Tomase: Does Trader Danny have a loyalty problem? On the drawbacks of his constant wheeling and dealing

John Tomase
February 02, 2019 - 11:12 am

The name connotes swashbuckling respect, but its problematic nature was laid bare on Friday night by the father of NBA superstar Anthony Davis.

I'm talking about "Trader Danny."

Celtics boss Danny Ainge long ago proved he'll do whatever it takes to construct a contender. He won a title in 2008 after gutsily acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then followed with a relentless rebuild that was supposed to culminate in a romp through the Eastern Conference this June.

The season hasn't unfolded as expected, though the Celtics leapfrogged the Pacers for the fourth seed following a 113-99 victory over the woebegone Knicks on Friday. They sit just a game back of the Sixers and suddenly trail the second-seeded Raptors by just three games in the loss column after winning eight of nine.

That was the only good news on a day filled with bad news, though. First, superstar Kyrie Irving backtracked on his October commitment to re-sign this summer, saying we'd find out on July 1. He later marginally backtracked from the backtrack to note the C's remain in a strong position, but the door is now open to competing offers, which, frankly, plenty of us saw coming.

What we didn't necessarily foresee was the real killer, illuminating the issue lurking beneath the surface since Trader Danny started wheeling and dealing -- if you consistently demonstrate a willingness to trade anyone in the pursuit of transcendent talent, at what point will prospective acquisitions worry they'll just be another disposable part?

Anthony Davis Sr. knows where he stands on this issue. In a text message to ESPN, the father of the All-Star big man said he wouldn't want any part of Boston because of the way the organization treated guard Isaiah Thomas, a former savior shipped out for Irving just months after inspirationally leading the Celtics to the conference finals despite the death his sister.

"I would never want my son to play for Boston after what they done to Isaiah Thomas," Davis Sr. said. "No loyalty. Guy gives his heart and soul and they traded him. This is just my opinion, not Anthony's. I've just seen things over the years with Boston and there's no loyalty."

Setting aside for a moment the fact that Ainge was 100 percent correct to cut bait with Thomas when he did -- the diminutive guard has yet to play this season because of a degenerative hip injury -- it's easy to see why a fellow player would feel differently.

Players watched Ainge trade franchise icons Paul Pierce and Garnett. They watched him build a new team around Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder and then trade all three. They watched him surround Irving with Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown, only to effectively make all of them available in the pursuit of Davis.

In a vacuum, every move has made sense. The dying days of Pierce and Garnett yielded the Brooklyn picks that will go down in franchise lore. Thomas and Crowder brought Irving. Bradley became borderline All-Star Marcus Morris. Whoever has to go for Davis will simply represent the cost of doing business at the top of the market.

But cumulatively, wearing shamrocks has never felt more transactional. One could argue Pierce deserved to retire a Celtic. Thomas represented the heart and soul of the franchise until he picked up the phone in late August. Tatum will be a franchise cornerstone for years to come, or until he's dealt this summer, whichever comes first. Al Horford proved the Celtics could entice a marquee free agent, and now he feels like an inevitable salary match in a trade for someone better.

We'd like to believe that eventually Ainge will settle on his Perfect Team, but that's not how he's wired. He watched Red Auerbach ride out the Big Three in the 1980s -- ironically enough, the one player Auerbach moved was No. 44 -- and it ended up setting back the franchise for nearly two decades. Ainge governs without sentimentality, a trait that's heralded in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, but represents a tougher sell in basketball, where the players hold far more power and can't easily be replaced.

It's a balancing act. Ainge has already proven he can convince megastars to stay -- he turned the trick with Garnett -- and there's no reason he can't do the same with Irving and/or Davis. After years of being considered an NBA wasteland, Boston is now a destination.

But there's a cost to Ainge's constant pursuit of perfection, and it's loyalty. It's part of the reason trading the struggling Hayward feels like a non-starter -- you can't sign someone to a max deal, watch him shatter his leg, and then jettison him without expecting repercussions in future free agent markets. Players talk.

Committing to a new city requires a leap of faith, especially for a superstar like Davis, who has already languished for too long in New Orleans. If Ainge can swing a deal, it will be his greatest accomplishment yet. The problem is, superstars want to feel loved, and whether he means it or not, Trader Danny has a habit of making everyone feel expendable.