadline.

Rumors of deals—big and small—flooded Twitter, Boston talk radio, the pages of both daily newspapers, cable TV shows and multiple websites, including this one.

The trade deadline passed with no recourse. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was reasonably happy with the team that this spring will (if things remain static in the Eastern Conference) attempt to win Boston's first playoff series in four years.

"We're not in the business of making a 27-game gain for a long-term price to pay," Ainge said during a post-trade deadline conference call.

The Celtics justified Ainge's faith in the status quo with Sunday's 121-101 win at Denver. Boston's all-around effort included 22 points and 12 assists from Isaiah Thomas, 20 points from Avery Bradley, and 16 points and 11 rebounds from Jared Sullinger.

Not to mention plays like this:

Boston's bench scored 44 points. It's this sort of all-around team effort that has been Boston's trademark this season. The Celtics are a season-high nine games over .500—33-24—and sit in third place in the East.

"It was a pretty active team performance," coach Brad Stevens said after the game.

After Sunday's victory, the Celtics were four games out the No. 2 spot in the East and 4.5 games from missing the playoffs entirely as the No. 9 seed.

Boston's perilous playoff position was likely one reason Ainge tried make a megadeal. He offered the golden-ticket potential of Brooklyn's first-round to an undisclosed suitor for an undisclosed sum.

And it was the other team, according to Ainge, that backed out. Not Boston.

The mystery team would have been surprising since rumors of the potential deal were never reported by any credible sources. Ainge made the post-deadline radio rounds in Boston on Friday. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (h/t James Herbert of CBSSports.com) reported the would-be Celtic was Philadelphia rookie center Jahlil Okafor.

The focus for Stevens, Ainge and the Celtics will be to make as deep a playoff run as possible. Any postseason success will be an improvement upon last season's first-round capitulation against Cleveland.

The pre-deadline talk of perhaps picking up Dwight Howard, Kevin Love or Al Horford seems antiquated and almost embarrassing in light of Ainge's remarks Friday. Okafor, at age 20, would have been a significant upgrade over any of the other big men the Celtics may had been attempting to acquire.

The Celtics released David Lee on Friday. Lee's release was the lone and last bit of financial maneuvering the team needed to complete before setting itself firmly for the duration of this season. Lee was acquired from Golden State seven months ago and battled injury during his short time with Boston. His slow, lumbering style and unwillingness to play consistently never quite fit into the fast-paced, smaller play favored by Stevens.

The Celtics play at Minnesota on Monday night to complete their three-game Western Conference trip. But for now, the biggest date on the Celtics' calendar may be May 17. That night, the metaphorical pingpong balls will determine the true worth of Brooklyn's first-round pick, currently owned by Boston.

The Celtics have placated mass unrest among their fanbase in spite of the team's 45-month playoff-series victory drought.

The Patriots have also provided the Celtics (and Bruins to a lesser extent) with an attention shield when it comes to the city's never-ending appetite for duck boat parades. New England's Super Bowl XLIX victory and the oxygen-devouring affair that remains "Deflategate" left millions across New England far too emotionally drained when it came time to manufacture anger about the ongoing frustrations and failures of the 17-time NBA champions.

That dynamic changed with New England's 20-18 loss on Jan. 24 to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

There was way too much winter left to ignore what the Celtics were doing.

Being stuck as the fourth violin of the Boston sports symphony can't be a long-term plan for success or viability—even for Ainge and a can-do-no-wrong coach like Stevens.

Ainge carries an immense amount of Causeway Street cred and political capital.

He was drafted by Boston in 1981 after a failed career with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was crucial part of the 1984 and '86 championship teams. He would eventually earn the endearing respect of his veteran teammates while caddying for Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson as a starter and shooting guard.

And those who remember watching Boston's original Big Three know that Ainge forever showed his testicular fortitude when he felled 7'1" Tree Rollins and got bit in the process during the 1983 playoffs. He's also one of the few NBA executives who can hold his own while trash-talking with Pat Riley.

Only Bill Belichick has enjoyed a longer current tenure than Ainge as team president/general manager/director of operations in Boston. The Celtics' last championship came in 2008, and the team hasn't been to the NBA Finals since 2010.

Contrast that record and length of rope to what was afforded former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. His Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reached the Cup Final in 2013. But once the Bruins missed the playoffs in 2015, he was fired.

Whatever post-Big Three (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce) honeymoon the Celtics have enjoyed is now over. Ainge may forever wear his green Teflon No. 44 in the eyes of the multitudes. Yet even he has admitted this team will have to be thinking big man and big deal once this season's run with the house's money is over.

"I think that sometimes these talks can set the table if there are future conversations off the ones that happen in this trade deadline," Ainge told WEEI's Ordway, Merloni & Fauria on Friday.

Translation: Once we know what that first-round pick is, we'll be shopping like it's Black Friday.

The Celtics lead the NBA with 89.4 shots per game. Isaiah Thomas leads the Celtics with 16.4 shots and 21.6 points per game.
The Celtics lead the NBA with 89.4 shots per game. Isaiah Thomas leads the Celtics with 16.4 shots and 21.6 points per game.David Dow/Getty Images

The success of the Celtics is rooted in the reality that their players have maxed their credit limits when it comes to buying into Stevens' philosophy of quick play, group defense and shooting whenever possible. Heading into Sunday's game, Boston's 89.4 shots per game led the NBA. The team sat seventh with 27.1 attempted three-pointers per game.

Boston launched 97 shots and hit 10 three-pointers Sunday. The number of shots and their wide-spread distribution are quick and easy ways to placate young players who might not want to exert the majority of their energy playing defense.

"We played our butts off," Sullinger said after Sunday's win. "We were five guys connected. We got the rust off. We got the rust off, and we're looking to move forward."

Team "insiders" will tell you the players have begun to trust in each other as much as their coach and that "team chemistry" has resulted in success in the standings. Combine that with a flawed Eastern Conference and Boston's recent victory over Cleveland, and expectations have thawed—if not warmed—for a respectable playoff run.

The immediate concern is the loss of Kelly Olynyk, who is expected to miss three weeks after suffering a partially separated shoulder against the Clippers on Feb. 10. Olynyk had his trademark flowing mane trimmed substantially while he was home in Canada during the All-Star break. The Celtics will use a rotation of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko to absorb Olynyk's minutes.

Thanks to Ainge's frugality and a widening salary cap, the Celtics could have nearly $50 million available to spend this offseason.

The bundle of Brooklyn's first pick and Boston's future draft bounty combined with the need for at least one big-time big man, that giant pot of free-agent money and renewed and heightened expectations makes it almost certain that Ainge will try to replicate a deal this offseason along the lines of the failed mystery trade.

As Bulpett noted, Bradley, Thomas and Jae Crowder combined will make less than the NBA's maximum contract this year. Their numbers will barely increase next season. Ainge signed Bradley to a four-year, $32 million deal in the summer of 2014. The criticism of two years ago has long been muted. At a mere $7,730,337 tab this season, Bradley's deal is the team's most lucrative. Yet he's the 94th-highest paid player in the league, according to ESPN.com's NBA salary tracker.

Bradley's annual salary will certainly be dwarfed by the Celtics' most expensive acquisition this upcoming offseason.

And the expectations of his team will be far greater as well.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who first covered the Celtics in 1987. He tweets at @RealOBF and can be reached at bsperos1@gmail.com.