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The next stop for Danny Ainge's contributions to basketball should be the Hall of Fame

·9 min read
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The Danny Ainge era is over in Boston, and it has already come with some derision from NBA fans, given his Celtics front office's penchant for leaking just how close they were to deals that never came to fruition.

During his 18 years on the job, Ainge was linked to every major star on the move, save for his team's two chief rivals in that span, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The list includes James Harden (twice), Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler and Paul George, among a slew of others.

The running joke goes something like, "The asking price was too high. Ainge wasn't willing to put [insert random bench guy] in the deal." Terry Rozier felt the brunt of those cracks many a time. What all the jokes ignore is just how successful Ainge was in his role as president of basketball operations for the Celtics.

Incoming shot-caller Brad Stevens has awfully big shoes to fill — Hall of Fame shoes.

"This is a great opportunity to give us a good spark when we're losing one of the best at his job in the world," Stevens said on Wednesday's conference call announcing his transition from head coach to Ainge's front-office successor. "That's something we know we all have to step up and meet the next challenge."

The Celtics hired Ainge in May 2003, and even before they were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the second round of the playoffs, the former player turned coach turned executive called for sweeping changes at his introductory news conference. Five months later, Ainge traded Antoine Walker, one of two All-Stars on a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals a year earlier, and "Trader Danny" was born. Walker called Ainge "a snake," even calling Boston's return on the deal "the biggest [talent] difference in history."

"Time will answer all the questions," Ainge said at the time. "I'm not going to get into a squabble with Antoine Walker. Every player that gets traded is emotionally hurt and their pride is hurt and I understand it. I've been a player, and I've been traded twice. I understand his perspective. I obviously don't agree."

It was with this philosophy that Ainge approached the job. He was often brutally honest with the media and always ruthless in his roster-building. Ainge famously once asked Red Auerbach at a late 1980s Christmas party why he hadn't already pulled the trigger on deals that would have swapped an aging and injured Larry Bird and Kevin McHale for Detlef Schrempf, Chuck Person, Dale Ellis, Sam Perkins, Herb Williams, Steve Stipanovich and a high draft pick. "I mean, I feel that way now," Ainge told The Boston Globe in 2012.

Instead, Auerbach traded Ainge to the Sacramento Kings for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney.

This was Ainge's guiding light in trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. That, too, has been ridiculed this week, as the Brooklyn Nets ousted the injury-ravaged Celtics in the first round. Make no mistake, Ainge fleeced the Nets in 2013 for assets that directly led to the acquisitions of All-Stars Isaiah Thomas, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — the foundation of three trips to the Eastern Conference finals since 2018.

It was that deal, along with a 2007 coup for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, that convinced general managers around the league that they must not become the latest victim of Ainge's win-at-all-costs trade mentality.

Danny Ainge presided over the Boston Celtics from 2003-21, building the 2008 NBA championship team. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Danny Ainge presided over the Boston Celtics from 2003-21, building the 2008 NBA championship team. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Garnett deal was Ainge's most famous, the fruition of every cost-cutting move and asset acquisition he had made in his first four seasons. The packages for Garnett and Allen were born from late first-round picks, expiring contracts and a failed tanking effort for Durant (who, by the way, Ainge insists he would have drafted over Greg Oden if the Celtics landed the No. 1 pick in 2007). Garnett was widely considered a handshake deal between Ainge and his former Celtics teammate McHale, but that trade would be viewed much differently had the Minnesota Timberwolves just drafted Stephen Curry instead of Jonny Flynn. 

Ainge opened up a championship window that lasted five seasons, and when it was over, it took him all of one season to rebuild the Celtics into a team that has now made the playoffs seven years running. He turned a trade exception into Thomas and drafted Brown and Tatum when the chorus was calling for Kris Dunn and Markelle Fultz. Ainge can leave the Celtics head held high that they are secure in a bright future.

"I love basketball," Ainge, 62, told reporters on Wednesday's conference call. "It's been part of my whole life. I've been in professional sports for 44 straight years. I've had a lot of ups and downs and fun and sad losses. Today's not a great day. I wish we would've finished the year on a much better note, but I feel like there's so much hope in the Celtics going forward, and I'm excited for Brad. I think he was born for this."

For all the flak Ainge has received in his Boston tenure, you can count on one hand — maybe one finger — the number of executives who have manufactured greater success over the past two decades. Pat Riley, the man who once told Ainge to "shut the f*** up" in a news release, is the one who springs to mind. Others have lucked into drafting LeBron James first overall or inheriting a championship roster in Golden State.

Sports executives are not immune to mistakes, and Ainge is no exception. He drafted JaJuan Johnson over Butler in 2011 and Kelly Olynyk ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo two years later — misses many of his peers made, too — but he nailed his only high lottery picks. Later-round selections included a four-time All-Star (Rajon Rondo), an All-NBA big (Al Jefferson), two All-Defensive guards (Tony Allen, Avery Bradley), the title team's starting center (Kendrick Perkins), the current starting center (Robert Williams) and a host of longtime NBA contributors (Delonte West, Gerald Green, Glen Davis, Rozier, etc.). His draft record is sound.

For every superstar trade he did not make, there were unforeseen injuries that cost Ainge greater success. Garnett's knee injury in 2009, Perkins' knee injury in 2010, Rondo's elbow injury in 2011, Bradley's shoulder injury in 2012 and Rondo's knee injury in 2013 prevented the Celtics from ever making a true title defense.

Ainge's 2017 trade of Thomas for Kyrie Irving was both ruthless and worthless in retrospect, but name another general manager who would not have pulled the trigger on that deal. And who is to say how it might have played out had Gordon Hayward not shattered his ankle six minutes into his partnership with Irving? Irving injured his knee months later, and the Celtics made the conference finals without either of them. That success fostered a divide between the team's incumbent and rising stars, and Boston sill nearly made the Finals again after Irving left for Brooklyn in 2019, were it not for yet another Hayward ankle injury.

Ainge could have read his roster better at times. Losing Ray Allen, Irving, Al Horford and Hayward for nothing translated to talent drains that probably kept Ainge up at night, failing to sell sinking stocks, just as Auerbach had done. Ainge worked tirelessly, to the point he caused colleagues concern. His second heart attack came during the 2019 playoffs, 10 years after his first, and he has considered retirement ever since.

The Celtics made it official on Wednesday. Ainge's record is in the books now, and it is a damn fine one.

"This is a great day for the Celtics," Ainge added Wednesday. "I think this is actually a big step forward. I'll be hovering from a distance ... yelling at the refs for years to come. This is a good day for me and my family, my children. I've talked with them through all of this process, and we're excited for the opportunities I have to spend more time with them and not be as stressed and get out and play golf a little bit more."

The Celtics reached six conference finals, two NBA Finals and won the 2008 championship on Ainge's watch. Not bad for 18 years. And if this is the end of his career in professional sports — a 44-year run that matched his number as a player on two championship teams with the Celtics — few have been so unique.

Ainge became the only athlete ever to be named a First Team All-American in football, basketball and baseball as a prep senior at Oregon's North Eugene High. He was the John Wooden award winner as the best player in college basketball as a BYU senior, hitting one of the most iconic shots in NCAA tournament history. He is the last player ever to play in both MLB and the NBA. He was named an All-Star in the latter, ultimately achieving unmatched success for the winningest franchise in NBA history.

"This is a bittersweet day to commemorate the retirement of an all-time great, Danny Ainge, who won championships as a player and won a championship as head of basketball, unprecedented in Celtics history," said Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck. "One of the truly finest people I've ever met in my life, on and off the court. He epitomizes what it means to be a Celtic, and I appreciate the 18 years we had together, working side by side and watching you put the team together that led to our championship in 2008."

There should be no doubt that what Ainge has contributed to the sport is worthy of a Springfield induction.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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