Brad Stevens is great, but Danny Ainge is the real genius behind this Celtics story
LeBron James and the Cavs were eviscerated by the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, and in the most predictable fashion imaginable, the internet dutifully commenced in its collective worship of Brad Stevens. The best example, in my opinion, came from the great Steve Rushin, the old Sports Illustrated columnist, who tweeted the following somewhere in the midst of the beating:
Rushin is an all-time wordsmith. I’ll never forget reading an old SI article after Jack Nicklaus lost the 1990 Senior PGA Championship, in which Rushin led with this: “Going into last week’s PGA seniors Championship, golf’s most junior senior seemed a cinch to win his most minor major.” Now that’s a line, people. That’s what Rushin does. And so surely, in at least some capacity, Rushin’s clever stab at the Celtics being the NBA equivalent of the Butler Bulldogs was exactly that. A line. And a damn good one.
But it was also the perfect encapsulation of how this Celtics story is being presented, and received, by the masses — as if Stevens is taking a bunch of non-scholarship dorks and turning them into NBA All-Stars with the wave of a wand and a little pixie dust. It’s true, Stevens is incredible. That he didn’t receive a single Coach of the Year nod from his peers is an astounding display of voter fraud. But I’m telling you, LeBron was right: At this point,.
I only say that because it’s coming at the expense of his players. If we could keep them separate, that would be one thing. Stevens is great, and so are his players. That’s the real truth. But the prevailing perception continues to be that the Celtics are some kind of rag-tag, overachieving group. They’re not. In fact, as was made blatantly clear on Sunday, they’re appreciably better than Cleveland at every position on the floor manned by someone not named LeBron James.
Without LeBron, this series would be a wrap in five at the most.
It might be anyway.
And for that, the real credit ought to be going to Celtics GM Danny Ainge, who is the one who not only put this roster together, but kept it together when just about every pundit out there, including myself, thought he was hoarding too many assets. Turns out, those assets were, and are, pretty damn valuable. Great coach or not, only a team with this kind of amazing depth could even think about withstanding the loss of a single star player, let alone two, as it has since the season-ending injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, and still be three games from the NBA Finals.
What Ainge has done in building one championship roster in Boston, then tearing it down almost completely only to build this newest one right back up, is beyond remarkable. I’d be remiss, as Ainge would, not to give a little hat tip to the bumbling Nets, who gave the Celtics the world for an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett back in 2013, but still, Ainge was the one who pulled that deal off.
Subsequently, Ainge was the one who piled up a career supply of draft picks, which he used on guys like Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum — the latter of which might go down as one of the all-time draft heists. Remember, the Celtics had the No. 1 pick this past summer. Tatum was their guy all along. Most GMs would’ve just taken their guy and started high-fiving in the war room. But not Ainge.
No, Ainge got greedy and moved back to the No. 3 spot, where he still got Tatum with an additional potential lottery pick from the Sixers for good measure. It cost him Markelle Fultz, who went No. 1 and has since forgotten how to shoot and never got off the bench for Philly in the conference semis vs. Boston. People are acting surprised that Tatum is this good, but Ainge saw it all along. He might not have known that Tatum would develop this quickly, but he knew he had a great one. And now everyone else knows it, too.
Tatum, Rozier and Brown — Ainge’s last three first-round picks — combined for 47 points and 20 rebounds on Sunday. Throw in the other two starters — Al Horford and Marcus Morris — and in these playoffs, that lineup is scoring at a more efficient rate than the Warriors‘ Death Lineup, which might well be the best lineup in basketball history.
At any point, Ainge could’ve traded any one of those youngsters, but he didn’t. He didn’t have to give Al Horford superstar money when he wasn’t a true superstar player, but he did. He could’ve moved Avery Bradley to any number of teams just to clear enough money to sign Gordon Hayward, but he went specifically after Morris, who has a pretty specific skill as a proven LeBron defender.
In Game 1, LeBron was held to 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting. At different points, he was guarded by all five of those players I just mentioned. That is not an accident. Ainge, in large part, has hand crafted this team with the specific purposes of dethroning LeBron. To do that, you can’t rely on one guy, because no one guy is better than LeBron. You need multiple guys. But where Ainge went about things differently is he didn’t go out and mortgage the future to get those one or two guys — say, a Jimmy Butler or Paul George — for a one- or two-year swing. He has given this team a five-year window, at least, to go chase a championship.
That’s the truly remarkable part of all this. Whatever the Celtics do this year, in some way, is gravy. The whole time, the plan was to build for the next few years, when Tatum and Brown really come of age, and Irving and Hayward are still under contract. Earlier this year, an Eastern Conference exec told me that is by far the hardest part of building a team, to know when to cut bait with young players with future value in search of an immediate upgrade.
Ainge has managed to account for both.
And now here the Celtics are, up 1-0 on the best player in the world with two All-Stars up his sleeve for next year. He has built a team that is perfect for today’s game: versatile on both ends, tough as all hell, one-on-one capable but wired to play as a unit, position-less shooters all over the court, a passing big to tie it all together. This is one hell of a basketball team Ainge has put together. And if you still think Stevens is getting more out of this roster than any other coach would, well, perhaps you’re right.
But then ask yourself this: Who was it that hired Stevens when coaches from college had a noted track record of underwhelming in the pros? Yeah, that was Ainge, too. He saw this whole race a mile ahead, and he might end up at the finish line a lot sooner than anyone expected.