Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 24, 2017

At Long Last, Danny Deals

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so the next post will be delayed until Monday.

It only seems like it’s been forever that fans of the Boston Celtics have grumbled about general manager Danny Ainge’s apparent unwillingness to trade any of his ever-growing stockpile of draft picks and young players for someone who might immediately make the Green one of the NBA’s elite franchises, ready to compete with Golden State and Cleveland for a title. The reality is that it was just four years ago that Ainge started retooling the Celtics and building his war chest of potential.

It began with the trade of aging superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for a roster of future draft selections spread over multiple years. Ainge has since executed several more deals that, while involving less high-profile stars, also resulted in the Celtics accumulating future Draft Day choices. But at every trade deadline and in every offseason, as the faithful who pack TD Garden for Boston’s home games waited for news that Ainge had executed a blockbuster trade that would change the team’s fortunes, they instead heard only of those deals around the edges, and of a general manager who was biding his time.

Then last season coach Brad Stevens managed a team without a true superstar to the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and through the playoffs to the Conference Finals. There the Celtics were dispatched with relative ease by LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a series that reminded the denizens of Causeway Street that despite the regular season record of wins and losses, their team was not yet among the NBA’s elite.

Since then Ainge has taken apart the Celtics’ roster, and on Tuesday he capped an extraordinarily busy offseason with the megadeal for which fans have long pined. Boston sent point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and one of those much-heralded draft assets, a first round pick for next June to Cleveland in exchange for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, the hero of the Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA Championship.

The deal was set in motion last month when, in the wake of Cleveland’s third successive trip to the NBA Finals, Irving went public with his request to be traded. The 25-year old was the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft after a single season at Duke, and was the face of the Cleveland franchise for the first three seasons of his professional career. Then in 2014 prodigal son LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers, promising a title as he did so. James delivered on that promise at the end of the 2015-16 season, though it was Irving who hit the winning 3-pointer against Golden State in Game 7 of the Finals.

In demanding a trade Irving made it clear that he longed to once again be the focal point of a team, something that no player will be, no matter his skills, if he’s wearing the same uniform as James. As a member of the Celtics the dynamic playmaker and prolific scorer will get his wish, while being surrounded with what should be an impressive supporting cast. Big man Al Horford, signed by Boston last year, is like Irving a four-time All-Star. Small forward Gordon Hayward, signed as a free agent at the beginning of July and up until this week Ainge’s prize offseason acquisition, is being reunited with Stevens, who was his college coach at Butler. And 19-year old Jayson Tatum, taken by Boston with the number three pick in the recent Draft, turned heads at the NBA Summer League.

The price for Irving was high. Zizic is a 20-year old seven-foot center who’s on that long list of future potential that Ainge has been carrying around in his pocket. Drafted by Boston a year ago, he spent last season playing in Europe with the Celtics’ permission. The 2018 first-rounder is Brooklyn’s pick, one of the many gifts that are still giving from the Pierce-Garnett trade. While it’s likely to be a lottery pick, the Nets appear to have improved their own roster so odds are it won’t be the overall first choice in the draft. Crowder is a physical player who gave Boston some strength in the middle and whose offense noticeably improved over the last two seasons. The big get for Cleveland is Thomas, the diminutive point guard who was Boston’s offensive catalyst and a fan favorite. But the gamble for new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman is that Thomas is coming off a hip injury that took him out of last year’s playoffs. He’s also one season away from free agency, and has made it plain that he expects a maximum contract to be his reward.

Thomas’s likely contract demands and the bit of uncertainty over his injury, along with the fact that Irving is three years younger and three years away from a new contract, were all good reasons for Ainge to deal Thomas despite his popularity with Boston’s fans. Of course, the best reason of all was that Irving has the superstar potential that for all his grit Thomas lacks.

The great unknown, as with every splashy offseason deal, is whether that potential will be realized. Clearly Ainge believes it will be. Explaining the decision to acquire Irving, to trade the long-term potential that Zizic and the 2018 pick represent for the immediate potential of a franchise-altering player, Ainge said that “for all he’s accomplished, we believe his best years are ahead of him.” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck backed up Ainge, calling Irving “a transcendent talent” and adding “we want this team to go for banner eighteen, and we need the best possible players to do that.”

If Irving, Hayward and Horford form a new Big Three and that eighteenth championship banner is raised to the TD Garden rafters in the next year or two, Ainge will be hailed as a genius. If Boston continues to end season after season looking up at the likes of Golden State or Cleveland or in time some other franchise, fans will doubtless render a less kind judgment. But they’ll never again be able to complain that Danny wouldn’t deal.

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