Celtics draft night – Danny Ainge must find his way

Andy Hart
June 20, 2019 - 1:46 pm

None of us knew it at the time, but Danny Ainge and all of Boston got themselves a bad ol’ fashioned used car lemon in the form of the 2018-19 Celtics.

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What looked like a low-miles, like-new sporty mid-life crisis escape that would be enjoyed for years to come was nothing but trouble. A flashy exterior distracted from problems under the hood that were too many to count, too many to fix and too much for any one mechanic to even diagnose.

Of course by the time Ainge and coach Brad Stevens realized what they had – giving them the benefit of the doubt here that they did indeed realize just how flawed the chemistry of their team was along the bumpy way last season – it was too late. Sorry, Massachusetts Lemon Laws on used cars only last a few months or few thousand miles!

Now, a Celtics roster that was a mix of a prime-of-career superstar surrounded by high-end complementary pieces and youthful potential that was supposedly set up for a long run as a title contender in the post-LeBron James Eastern Conference has been completely scrapped. Might as well call one of those charities to come tow it out of the driveway before neighbors start to complain.

Kyrie Irving is moving on and, frankly, few seem sad to see him go. While he put up career-year numbers, he struggled to be a leader. Blaming everything on him may be unfair, but as one passionate Green Teamer Celtics season ticket holder pal texted me this week, “F%&* Kyrie.”

Well said.

Even team broadcasters have been outwardly and conveniently critical of talented No. 11 now that his future in Boston is all but over.

If you believe Twitter, Irving’s restricted free agent backup Terry Rozier is only slightly more popular and seemingly equally unwanted. Even solid, calming veteran Al Horford left $30-plus million on the table to walk away and pursue greener pastures away from the Green.

Suddenly the surging-toward-another-title Celtics from a year ago are at a franchise crossroads. It’s a struggle that none of us saw coming this time a year ago, but as one of Ainge’s fellow Boston sports bosses would say, “It is what it is.”

Tough decisions are ahead. The road appears long and bumpy, even in an Eastern Conference that remains wide open behind the Greek Freak’s Bucks if Kawhi Leonard goes west and the Sixers continue to be, well, the Sixers.

Apologies for mixing metaphors, but it’s time for Ainge to pucker up and turn what’s left of this lemon into lemonade. That process, and Plan B, C or D, whatever Ainge is on at this point, begins tonight with the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ainge and the Celtics have three selections in the first round – Nos. 14, 20 and 22 – which looks like a lot and would be if this were the NFL Draft, but in basketball is nothing more than a chance to pick a bunch of questionable prospects and projects. Picks like that make a team just bad enough to be championship-irrelevant and just good enough to be lottery outsiders, aka NBA purgatory.

Reports and common sense say the Celtics don’t need or want to add three mid-level young players to the roster.

There are rumors that Boston could be looking to deal up into the top 10 or even the top 5.

Heck, teams are apparently even calling about supposed young pillar Jaylen Brown.

The draft is the first official step in the next phase for Ainge and the Celtics. The trade market and oncoming free agency period are equally as important or more so. It’s a tough job but given the picks and players that he has, including that future unprotected Memphis pick, there are tools to do whatever job needs to be done.

Sure, there is a school of thought that Boston’s immediate future is only as competitively bright as the development of Brown and the supposedly untradeable Jayson Tatum. This year’s struggles aside, they are still two former No. 3 overall picks set to hit the prime of their careers with lots to prove and, as of now, not too much to lean on around them other than the hopefully still recovering max-contract Gordon Hayward.

Whatever the answer, Ainge has to come up with it and do so quickly. The NBA is a fast-paced world. Just ask KD, Klay and the Warriors. Or, Ainge and the Celtics. The fall from certain success can be as swift and painful as it is unexpected.

But the rise from also-ran to champion can be nearly as instant and unseen, as Kawhi and the Raptors proved.

We are all on board with Ainge’s previous vision. We were all wrong.

Tonight, he must take the first step on another path toward rafter-redecorating success. It’s why Ainge makes the big bucks, as they say.

Oh, and my upset pal with the harsh words for Kyrie to send him on his way? His Green Team faith isn’t totally shaken.

“Still a much better roster and future than most of the league,” he texts.

Related: Jeff Goodman on M&C: Celtics should trade out of first round for picks in future drafts