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Has Danny Ainge Done More Bad Than Good Through the Past Decade?

Is Trader Danny to blame for the Celtics’ struggles this season? We take a close look at his recent decisions.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Boston Celtics are an average team, with an average record (17-17), an average offense (15th in the league, per Cleaning the Glass), and an average defense (14th). To put it mildly, that’s not where a team coming off its third conference finals berth in four years is expected to be halfway through the season.

Most concerning is that the roster has proved to be frighteningly shallow following Gordon Hayward’s departure in free agency and Marcus Smart’s calf injury. Semi Ojeleye ranks fifth on the team in minutes played; Javonte Green recently started multiple games.

In part, the lack of trustworthy depth beyond Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown stems from disappointing performances from veteran additions Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague. But it also results from a recent spate of fallow drafts, despite a number of extra picks that president of basketball ops Danny Ainge acquired in trades. Which yields the question: Has Ainge lost his touch in the draft?

The recent struggles are hard to deny. But it’s also important not to overlook the picks that landed Tatum and Brown in the first place—particularly the former, which involved only the second trade of a no. 1 pick in a quarter century, and saw the Celtics nab a franchise cornerstone instead of Markelle Fultz.

“Jaylen Brown wasn’t a consensus no. 3 pick. And Tatum for Fultz, that was far from a consensus,” writer Zach Lowe said on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast. “Just because a top-three pick really hits, it seems obvious in retrospect.”

Indeed, picks at the top of the draft seem like they should always pan out; heck, Michael Jordan was a no. 3 pick himself, once upon a time. But they’re not all—pardon the pun—slam dunks. Take a gander at the no. 3 picks from 2000 through 2009:

2000: Darius Miles
2001: Pau Gasol
2002: Mike Dunleavy
2003: Carmelo Anthony
2004: Ben Gordon
2005: Deron Williams
2006: Adam Morrison
2007: Al Horford
2008: O.J. Mayo
2009: James Harden

This list includes a few future Hall of Famers, a few All-Stars, and a few unfortunate busts. In the whole lottery era (starting in 1985), the average no. 3 pick has had a career more like Dunleavy’s than Harden’s.

Yet Tatum is already headed down the latter path: He is one of just 15 players ever to be named to an All-NBA team at age 21 or younger. Besides fellow youngster Luka Doncic, every other member of this exclusive club is either already a Hall of Famer or a lock to get there after retiring.

So, do Ainge’s successful picks outweigh his misses? Let’s find out.

We calculated the expected value for each pick, based on the actual performances for every player picked in the lottery era. Specifically, we looked at their wins above replacement totals, per FiveThirtyEight, for their first four seasons, the length of a standard first-round rookie contract. (For the 2020-21 season, we extrapolated current WAR values over the full season. For players drafted in 2020, 2019, and 2018, we generated separate expectation curves for the first one, two, and three seasons, respectively.)

The result looks very similar to a “draft pick trade value” chart. This graph shows the curve for the first 30 picks.

Then, we compared expectation to reality. For instance, Avery Bradley, picked 19th in the 2010 draft, was worth 4.7 wins through his first four seasons. That total—just north of one win per year—sounds underwhelming, but the 19th pick in the lottery era would expect to collect 4.3 wins in the same span. Thus, Bradley tallied 0.4 wins above expectation.

Repeat for every player picked since 2010, and this method allows us to approximate performance above or below average for every team in the past decade or so. (For players technically picked by one team but traded to another before playing a game, we included them for the second team; Kawhi Leonard is a Spurs selection, not a Pacers pick, for these purposes.)

All together, Celtics draft picks since 2010 have had an expected value of 84.7 wins. And they’ve had an actual value of 83.3 wins—nearly a perfect match for expectation. This chart shows the individual lines for all of their first-rounders.

Celtics First-Rounders Since 2010

Player Draft Pick Draft Value vs. Expectation
Player Draft Pick Draft Value vs. Expectation
Jayson Tatum 2017 3 +13.2
Jared Sullinger 2012 21 +9.0
Marcus Smart 2014 6 +6.7
Kelly Olynyk 2013 13 +3.3
Payton Pritchard 2020 26 +1.1
Terry Rozier 2015 16 +0.6
Robert Williams 2018 27 +0.5
Avery Bradley 2010 19 +0.4
Aaron Nesmith 2020 14 -0.5
Grant Williams 2019 22 -1.4
Romeo Langford 2019 14 -1.5
Jaylen Brown 2016 3 -2.2
R.J. Hunter 2015 28 -2.6
JaJuan Johnson 2011 27 -3.1
Fab Melo 2012 22 -3.8
Guerschon Yabusele 2016 16 -4.7
James Young 2014 17 -5.4

Ainge definitely has his share of whiffs just outside the lottery, with the likes of Melo, Yabusele, and Young. The draft-night swap of defensive ace Matisse Thybulle for Carsen Edwards looks disastrous.

But Tatum exceeds his expectation by double-digit wins, and Smart is well ahead, too. Sullinger was shockingly effective when healthy. Pritchard is already beyond the typical value of a rookie picked 26th. So even though this method doesn’t capture Brown’s ascendance in this season, his fifth, the Celtics’ hits essentially compensate for all the missed picks in the middle of the first round.

Moreover, as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has noted, standard draft value analyses tend to underestimate star players; here, we’re looking only at the first four seasons, but teams also have the advantage in signing good young players to extensions. Both Brown and Tatum are signed for at least the next three seasons beyond this one. Account for that value, and Ainge’s recent draft record is almost certainly positive.

The hardest part of building a contender is collecting stars, and the Celtics have a pair of young, two-way, All-Star wings in place for the long haul. Before this season, they rated as the best young core in the entire league.

They’ve also had more opportunity to find stars, of course, thanks to the historic heist of the Nets. From 2010 through 2020, the Celtics had the NBA’s seventh-best record, but only the 76ers (25th-best record), Kings (29th), Timberwolves (30th), and Suns (24th) had better overall draft position in that span.

The Celtics have needed those extra shots at the top of the draft, as Ainge hasn’t really hit on a pick later on since Rajon Rondo went to Boston on draft night in 2006. Other GMs have unearthed gems buried deeper.

This chart shows every team’s draft outcomes versus expectations since 2010, along with the best and worst draft choices and where they were selected. The Nuggets, who landed an All-NBA centerpiece at no. 41 overall, take the top spot.

Draft Track Record Since 2010

Team Draft Value vs. Expectation Best Pick Worst Pick
Team Draft Value vs. Expectation Best Pick Worst Pick
Nuggets +32.1 Nikola Jokic (41) Emmanuel Mudiay (7)
Pacers +25.9 Paul George (10) T.J. Leaf (18)
Spurs +24.0 Kawhi Leonard (15) Lonnie Walker (18)
Pistons +22.4 Khris Middleton (39) Stanley Johnson (8)
Rockets +19.0 Chandler Parsons (38) Terrence Jones (18)
Raptors +18.1 Pascal Siakam (20) Bruno Caboclo (20)
Warriors +16.9 Draymond Green (35) Ekpe Udoh (6)
Heat +16.0 Josh Richardson (40) Norris Cole (28)
Jazz +14.5 Rudy Gobert (27) Enes Kanter (3)
Pelicans +5.1 Anthony Davis (1) Austin Rivers (10)
Mavericks +4.7 Luka Doncic (3) Dennis Smith Jr. (9)
Knicks -0.3 Landry Fields (39) Kevin Knox (9)
Celtics -1.4 Jayson Tatum (3) James Young (17)
Clippers -5.2 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11) Jerome Robinson (13)
Lakers -5.8 Josh Hart (30) Brandon Ingram (2)
Thunder -7.3 Steven Adams (12) Terrance Ferguson (21)
Trail Blazers -10.3 Damian Lillard (6) Anfernee Simons (24)
Nets -11.6 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) Derrick Favors (3)
Bucks -15.9 Giannis Antetokounmpo (15) Jabari Parker (2)
Magic -21.5 Elfrid Payton (10) Mario Hezonja (5)
Bulls -21.7 Jimmy Butler (30) Doug McDermott (11)
Hawks -21.9 John Collins (19) Adreian Payne (15)
Hornets -28.4 Kemba Walker (9) Bismack Biyombo (7)
Grizzlies -29.5 Greivis Vásquez (28) Wade Baldwin (17)
Wizards -36.6 Bradley Beal (3) Kevin Seraphin (17)
Timberwolves -44.9 Karl-Anthony Towns (1) Derrick Williams (2)
Suns -51.2 Mikal Bridges (10) Dragan Bender (4)
76ers -57.9 Matisse Thybulle (20) Markelle Fultz (1)
Cavaliers -68.1 Kyrie Irving (1) Anthony Bennett (1)
Kings -68.8 Isaiah Thomas (60) Thomas Robinson (5)

Pelton’s star caveat comes into play here, too—Brandon Ingram shows up as a bad pick relative to other no. 2 choices because he didn’t break out until his fourth season—but this chart helps explain how a number of rosters look the way they do in 2021. The Bucks, for instance, have an old core around Giannis Antetokounmpo because they missed on all their top picks after him, like Jabari Parker (minus-13.9 wins versus expectation) and Thon Maker (minus-9.4). The poor Pistons, on the other hand, rank near the top of the list next to Jokic’s Nuggets and Kawhi’s Spurs—largely because of players they drafted and then traded before they blossomed.

Naturally, these results are not a pure distillation of draft record; they heavily involved player development at the NBA level, too. But whatever the underlying cause, the ultimate outcome is fairly decisive for Boston: At least through the past decade, Ainge isn’t a great drafter, but he isn’t a terrible drafter, either.

His recent transactions outside of the draft have tended to balance out, too. He hit the jackpot by trading for the Nets picks, but appetizing future picks from Sacramento and Memphis both landed at no. 14 when the Kings and Grizzlies improved just in time for their selections to transfer. (Yet again, it’s impossible to predict the eventual location of a far-off future first.)

Or, on the one hand, Ainge benefited from a trade not made when no team in the 2015 draft would take his reported offer of four first-round picks for Justise Winslow. On the other, his decision not to pursue Myles Turner in a sign-and-trade for Hayward this past offseason looks mighty curious, with Turner playing like an All-Defensive team favorite. Ainge attracted high-profile free agents Hayward and Al Horford to a team without much history in that regard, but both of them, as well as Kyrie Irving, left with just a single trade exception in return. Meanwhile, the progression of injured All-NBA point guards from Isaiah Thomas to Irving to Kemba Walker is a saga all on its own.

Boston has been one of the NBA’s most successful teams in Ainge’s GM tenure, but it hasn’t reached the Finals in a decade despite plenty of chances. The Celtics’ run of close Finals misses comes with some precedent, as a handful of other teams throughout NBA history have reached at least three conference finals in a half-decade span without winning in that round.

Three Conference Finals in Five Seasons With No Finals Trips

Team Conf. Finals Made Finals After?
Team Conf. Finals Made Finals After?
Celtics 1953, 1954, 1955 Yes (1957)
Spurs 1979, 1982, 1983 No
Bucks 1983, 1984, 1986 No
Jazz 1992, 1994, 1996 Yes (1997)
Pacers 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999 Yes (2000)
Celtics 2017, 2018, 2020 ???

A few of those teams broke through soon after to reach the Finals (if not ever winning the title). A couple of others did not. With Tatum and Brown in tow, there’s still time for these Celtics to end up on the right side of that ledger—but they’ll have to maintain their draft balance going forward, and avoid tilting too far into the negative.