NBA Draft: With trades, Celtics' Danny Ainge often zigs when you think he'll zag

Chris Forsberg
·4 min read

Forsberg: Ainge is predictably unpredictable with draft deals originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Draft season doesn’t officially start until it’s been suggested that Danny Ainge is pondering making a big-splash move.

Such is your fate when your nickname is "Trader Danny" and your team is routinely flush with draft assets.

Nary a draft season passes without Ainge at least pondering a jaw-dropping swap. There was the Overzealous Justise Pursuit of 2015; the much scrutinized Draft-Jaylen-not-Trade-for-Jimmy Decision of 2016; and the Great Tatum Heist of 2017.

Here’s the thing: For all the hype, Ainge’s history suggests that he tends to zig when we all expect him to zag. The Celtics entered the 2019 draft with four draft picks and we all screamed that there was absolutely NO WAY he would make four picks. Then he did.

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Which delivers us to 2020 and the most curious draft in recent memory, one in which there is less visual evidence than usual to confirm which of these players will be surefire impact players. It’s a draft where it feels like a lot of teams at the top would be interested in trading back.

Common sense suggests the Celtics, heavy on recent draftees and thin on roster spots, would be intrigued by the idea of consolidating assets and moving up if there’s a player they covet. It feels a bit like 2016 when Ainge tried to pull the ol’ Mike Ditka-trading-his-entire-draft-board-for-Ricky Williams with his pursuit of Justise Winslow. The Charlotte Hornets resisted in favor of Frank Kaminsky (whoops!) and Ainge ultimately admitted that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make in the heat of the moment.

But Ainge's intentions were clear that night. The Celtics had identified Winslow as a desirable player that fit their system and were hellbent on maneuvering up to No. 9 to nab him before Pat Riley could swoop in like he typically does. Boston was armed with picks Nos. 16, 28, 33, and 45 that night, and were ready to part with future picks as well.

Rebuffed in that quest, Ainge brazenly took Terry Rozier at 16 despite being dubbed a reach by many of the mock-makers and it turned out to be a hit. The rest of the draft, however, was misses with R.J. Hunter, Jordan Mickey, and Marcus Thornton.

Ainge and his staff will do their due diligence in advance of this year’s pick-a-palooza.

The conversations they’ve been having since long before this point will tell them what opportunities might exist to maneuver. There will be chances to move up, chances to move back, chances to trade out. Boston could go in any direction and, with their treasure chest of picks unusually bare, moving into future seasons would seem a particularly intriguing avenue. Then again, it seemed that way last year, too.

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If we were betting on a draft-night trade, we’d wager on the Celtics making a smaller splash, something like using available cash to pay a team to eat the salary of Vincent Poirier. The Celtics are expected to wade into the luxury tax and can ill afford to be overpaying for a fifth center whose modest salary could further escalate their end-of-the-year tax bill.

What’s harder to get a read on right now is what sort of player the Celtics might be willing to maneuver up to obtain.

If the team is worried about being able to retain Daniel Theis at an affordable price beyond this season, maybe it heightens the desire to add a big man of the future (Onyeka Okongwu? Jalen Smith?). If the Celtics are worried about Gordon Hayward’s long-term future in green, maybe they ponder wing help (Devin Vassell? Patrick Williams?). Maybe a playmaking guard could ease the load on Kemba Walker after the balky knee that slowed him in the bubble (Tyrese Haliburton?).

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The Celtics will be prepared for all avenues. Fans will stomp their feet if nothing materializes and Boston elects to simply take three swings of the bat. It’s not the sexiest route but we’d suggest that standing pat in a volatile draft and emerging with something like Saddiq Bey, Killian Tillie, and a draft-and-stash player wouldn’t be the worst haul with the team’s first-rounders.

There’s going to be a lot of noise around the Celtics. There always is. Any decision to maneuver could hinge on just how the draft board plays out and the availability of the players they truly covet.

Just remember, Ainge rarely ends up doing what we expect he’ll do.