Lame to blame Danny Ainge for Celtics' lousy predicament

Alex Reimer
June 18, 2019 - 12:01 pm

The Celtics are in a lousy predicament, because Kyrie Irving decided to become a malcontent and Gordon Hayward shattered his ankle. Danny Ainge assembled a team that could’ve competed for a championship last season, but the players didn’t succeed. This is not his fault.

Listen to your team news NOW.

I am not saying this as one of Ainge’s toadies: I don’t know the man, and even if I did, I doubt we would have much to discuss. Our lifestyles appear to be a little different. But general managers are responsible for assembling the talent and constructing a team. Once that happens, it’s up to the players and coaches to execute. 

Both failed miserably this year.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics were the best team in the Eastern Conference through the first two-thirds of last season. Then Irving’s balky knees sidelined him for the entire playoff run, leaving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to carry the load alongside Al Horford (I am purposefully omitting Terry Rozier, due to his irritatingly self-indulgent “First Take” appearance). Boston took LeBron James’ depleted Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and then the young guys entered camp with inflated egos. Brown guaranteed multiple championship wins; Tatum was working with Kobe and gracing magazine covers. Kyrie apparently didn’t take well to this development, jabbing his young teammates through the press all season long. Most notably, he mentioned he called LeBron to apologize for being a young brat in Cleveland, which accomplished two goals: it belittled the early 20-somethings, and planted doubt about his intentions to re-sign in Boston. From that point on, Irving’s apparent disdain for his predicament was apparent, bubbling over into blowups at cameramen and cocky proclamations after horrific shooting performances.

If Irving leaves this summer, which keeps looking likelier, it will be the most disappointing stint for a superstar in Boston sports history. And the person to blame for that is Kyrie Irving himself. He claimed he yearned to escape LeBron’s shadow, and then bemoaned his plight when he got what he wanted. 

As poorly as it looks like it will end, Ainge only surrendered Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick to land a top-10 player with two years left on his deal. While Collin Sexton enjoyed a nice rookie season, that’s a relatively small price to pay.  The Irving acquisition was viewed as the final piece to Ainge’s championship nucleus, which just took four years to build. The Celtics only suffered through one disastrous season after trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets for a bevy of first-round selections, qualifying for the playoffs five straight years under Brad Stevens. In 2014, they added Thomas via trade, and then he paired up with Horford just two years later. Horford was the first major free agent to ever sign a long-term deal with the Celtics. That team reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

Then Ainge might’ve pulled off his greatest coup yet, trading away the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft –– thank you Brooklyn –– for the No. 3 selection. In other words, Ainge swapped Markelle Fultz for Tatum. 

That’s cause for a celebrity soda, or something.

Hayward was 27 when the Celtics signed him, and suffered his gruesome leg injury while landing after a failed alley-oop attempt. That is just plain out bad luck.

The same can’t be said about Irving’s nagging knee issues, which dated back to 2015. But this year, Irving appeared to be healthy. But for some reason, he decided to carry himself with the maturity of an erratic reality TV show star, opposed to a team leader. 

It is notoriously difficult to build championship contenders in the NBA. The Celtics only suffered through one hopeless campaign before reaching the ascent, which included back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances. 

Ainge’s biggest mistake was holding onto Pierce and Garnett for one year too long, but since the Nets still surrendered three first-round picks, it didn’t wind up hurting them. 

If Ainge truly balked at including Brown in a trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer, as Chris Mannix reports, then that was a miss. But then again, Hayward’s status was still unknown at the time, and Tatum ascended to quasi-stardom in the playoffs. Maybe Ainge felt like Leonard was a luxury, and at that point in time, he had a case. 

Leonard’s success in Toronto is often brought up as a reason why the Celtics should’ve surrendered their entire future for one year of Anthony Davis, ignoring the fact Rich Paul said last week Davis would never re-sign in Boston. Irving appeared set on leaving regardless. 

The Celtics are better off with Tatum and Brown than an unhappy Davis likely partnered with Horford and some semblance of Hayward. It is a sizable setback, but Ainge is the right person to free the Celtics from NBA purgatory. 

He already built a championship-caliber team and installed a top-tier coach. He can do it again, and maybe next time, they won’t abandon him.