There have been rumblings for months that Danny Ainge would leave the Celtics. League sources say he was eyeing jobs in Utah, where many members of his family live, or Portland, his home state and another franchise that could undergo change if the Trail Blazers lose in the first or second round.
Brad Stevens has been in the rumor mill, too. Months ago, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Indiana University offered Stevens a seven-year, $70 million contract to become their next head coach. Stevens denied the report, but league sources have consistently confirmed that Indiana did indeed drop the bag and he declined, instead choosing to stay in the NBA. What was unknown at the time was that he would become a leading candidate to take Ainge’s role.
Ainge is stepping down from his role as president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, the team announced Wednesday. Only time will tell whether the 62-year-old will take on a role elsewhere. Stevens, meanwhile, will absorb Ainge’s role and immediately start a search for a new head coach.
Before hiring Stevens, league sources say Celtics ownership considered other internal candidates and even pondered pursuing Sam Presti, a Massachusetts native who has run the Thunder since they were still the Sonics. Presti is a proven front-office boss who steered a small-market team to great success through savvy acquisitions and wise draft picks. Stevens has no front-office experience, and has been in the NBA since only 2013, when the Celtics plucked him from Butler.
How will Stevens transition to a personnel role? How will his measured but calculated persona as a coach translate? Will he make ballsy moves like Ainge did for nearly two decades?
Ainge has been criticized in recent years for the moves he didn’t make: trading for James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, or Anthony Davis. The almost moves have become a running joke for fans on NBA Twitter. But Ainge got more big decisions right than he got wrong. Now Stevens will need to have similar success to maximize a team headlined by two of the best young players in the world, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum and Brown represent both the promise and pressure in Boston. Tatum just turned 23; Brown will turn 25 in October. But Brown’s contract runs through the 2023-24 season, while Tatum can become a free agent the following offseason, in 2025. The middle of the decade seems far away, but three or four years is not long in business or in sports. There is little time to get it right, and the Celtics are already pushing the luxury-tax line, complicating efforts to build around them.
Kemba Walker’s balky knees have turned the two years and $74 million remaining on his contract into an albatross. Moving him would be ideal, but for what? At this point, it would probably cost draft picks. Evan Fournier will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and though the Celtics are unlikely to create cap space, the rest of this free-agent class is lacking anyway.
Boston does have a core of young players, but there are questions there as well. Robert Williams has shown promise as a bouncy rim runner and shot blocker, but he’s also failed to stay healthy and can be a restricted free agent in 2022. Rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard and second-year players Romeo Langford and Grant Williams have all had positive moments. But their trade value isn’t significant because their potential as players is unclear.
This team is also lacking veteran leadership; Tristan Thompson is the only player other than Walker who is at least 30 years old, and he will become a free agent in 2022. So will the team’s longest-tenured player, Marcus Smart. So much needs to change, but how much can?
The best NBA decision-makers have a knack for turning nothing into something. They take a long view. They take risks. They’re fearless. When considering what the Stevens hire means for Boston with all the challenges ahead, Ainge’s first controversial move comes to mind. After being hired to run the Celtics in 2003, just days before the start of the season in October, Ainge traded a fan favorite in Antoine Walker to the Mavericks. Raef LaFrentz and some other pieces went to Boston. Nothing special. Ainge got ripped on local sports-talk radio for trading a two-time All-Star. What the trade proved was that Ainge had guts to make tough decisions that he felt were in the best interest of the franchise. And perhaps more importantly, that ownership would support the choices, even if it meant pissing off fans.
The same shrewdness applied when Ainge traded Al Jefferson in a blockbuster for Kevin Garnett, dealt Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, flipped an injured Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving, traded Markelle Fultz for Tatum, and made so many other moves during his 18-year tenure in Boston. While he may be criticized for more recent moves, Ainge’s boldness helped the Celtics become a fixture in the title conversation.
Decisions and opportunities of that magnitude will come quickly for Stevens, who was successful as a coach and recruiter at Butler and in eight seasons as head coach of the Celtics. But running an organization is a unique challenge, an all-consuming, 24/7 job filled with responsibilities like appeasing ownership, managing personalities, and making deals.
Jumping straight from head coach to running basketball operations will be the toughest challenge of Stevens’s career. It’s rarely done—Ainge is one of the few to make it work.
Following his retirement as a multisport professional athlete, a short run coaching the Suns, and working in the TV booth, Ainge went on to run the Celtics for 18 years, leading to one championship in 2008, two Finals appearances, six runs to the Eastern Conference finals, and 15 playoff appearances. Ainge is considered by his peers to be one of the best to run a front office. Now he’s gone. And the Celtics will embark on an uncertain future.