Where there's smoke, there's Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, but as the NBA draft approaches Thursday, it's looking more and more like he won't make fire rubbing picks together.
It's long been Ainge's aim to remain as flexible as possible, so when a star becomes available, he's best equipped to acquire him, whether through the draft, on the trade market or in free agency. Everything he's planned converged this summer, with three first-round draft selections — including Brooklyn's unprotected lottery pick — a dearth of good but not great players under incredible contracts in the NBA's new salary cap era and enough cap space to chase two maximum contract players in free agency.
Then, the draft order never changed and the Nets stayed put at No. 3. As was the case in 2007, when the Celtics fell to fifth, falling out of the Greg Oden (welp) and Kevin Durant sweepstakes (the Celtics contend they would've drafted Durant), they missed out on the two prizes of this draft: Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, who will go to the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
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Now, Ainge is left trying to recreate the magic from a decade ago, when he traded the No. 5 pick and pieces for a soon-to-be 32-year-old Ray Allen, and then swung a deal for Kevin Garnett with budding young big Al Jefferson, two first-round picks and Theo Ratliff's expiring contract as the centerpieces.
Coming off a 48-win season, the Celtics are in much better position than they were in 2007, when they won 24 games and were forced to pick between building around Paul Pierce or rebuilding without him. Only this time they won't be so lucky, because leprechauns like Kevin McHale aren't around anymore.
NBA general managers and their staffs full of talent evaluators, analytics experts and salary cap gurus make fewer mistakes than ever before. Most of the less informed GMs have been shown the door, and the few that remain don't have the stars to be swindled out of. You won't land a former MVP like Garnett on the trade market, unless you're the Knicks and you're willing to gamble on a guy with brittle knees.
Just look at Ainge's pursuit of Kevin Love, who's far from what KG was. He tried packaging picks and players for another star Timberwolves forward, but his offer was trumped by two straight No. 1 picks, including Andrew Wiggins, yet another can't-miss draft pick who escaped the lottery luckless Celtics.
As seems to always be the case, Ainge is dealing from a position of slightly less than full strength, using the No. 3 pick as bait. And efforts to pry Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton from the Bulls, Jazz and Bucks, respectively, have all failed, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
In addition to the third pick, Boston features All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, First Team All-Defensive guard Avery Bradley, almost All-Star/All-Defensive forward Jae Crowder and recent sixth overall pick Marcus Smart, who some members of the Celtics organization believe is the best defender of the bunch.
Those four will make a combined $24.7 million in 2016-17 — or slightly less than the option Dwight Howard just declined — so when anyone says the C's don't have desirable players, that's not really true.
Not saying it's impossible but sentiment around league is that Boston doesn't have anyone on roster that other GMs really want.
— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) June 21, 2016
It's just a matter of how much Ainge is willing to give up for a certain player. When the Sixers come calling for the No. 3 pick and one of the aforementioned members of the Celtics for Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston isn't about to pull the trigger. Because that would be a dumb trade. If Butler or Blake Griffin or DeMarcus Cousins is on the table, then that's a different story.
Ainge's "don't trade a dollar for four quarters" theory has served him well, but now he's in the precarious position of trying to deal four silver George Washingtons for a paper one. And it's not working. So, the Celtics have smartly kept their target with the third pick quiet, because there's a group of talented players who might draw interest from other teams (Kris Dunn, Marquese Chriss, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Dragan Bender and Jaylen Brown), and Ainge wants other GMs thinking he might take any one of them.
In all likelihood, though, the Celtics will make their No. 3 pick and forge ahead, but then what? They own seven more picks in this draft — five of which will come in the second round — with nowhere to put them all. So, Ainge will make a draft-day trade; it's just a matter of which pick(s) and the return, if much at all.
There's pressure from above, as Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has hinted at fireworks for years to maintain interest from the casual Boston basketball fan in a team that seems stuck in the NBA's middle, but there's always pressure from above, and Ainge has the cache to remain patient and bide his time.
So, when the 2016 NBA draft opens, it'll be the same as it's ever been for Ainge in Boston since he put Pierce and Garnett out to pasture in 2013. He'll work the phones, and when nobody answers his call, he'll make his picks, stashing some overseas and trading others for future ones, and slowly improve his team — a strategy that's made all the more easier when you have Brad Stevens coaching your young roster.
All the while, he'll remain flexible, so he can pounce when the next star is up for grabs in a draft, free agency or a trade. It just might not happen Thursday, which is fine by Ainge, because he's still got cap space, all those trade-able contracts and more unprotected Brooklyn picks coming in 2017 and 2018. So, he'll keep stoking the flames, waiting for the smoke to settle and trying to make fire in Boston again.
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