Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been lauded as a player, broadcaster, coach and executive since entering the NBA in 1981, so the man knows what he’s doing. His machinations may not always work out, witness the pre-Kevin Garnett dalliances in Boston, but at the very least Ainge has a sound idea about how things are shaping up in the league that surrounds him, and how it compares with what he’s seen before.
This is why Ainge has several smart reasons for giving the very good interview he recently gave with Sports Illustrated’s very good Ian Thomsen. Ainge is anticipating all sorts of things as he enters into a rebuilding year with his team, sending all sorts of messages to his fans, bosses, players and personnel staff as he readies for a season that could wind up with the Boston Celtics “earning” the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft:
"As I walk around town, more than anything else there are those that say, 'Hey, don't win too many games,"' said Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations. "There are so many fans that want us to play for the draft."
Ainge's measured response is that they should be more careful what they wish for.
"That's harder than people recognize," said Ainge of losing as a strategy. "It's a really easy thing to conceptualize, and an easy thing to talk about and philosophize about. But it's a hard thing to live through -- for fans, for coaches, for owners, for sponsors, for our TV partners."
"If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story," said Ainge. "I don't see that player out there."
Let’s discuss some of the more pertinent reasons why Ainge is speaking in these terms, shall we?
For one, his Boston Celtics have a season to play. Garnett and Paul Pierce may be gone, and All-Star guard Rajon Rondo could be out until December (by Ainge’s estimation) as he recovers from a torn ACL, but Danny needs his crew to treat these games professionally. Sure, the youngsters will stay mostly hungry, and the veterans will like the opportunity to be the center of attention, but it is human nature to lose focus in a six-month regular season that will start some four months after every media outlet in sports described the Celtics as basically throwing away the 2013-14 season.
Secondly, he needs his fans to stay on board. The TD Garden was as loud as its moniker was annoying from 2007 until last spring, and fan loyalty is something Ainge needs to retain. Especially in a rapidly “developing” culture that seems to be spitting out shorter and shorter generations’ worth of consumers.
Even during the low points of Ainge’s run as Boston’s personnel chief, such as the 2006-07 season, the Celtics weren’t expressly attempting to punt the season and rebuild with Paul Pierce on board. Boston hasn’t seen that sort of preseason tankin’ spirit since 1996-97, the last year of the disastrous M.L. Carr era.
Both those seasons ended with an awful batch of draft lottery luck, which is another reason Ainge is attempting to downplay any talk of dropping the season and shooting for the top pick.
Though the Celtics entered 2006-07 with playoff hopes, they did tank to end the season in the hopes of securing one of the top two picks in the NBA draft, and a shot at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Boston finished with the second-worst record in the NBA, which meant that the lowest they could fall in the draft would be fifth in the picking order. To Ainge’s consternation, this is exactly where the team ended up. Again, the lottery works, and shooting for the best record does not secure anything but a low percentage chance at the top pick.
The Celtics also found out as much in 1997, when by odds they should have ended up with the first and fifth pick in the draft (due to a trade with Dallas, and expansion-era rules regarding the Vancouver Grizzlies), and instead ended up with the third and sixth picks.
Both times, the C’s missed out on a franchise-changer in Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant. Whether Ainge thinks or doesn’t think probable top overall pick Andrew Wiggins is on their level is immaterial, because even if the Celtics go 1-81 in 2013-14, it still only means they’ll end up with a 25 percent chance of grabbing the top overall pick, something Ainge wants his fans and team to understand.
(Also, Ainge can’t really talk up an amateur like Wiggins by name. As technically Wiggins is slated to be a Kansas Jayhawk from now until 2017.)
Running an NBA franchise, even one as well-heeled and respected as the Boston Celtics, is about taking risks. And even if everything seems to go ridiculously smoothly as Ainge rebuilds – let’s say the youngsters develop expertly under rookie coach Brad Stevens, and Wiggins does come to Massachusetts next June – there’s still no guarantee that the rebuilding will work out. Witness what happened with Portland in 2007, with the can’t miss Greg Oden joining two future All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy.
This is why Ainge, intelligently, is asking everyone to leave their presumptions at the door before they enter into the TD Garden.
(God, what an annoying name for an arena.)