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Danny Ainge, Rajon Rondo, and the Art of Invisible Greatness

Quietly and slowly, Danny Ainge is rebuilding the Celtics, as he did once before, into a team capable of matching the franchise's legacy.
Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Long-tenured GMs are kind of like NBA refs, or even cinematographers or sound editors: they get skewered if they fuck up, and with the best ones, you don't even really know they were there. In that case, Celtics GM Danny Ainge may well be basketball's answer to Emmanuel Lubezki or Skip Lievsay (for the uninformed, the 2014 Oscar winners, respectively, for Gravity).

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Yes, that Danny Ainge, the eternally non-descript front office maestro, vanilla as lily white BYU from whence he came, and above all, successfully building something sturdy in Boston since 2003; the team's future shape and exact content, though, currently unknown.

In a league where being remembered for something makes you a known entity—Daryl Morey's sabermetric-fueled Rockets revolution, the Zen Master's drowning Knicks, the Sam Hinkie Experience and Philly's one-way trip to standings hell/lottery paradise—Ainge's 12 seasons in charge haven't been especially flashy, despite single-handedly introducing 'Big Three' to the American sports vernacular.

Instead: consistent and considered, loyal not stupid, and unfailingly flexible, Ainge's proven himself adept at maneuvering the ever-shifting NBA title scavenger hunt, where success is relative, timing tricky, and mediocrity loudly warned against at all costs by Magic Johnson. Just ask Joe Dumars how easy it is to reconfigure a former Eastern Conference mini-dynasty, who maybe now is finally living out his calling as a telephone operator.

With success now seemingly faded and the Celtics' cupboard as bare as ever after jettisoning mercurial last man standing Rajon Rondo, a swift glance at Ainge's recent history should be enough for Celtics fanatics to keep the Mormon faith going forward (as should a measly $8 million in salary committed in 2016-17 and the league's biggest war chest of draft picks, with eight first rounders in the next four years).


Remarkable, though, how quickly we forget the C's could well be sitting atop three titles in seven seasons, if not for a Ron Artest three, Rasheed Wallace running out of gas, or the referees fixing Game 7 of the 2010 Finals (a video produced, presumably, in New England); or The King's Christening and 45-point Game 6 blitzkrieg in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals (where Boston even held a Game 7 fourth-quarter lead in Miami).

Alas, the Celtics raise a solitary 2008 Champions banner at TD Garden, and perhaps with it, hanging a perception that Ainge simply rode the coattails of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen's first season, despite engineering it almost entirely himself.

Among the easily forgotten nuggets of ascension: ameliorating Pierce's trade request discontent after finishing with 24 wins in 2007; avoiding waning stars Jermaine O'Neal and Shawn Marion ahead of nabbing Garnett and Allen; convincing the T'wolves that Ryan Gomes or Bassy Telfair had any real value; gambling that 32-year-old and perpetual playoff loser Ray Allen was worth a No. 5 pick and Wally Szczerbiak (not as obvious as it now sounds). Not to mention, deftly filling out a supporter cast with a "unique set of skills" in championship-winning necessities James Posey, Eddie House, PJ Brown, Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis.

Ainge created his own luck way back then; time will tell if he is similarly on the right side of history with Everyone Loves (Likes?) Rajon this go-round.


In regards to last week's Rondo deal, the time was right, because the time was now for Dallas, in full-fledged "Win One More for Dirk" mode. Boston's "haul" itself, Branden Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a likely 2016 first round pick, and a second rounder, was certainly not handsome; especially so when compared to crazed Bostonian calls for a Dwight Howard-style return, or the dozens and dozens of reported possibilities involving the 28-year-old Kentucky man over the last half-decade.

So, did Ainge get fifty cents on the dollar for Rondo? More like fifty cents on $0.75. Because, as Zach Lowe concisely pointed out, point guards who are coming off torn ACLs, under contract for five months, can no longer defend, don't statistically make their team appreciably better, well, they don't have tremendous value. Let alone in a sellers-market, where Dallas appeared the only fit with two picks and three bodies to pony up.

Ultimately, Rondo's value went poof in January 2013, and Ainge did well to score what he did, especially should he flip Jameer Nelson for a second rounder to the, say, Hawks or Rockets in February; not to mention the lengthy, tear-stained goodbye from one Mavericks blogger, championing Crowder as a shutdown-defender (only 24, mind you) and Wright's "special" abilities, for whatever that's worth. The 6'10'' dunking machine is certainly the peculiar jewel of the deal, with his 74.8% FG percentage (!?!) and 26.16 PER, a shade higher than LeBron James and Chris Paul (according to the PER reference guide, placing Wright somewhere between "Strong and Weak MVP Candidate"). What will happen when his 18 minutes a game doubles? Ainge and the league will soon discover together.


More than the return, though, Rondo's departure speaks to Ainge's unique medium-view blueprint and the flexible prudence he's displayed before and during deconstruction.

Up until last summer, Ainge gambled like a Foxwoods sharp, willing to roll the dice on aging legs until flickering hopes turned to black, yet before the wheels fell all the way off. Sure, he could've gotten something back for Ray Allen and would've gotten far more for Rondo in 2012 (though compromising said 2012 ECF Custer-like last stand, in the process) but the value of winning outweighed future gains, striking a fine balance of now and later, and avoiding irreparable damage with Boston's fickly intense fan base.

Meanwhile, remember the Garnett-Pierce-Terry shipment to Brooklyn, and subsequent Ainge second-guessing? Just 16 months later, three first-round picks, two seconds (acquired in a deal with Cleveland for Keith Bogans, who Boston also received in the deal) and the right to swap first round picks in 2017 looks like an absolute Celtic smash-and-grab; especially given the Hova Nets' impending fire-sale and near-future looking inversely proportional to Mikhail Prokhorov's bank account and jet skiing abilities.

Ditto the Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green deal in 2011, where Green's 20 PPG could well be flipped for a couple second rounders, or more, one of these deadlines soon; meanwhile, Perkins' trade value is about as high as Scott Brooks. (Speaking of trading coaches, Ainge did that, too, nabbing a 2015 first rounder for Doc Rivers).


Outside of trades, rebuilding a winner starts with boring beginnings, like drafting well in the mid-to-late first round, no small feat, which Ainge has demonstrated (minus a Fab Melo-mulligan): Avery Bradley at No. 19 in 2010, Jared Sullinger at 21 in 2012, Kelly Olynyk at 13 in 2013, each solidly serviceable with respective room for growth; and collectively, as attractive an assembly constructed by a similarly slotted team in the last four drafts. Meanwhile, former Russell Westbrook-comparison Marcus Smart, No. 6 in 2014, he of more national spotlight highs and lows than perhaps any player on the current roster, waits in the wings at the age of 20.

Better still, former Butler legend and forever young whiz kid coach Brad Stevens may be the least-heralded savvy hire in sometime; far less sexy than the retire-and-coach movement Knicks and Nets fans are collectively flipping a figurative bird to. Stevens quickly shed the stigma he may be to boyish too lead modern NBA men (he was Rondo's BFF for at least a minute), and more tangibly, worked the Celtics into an under-the-radar offensive force this year, first in assists (26 APG), fifth in scoring (104 PPG).

Which belies the equally interesting reminder: Boston isn't altogether bad right now, 6-4 in their last 10 games, and an 10-15 record good for ninth (and sixth-best point differential at -0.5) in the putrid Eastern Conference. As such, the options for Celtics' brass in the two months ahead of February's trade deadline run the full gamut: a potential first-round tangle with the likes of not-altogether intimidating Toronto, Washington, or Atlanta; a Sixers-styled "Everything Must Go" liquidation; and certainly, every lottery ball in between.

Ainge's favored approach for the grayish-middle seems to lean towards into the former before the latter, valuing sustained success ahead of supreme failure, his business of keeping what he likes, ditching the rest, and striking a healthy balance of near and far along the way.

Does that mean the future holds the same spoils of the Celtics' last seven years? Probably not. But don't be surprised if Boston's steady GM has a few quiet strokes of inspiration left in his reconstruction tenure; we certainly haven't heard the last from Daniel Ray Ainge. The question, though, remains: will anyone actually notice?