A round of applause for Danny Ainge.
As President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics over the last 18 years, Ainge led the team to 15 playoff appearances, seven Eastern Conference Finals trips, and two epic clashes with the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Ainge ushered in a new era of Celtics excellence. He assembled the Big Three and helped Paul Pierce capture the franchise’s 17th championship in 2008.
Furthermore, as a Celtics player, Ainge was a two-time champion and one-time All-Star.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
When Ainge stepped down and relinquished his role to Brad Stevens less than 24 hours after the Celtics were eliminated by the Nets in the first round of the playoffs, reports quickly surfaced that Ainge had considered leaving for months.
During those same months, Ainge failed to improve the Celtics roster enough to compete for a championship.
To say that he deserves all the blame for this season’s regression would be wrong. Let’s keep things in perspective: The Celtics would not be where they are right now without Ainge.
Uncontrollable factors like injuries and COVID-19 derailed the Celtics’ health and chemistry. Ainge didn’t make effective adjustments. Some even believed Stevens had completely lost the locker room.
Many factors contributed to the unfortunate reality that things just never really clicked for the Celtics this season.
Despite their first-round exit, this team will still contend against the Eastern Conference elites for the foreseeable future.
Boston’s rising superstars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still improving. So while changes are clearly needed, this is not the first time that Ainge has positioned the Celtics on the precipice of greatness.
Stevens is the Perfect Fit
From Butler to Boston, Stevens developed a terrific track record of recognizing and maximizing basketball talent. He also knows better than anyone exactly what this year’s team was missing.
Stevens is phenomenal at identifying player strengths, weaknesses, and untapped potential. His coaching experience gives him a unique perspective on opposing players and team needs across the league.
Most importantly, he understands how players are valued and utilized by their current and previous teams.
Bill Belichick praised the decision to promote Stevens and told reporters, “Brad will do a great job in whatever role he’s asked to perform or he chooses to be in… I have a ton of respect for Brad.”
Like Belichick, Stevens will seek out unexpected and unproven talent to build around Boston’s star players.
Stevens is very fortunate to be promoted following a disappointing season. But the new opportunity is a perfect fit because he’s been preparing his entire life for this.
The Good, the Brad, and the Ugly
Few NBA coaches could have led the Celtics to the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons. Perhaps with more time, Stevens could have coached this team to a championship.
But when expectations were highest, the team failed. And it wasn’t just losses that caused concern. It was the utter lack of intensity.
In terms of motivating players, Stevens came up short this season. He had long been praised for his ability to stay cool and collected on the sidelines, but his calm demeanor seemed less impressive when a noticeable aura of nonchalance infiltrated the Celtics locker room.
The Celtics consistently under-exerted themselves on the court, sometimes as early as the opening tip. Their hustle and defensive physicality gradually dissipated as Boston plummeted to 14th in defensive efficiency after ranking 4th in that category the previous season.
Too many times after embarrassing losses, Stevens praised the opponents. He routinely avoided admonishing his own team’s clear lack of effort.
One of the smartest and most innovative NBA coaches became ineffective by failing to instill any sense of urgency for this talented Celtics team.
Despite the down year, Stevens has an intimate understanding of precisely what minor corrections and reinforcements would strengthen Boston’s chances of returning to the Conference Finals.
Difficult Year for Danny
It’s worth noting that the team’s questionable attitude did not start in the locker room. It started in the front office with Ainge.
Throughout the season, Ainge frequently and unapologetically revealed during radio interviews that he didn’t believe the Celtics were good enough to compete for a championship.
Ainge failed to make roster improvements during the offseason, leading up to the trade deadline, and in the buyout market. So maybe Ainge meant to shoulder the blame by implying he’s responsible for building an inadequate roster.
But at the end of the day, Ainge’s pessimistic outlook reflected through the players’ lack of motivation on the court. His irresponsible quotes publicly indicated that the season couldn’t be saved.
Imagine if Brown had been healthy and Ainge had managed to add a couple of decent veterans down the stretch. At the very least, they would have won more than one playoff game.
Out of Touch
Ainge was likely prepared to step down anyway. But the reinvigorated controversy with Kyrie Irving may have been the nail in the coffin.
In a feeble attempt to defend Celtics fans’ honor, Ainge essentially accused Irving of lying about the racism he faced in Boston.
Afterward, Brown and Marcus Smart quickly spoke out to acknowledge the reality that Boston’s athletes and opponents face varying levels of racism on a regular basis.
Perhaps Ainge lied because he thought it might help him sign future free agents. He denied the existence of the underlying problem, instead of committing to pursue progress by helping establish a better overall environment for the players.
Regardless of Ainge’s intentions, he stepped way out of bounds by attempting to delegitimize the feelings of a Black athlete sharing his struggle with racism.
If Ainge and the Celtics already faced difficulty convincing free agents to sign in Boston, things would only become harder after this ugly interaction.
Luck Had Run Out
Looking back on the 2013 trade when Ainge sent the aging Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a slew of valuable draft picks, Ainge is widely considered to have pulled off one of the greatest heists in NBA history.
General Managers across the league didn’t want to become Ainge’s next victim, which made it harder to complete trades in recent years.
But after planning and retooling for nearly a decade, the Celtics were defeated in 2021 by that same Nets franchise. Worse yet, Brooklyn’s new super team will continue rapidly improving along with several other flourishing squads in the East.
What a demoralizing realization for Ainge. His years of hard work and careful maneuvering weren’t enough to keep the Celtics in front of their division rivals. The understandable disappointment and frustration trickled down throughout the organization and negatively impacted the team on the court.
Also, keep in mind that Ainge traded away Kendrick Perkins before Pierce and Garnett.
The controversial Isaiah Thomas trade fiasco is still fresh in people’s minds too. Trading Thomas for Irving was the right basketball decision on paper, but a morally bankrupt move by Ainge that shifted perceptions around the NBA regarding double standards about loyalty.
For any free agents considering Boston, why would they sign a long-term deal with a franchise that doesn’t show loyalty to any of its best players?
So while he is obviously very accomplished, Ainge’s reputation prevented him from further improving the team from where it stands today. He had reached the end of the line.
Additionally, the 62-year-old Ainge has his own health to worry about, admitting he has contemplated what to do with his life ever since suffering a heart attack two years ago.
A New Era in Boston
It’s an exciting time for Celtics fans. Stevens will bring in a new coach who will inject more energy into this young, talented roster.
According to Ainge, “This is a great day for the Celtics and actually a big step forward… I feel like there’s so much hope in the Celtics going forward and I’m excited for Brad. He was born for this.”
As the Jays keep growing, the sky is the limit. Durant, LeBron James, and many other stars have taken note.
For some of the NBA’s best players, this means preparing for battle against Boston. But for other stars, it might mean a future partnership and a possible new home, especially now that the man calling the shots is a progressive and highly-respected advocate for players’ rights.
This is an opportunity for the Celtics to rebrand and improve both on the court and in society.
As Boston sports fans, we usually have lofty (and often unrealistic) expectations for our favorite teams to compete for a championship every single year.
Ainge would be the first to admit that he wasn’t perfect. But for anybody enjoying Tatum’s meteoric rise or anybody who watched the Big Three duke it out against Kobe Bryant, we all owe a huge thank you to Ainge.
Someday soon, when Tatum and Brown hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy and raise Banner 18 to the rafters, we won’t forget that Ainge set it all in motion.
The Celtics have brighter days ahead. But we’ll always remember who led this franchise out of the darkness. Without Danny Ainge, Celtics Pride would likely just be a relic of the past.
Photo: (John Tlumacki / Boston Globe)
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