While many will point solely to the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as the reason Boston has surged back into the NBA's elite group, I like to look at it from a different angle.
This is not to under-score what KG and Allen have brought to the table. Not in the least.
Allen consistently spread defenses thin with his perimeter stroke, while KG's post play and hybrid offensive abilities not only give defenses fits, they also have enabled Kendrick Perkins to elevate his post game to that next level.
And then there's Garnett's intensity and passion, perhaps the single most valuable intangible that any one player has across the four major sports.
Yet I digress, because the topic of this article is not how Ainge pried away two hungry, sure-thing Hall of Famers following the 2007 Draft.
No, this article addresses how Ainge's success and creativity in the draft since becoming GM not only allowed those two block-bluster deals to happen, they also created the supplementary group that, along with the Big Three, has made the Celtics what they are today.
It's important to look at drafting when analyzing the foundation for team success. The draft is the simplest, and most equitable, way to improve your core group from year to year. The guidelines are the same from year to year, each team has a pick that underlies their standing in the league, and trades are open season for all GMs.
Studying systematic draft trends is a practice that yields inconsistent findings, however. It's hard to assess how, and why, general managers and scouts act the way they do on draft day. From a year to year basis, how can certain teams of talent evaluators be so right with one pick, and others can be so wrong with another?
When you study Ainge's work since becoming Celtics GM in 2003, however, there is a measure of consistency to his work. This is not to say Ainge has been perfect, because he hasn't. The Sabastian Telfair nightmare was a horrible usage of the seventh-overall pick in 2006. Gerald Green was taken at No. 18 in 2005 and hasn't materialized into "the next Tracy McGrady," as Ainge once declared.
But here's an important point to remember—no one is perfect in the draft. That isn't a comment from a Celtics fan meant to give token sympathy to Ainge, it's a fact.
In every major sport, every team can celebrate the great bargains of their draft history while also looking at some of the major blunders they've made over the years. No organization can look at a five- or ten-year history of drafting and proclaim the overall process a total success.
So as we look at Ainge's overall body of work, remember that a) the draft, especially in the NBA given the young age of many players and the increasingly potent international dynamic permeating the league, is an imperfect process, and b) the number-one goal of any GM is, realistically, to make picks from year to year that manifest into solid NBA contributors.
In other words, don't waste your picks. Even if a player doesn't fit your scheme or model perfectly, if he's a valuable NBA contributor in some way, he's an asset. Assets are good things.
With those two things in mind, here is a yearly breakdown of Celtics drafts since Ainge became GM of the Celtics in 2003:
Selected Troy Bell No. 16, Dahntay Jones No. 20, and Brandon Hunter (No. 56). He then shipped Bell to Memphis for Marcus Banks (taken at No. 13), and D. Jones to Denver for Kendrick Perkins (taken at No. 27).
So Ainge took the first-round 16th and 20th picks and turned them into the 13th and 27th. Interesting that he moved down, so to speak, sacrificing two players in the top 20 for two in the top 27.
Let's look at what the players have become though. Bell is out of the NBA, Jones is an occasional starter and sixth man in Denver, Perk is a legitmate NBA center with a ring, and Banks is an eighth or ninth man in Miami. The second-rounder Hunter is out of the NBA as well.
So with two first-rounders and a late second-rounder, the Celtics ended up with Perkins, who has taken some years of seasoning and development, but is now the cornerstone of Boston's interior defense.
Considering the players acquired next to the players swapped in the draft day dealings, I'd say Ainge got the better end of the deal. This was a creative draft process, to say the least.
Selected Al Jefferson #15, Delonte West #24, Tony Allen #25, and Justin Reed at #40.
Pretty impressive that Ainge took three guys in the first round who are all solid NBA players today. Al Jeff is a star, Delonte is a starter, and T. Allen is a very solid bench player on the best team in the league—a guy who'd start for 10 or so bad teams out there.
Jefferson and West were used to acquire KG and Allen—and Boston's first title since '86—while Allen is a key part of the current makeup of the team.
In relative terms, this was a hugely successful draft for Ainge. The only other team with multiple picks in the first round that year, Portland, took Sabby Telfair and Sergei Monia. Just an example of how taking reliable NBA contributors is not, in any way, a sure thing.
Gerald Green was taken at No. 18, Ryan Gomes at No. 50, and Orien Green at No. 53.
This was the one year Ainge kind of swung and missed in the draft, as Green has not developed into a starter with either Minnesota or Dallas (his current team). David Lee, Brandon Bass, Monta Ellis, and Nate Robinson were all taken after Green.
Gomes was a find in the second round, though, and was one of the pieces used to acquire KG. O.Green at No. 53 didn't materialize, but few players at that spot do.
Boston had the #7 pick and took Randy Foye, then dealt him to Minnesota via Portland in the Telfair deal.
This was a horrible deal for Ainge and the Celtics. Boston took on Telfair, Raef LaFrentz, and Dan Dickau for the seventh-overall pick.
With not one good player coming Boston's way, this draft day deal could be described as one of the few times in which Ainge's creative mind and penchant for dealing betrayed him. Telfair simply was not, and is not, the player Ainge thought he might be at point guard.
Typically, though, Ainge rescued himself by selecting Rajon Rondo at No. 21, and later got post bruiser Leon Powe via Denver at No. 49. Considering Rondo and Powe's development and their corresponding roles in the Celtics' NBA title, it's hard to knock this draft too harshly, especially considering the overall weakness of the draft class as a whole.
Still, Ainge could have simply taken Rudy Gay or a host of other players at No. 7, along with Rondo and Powe.
Selected Jeff Green at No. 5 after losing out on the Oden/Durant sweepstakes, then shipped him with Delonte West to Seattle for Ray Allen. Ainge later snagged USC graduate Gabe Pruitt at No. 32, who is a decent backup point guard, and then got Big Baby Davis at No. 35 from Seattle in the Allen deal.
This was, essentially, a draft dictated by the changing mindset in Boston. Ainge and the Celtic ownership could have taken Jeff Green and coupled him with Pierce, Jefferson, and West and tried to build upon that.
They elected to deal for the older Ray Allen, knowing they could bait Garnett with the package of Pierce and Allen in place.
This is the draft that saved the Celtics, but it was built upon the drafts of previous years, where solid young assets were stock-piled, assets that gave Ainge enough chips on the table to swing the Seattle and Minnesota deals.
Ainge followed up the Celtics title by taking J.R. Giddens at No.30, Bill Walker at No. 47, and Semih Erden (Turkey) at No. 60.
It's simply too early to judge any of these guys or Ainge's process as a whole.
So if you look at the previous breakdown, I think you'll conclude that Danny Ainge—while by no means perfect—is very talented at taking NBA-ready talent, especially in the later rounds, and assessing collegiate talent on a year-to-year basis.
Look at the guys Ainge has acquired at No. 20 or lower since 2003: Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Ryan Gomes, Glen Davis, Leon Powe, and Delonte West. All NBA contributors, all assets.
And while his trading history prior to the Garnett and Allen deals was mixed at best, you have to credit Ainge for acquiring enough young assets between 2003-2006 to make the Seattle trade a possibility, something that then made the blockbuster with Minnesota an attractive enough scenario for Kevin Garnett to bite on.