Of all the things Danny Ainge did to woo Kevin Durant this weekend — not so subtly wore KDs during his son’s engagement party, brought Tom Brady with him to the Hamptons to pitch the Thunder star — the most persuasive thing he might have done is simply say to Durant, “Check the timeline, man.”
Al Horford is heading to Boston. According to ESPN, he announced his new team while Durant was meeting with the Celtics. He will sign a four-year deal with Boston, worth $113 million. Durant had reportedly been courting Horford to join him in Oklahoma City, in what would have been a reunion between the former Hawks big man and his University of Florida coach Billy Donovan. But after a Friday night meeting with a C’s contingent that included Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and team executives, Horford chose the Celtics on Saturday, passing on OKC, Washington, and a return to Atlanta. Something convinced Horford to join the Celtics.
This is all starting to feel very 2007 — like Danny Ainge is about to land two NBA stars in their primes, pair them with an excellent coach, and make a real run at an 18th NBA championship.
On Saturday night, Durant reportedly told the Clippers he wouldn’t be joining them, despite — or because of — rumors that owner Steve Ballmer shed real human tears at the Clippers-Durant pitch meeting (DEVELOPERS). The Clippers promptly re-signed Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson. That leaves the Thunder, Celtics, Spurs, and Warriors in the hunt for KD. Durant was still scheduled to meet with the Miami Heat on Sunday, but the extent to which they would have to blow up their roster to land him makes it feel like more of a courtesy visit — a “let’s talk next year” kind of thing — than a real negotiation. Durant might still have one more chat with the Thunder before making his decision. On Saturday night, Chris Broussard reported that that decision would come in the next 24–36 hours. This is going to happen soon.
If the Celtics land Durant, they become one of the three or four best teams in the NBA, along with the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Spurs. They would have a deep, young, competitive squad — you know when your rookie is ready to rip someone’s head off, it’s really happening. Brad Stevens would have a mouth-watering, tenacious rotation of Durant, Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, and this year’s no. 3 overall pick, Jaylen Brown. Durant is one of the deadliest scorers of the last 20 years, but I don’t even know that that matters here. I mean, how would anyone score on that team?
To make the Durant-Horford signings work, they would probably have to get rid of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. Life’s full of tough choices, but I think Danny Ainge would be OK with this one.
Speaking of Ainge: Let’s say Durant decides to go back to Oklahoma, or — St. Parity weeps — join the Warriors. Ainge still did good business this summer. This has been a ratification of Dannyball, a philosophy that requires both a poker face and salesman’s tongue, the accumulation of tradeable assets while somehow maintaining a winning culture. A lot of the Celtics’ recent success comes down to the instant brilliance displayed by Stevens, and the over-performance of players such as Thomas and Crowder. But the reason the Celtics are in a position to sign someone like Horford — and be in the running for a top-3 superstar like Durant — is Ainge.
There’s a certain symmetry with what is happening right now and what happened nine years ago. Back in 2007, Ainge was under pressure to build a successful squad around an increasingly disaffected Paul Pierce, who was playing prime years on a 24-win team.
That summer, Ainge tried to acquire Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves, but was told by Garnett’s agent that he would not sign an extension in Boston. Phoenix and the Lakers were more likely destinations. On draft night, Ainge traded Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the rights to the no. 5 pick for Ray Allen. All of a sudden Boston looked a lot more attractive to Garnett. Towards the end of July, Ainge and Garnett met in California. A little more than a week later, Ainge made the deal with his old buddy Kevin McHale, and Garnett became a Celtic. Best of all? Ainge didn’t have to trade Rajon Rondo for either player. The Celtics were able to keep some of their homegrown pieces to support the Big Three. Cut to: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
Today’s scenario is uncannily similar. Ainge has a stocked cupboard of assets. He just pulled off a shocking deal for a star that has made his franchise a legit player in the Eastern Conference (sub in Horford for Ray Allen), he went to the beach to woo an even bigger star (sub KD in the Hamptons for Garnett in Malibu). And he might pull all this off without sacrificing key Celtics players like Crowder and Bradley, or coveted assets like next year’s Brooklyn draft pick. And for all you time-is-a-flat-circle fans out there: the Sonics general manager who traded Ray Allen to Boston in 2007? Current Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
That we are even talking about the Celtics in this way is a testament to Ainge’s steel. Just last week, I wrote a column about how Cleveland winning the Finals screwed Ainge because it robbed him of a chance to land Kevin Love. Turns out losing out on Love might have been the best thing that could have happened to Boston. Ainge landed Horford after one Friday night meeting. If he lands Durant in the next two days, he will have to be considered one of the greatest front-office executives to have ever picked up a phone. Only Pat Riley has pulled off more brass-balled moves.
Even if Durant passes on Boston, the Celtics now have a fantastic young team, the ability to create max contract space, and a highly valuable draft pick next season. They will be in the driver’s seat during the trade deadline, and will be a major player in the blockbuster 2017 free-agent class, which includes Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin. And maybe Kevin Durant all over again. Apparently, Danny Ainge knew what he was doing all along.