Trade No. 1 pick? Deal for Kyrie Irving? Celtics’ Danny Ainge bets big on his convictions

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Danny Ainge believes in himself and his player evaluations. Unequivocally.

Almost every NBA team had Markelle Fultz at the top of their draft board. As one scout put it to me, “there is a clear No. 1 this year.” NBC’s college basketball guru Rob Dauster agreed and told us so. It was the consensus.

Ainge didn’t see it that way. Boston’s decision maker traded the No. 1 pick for a future first rounder and eventually took Jayson Tatum at No. 3, the guy he liked best in the draft.

Also through the summer, Ainge also sat on the biggest asset on the trade board — the Brooklyn Nets unprotected 2018 first-round pick — and didn’t use it to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler (or anyone else). It seemed untouchable.

Then Ainge threw it and another player other teams coveted — Jae Crowder (not to mention Isaiah Thomas) — in a deal to land Kyrie Irving out of Cleveland. Ainge paid a franchise-player level price for Irving, betting he can be the best player on a championship team.

Ainge likes Irving more than other teams do, he likes the flair in Irving’s game — no doubt Irving is an elite scorer, but a franchise player? One who defends and gets teammates involved? Look at what some scouts and executives told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report.

“I think it’s fairly clear he’s not (a franchise player),” says one team’s analytics director, pointing to the surprisingly soft trade market for Irving. “The league as a whole agrees he’s not.”

The scout calls Irving’s playmaking skills “plain vanilla” and “average for a starting point guard.” He says he would be surprised if Irving raised his assist average much in Boston…. And Irving is positively awful defensively, according to just about every available defensive metric—“a train wreck,” in the words of one Cavs official.

Ainge, like the rest of us, has seen Irving the great playmaker, and we’ve seen Irving play good defense (remember him on Stephen Curry in the 2016 Finals?). But franchise cornerstones bring that every night, not once in a while.

Ainge is higher on Irving than most of his front office peers, and he bet big on that belief that Irving will be the best of himself in Boston.

That sums up Danny Ainge’s summer: He has true conviction in his player evaluations, even if they go against the grain.

He has bet big on these assessments and convictions — and bet the Celtics’ future. This was a 53-win Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and it will have four new starters next season. Only four players from the previous year will be in camp with the Celtics next season, and the Celtics have gotten younger in the process in a historic way.

Boston still looks like the second-best team in the East come the playoffs (nobody should bet against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals until he loses one at this point), and they are poised to have next in the East if things come apart in Cleveland.

However, one of the three tests of whether this team is a contender is whether Gordon Hayward and Irving can mesh inside Brad Steven’s offense and become almost unstoppable on that end. Which is really asking, is Ainge right that Irving will buy into what Stevens is selling? Another big test is whether this Celtics team can get enough defense from Irving (and its developing players) to make up for losing Crowder and Avery Bradley in one summer.

The final, and maybe biggest question, is in a couple of years will we say Ainge passed on the best player in this class in Fultz to get a more polished but lower upside guy in Tatum? No. 1 picks are rare opportunities, Ainge gambled in giving his away, and if Fultz is what the Sixers and some other teams believe Ainge will have lost that bet.

You have to admire that Ainge goes with his convictions, that he’s not willing to just take the safe and conventional route. We love to watch risk takers, teams swinging for the fences are far more interesting than a GM just looking to hit solid singles every time at the plate.

But if Ainge missed on his evaluations in the summer of 2017, it could be a long while before banner 18 goes up in the Boston Garden.

 

Kevin Durant expected to make return to Suns Wednesday night

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In the three games he played for the Suns, Kevin Durant was his vintage self: 26.7 points and 7.3 assists a game on an insanely efficient 80.8 true shooting percentage. Not so coincidentally, the Suns won all three games.

The Suns have gone 4-6 with Durant sidelined after he sprained an ankle in warmups before his fourth game (although that was good enough to hold off the Clippers and Warriors and keep the No. 4 seed and home court in the first round). Now Durant is expected back on Wednesday night against the Timberwolves — he is officially questionable, but multiple reports out of Phoenix say he will play if there is no setback in warmups.

A setback in warmups is how we got here in the first place.

Phoenix would have seven games left to hold on to that No.4 seed (they are five games back of the Kings at No.3, that’s not happening). More importantly, they would have seven games to build chemistry with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, for Monty Williams to look at lineups and tinker with rotations — they have seven games to figure it out before things get very serious.

Seven games could be enough in a wide-open West where plenty of teams are trying to figure things out. That road starts Wednesday night against a Timberwolves team playing its best ball of the season.

Three things to Know: Warriors’ comeback puts them back in top six

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Warriors’ comeback puts them back in top six, Heat loss to Raptors does opposite

There were three games last night that impacted the playoff chase.

• Golden State was down 17 at the half to New Orleans and had looked sloppy again, with turnovers and missed opportunities. Then, giving life to the “they can flip the switch” crowd, Draymond Green lit a fire under the Warriors by getting chippy with Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones. Plus Stephen Curry — who finished with 39 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — started doing things that left Steve Kerr shaking his head (also, notice Klay Thompson‘s off-ball movement here, trademark Warriors stuff).

The Warriors picked up the 120-109 win and moved back into the No.6 seed in the West for a day by half-a-game over the Timberwolves (the two teams are tied in the loss column, and Minnesota has the tiebreaker). New Orleans, at 38-38, sits as the No. 8 seed but just half a game up on the Lakers (these teams are tied in the loss column). Every win will matter down the stretch for seeding in the bottom half of the West.

• Miami entered the day tied with Brooklyn for the 6/7 seed in the East but with a couple of problems. First, the Nets had the tiebreaker after beating the Heat last weekend. Second, Brooklyn has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. The Heat need some big wins down the stretch to overtake the Nets.

This is why a 106-92 loss to Toronto is a blow to the Heat’s chances to avoid the play-in. Jimmy Butler was out with neck soreness, and while Tyler Herro scored 33 on 13-of-21 shooting, the rest of the Heat shot 32.2% for the game and they took the loss. Now they head to New York for a tough road back-to-back.

With the win, Toronto (38-38) is tied with Atlanta for the 8/9 seed in the East. Scottie Barnes had 22 points and a career-best 12 assists in the win.

• Charlotte continues to wreak havoc on the West playoff chase — they beat Dallas twice last weekend, then on Tuesday helped out Dallas by knocking off the Thunder 137-134. The Thunder and Mavericks are now tied for the final play-in spot in the West.

2) Wade, Popovich, Nowitzki headline legendary 2023 Hall of Fame class

Saturday it will become official, but none of this is a surprise.

The 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class is stacked: Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Gregg Popovich, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Becky Hammon. That is a very deep class out of the NBA/WNBA division, and there is no questioning the credentials of anyone in that class.

Wade is arguably the greatest shooting guard in NBA history (if you count Jordan as a small forward), winning three rings as a member of the Miami Heat, plus making eight All-NBA teams. Nowitzki is the guy with his statue outside the arena in Dallas, is an NBA champion and Finals MVP, plus he won the regular season MVP in 2007. Popovich, the legendary coach of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs, also coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Parker was the point guard for much of that Spurs run, is a four-time NBA champion and was Finals MVP in 2007. Gasol is a two-time NBA champion, four-time All-NBA and led Spain to the FIBA World Championship in 2006.

3) Lillard, Simmons officially shut down for season (Beal probably is, too)

Everyone knew it was already happening, but a couple of things became official on Tuesday.

The Trail Blazers have shut down Damian Lillard for the season. The Blazers are five games out of the final play-in spot, and are tied for the fifth-worst record in the league. We know where their focus should be.

No. We are not doing the Lillard trade speculation here. Until he asks for a trade — and he has never done so, in fact saying the opposite multiple times in this past year — it will not happen.

Also, Nets’ coach Jacque Vaughn made the worst kept secret in the NBA official, saying the Nets are shutting Ben Simmons down for the season, officially for his back impingement. He reportedly does not need surgery and will be ready to go by training camp next fall.

Watch Curry score 39, spark Warriors rally from 20 down to beat Pelicans

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SAN FRANCISCO — Draymond Green yelled at the other bench, his own team and even his coach, and this time those intense emotions absolutely made the difference.

Steve Kerr loved it.

“We need his fire,” Golden State’s coach said.

“It was perfect, right, perfectly executed,” Green said with a grin.

Stephen Curry had 39 points with eight 3-pointers, eight rebounds and eight assists, Jordan Poole added 21 points with consecutive layups that gave Golden State the lead early in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors rallied past the New Orleans Pelicans 120-109 on Tuesday night in a testy, playoff-like matchup in late March.

Klay Thompson scored 17 and hit five 3s to set a new single-season career high of 278, which leads the NBA.

The Warriors moved up a spot into sixth place in the crowded Western Conference standings, a half-game up on Minnesota and 1 1/2 games ahead of New Orleans. Golden State lost 99-96 at home to the Timberwolves on Sunday, so coming back from 20 down to win this one was key as the defending champions try to avoid the play-in round. The top six teams are guaranteed playoff berths.

“We lost a heartbreaker the other night. We knew we had to bounce back,” Kerr said.

Brandon Ingram had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Trey Murphy III scored 21 points and CJ McCollum added 15 for the Pelicans, who came in riding a five-game winning streak.

Green chirped and pushed the emotions and physicality all game, then threw an alley-oop to Jonathan Kuminga for a dunk with 7:09 left for one of his 13 assists and a 101-98 advantage.

“Draymond willed us to victory tonight,” Kerr said. “His frustration early with the way we were playing. Mad at the world. Yelling at everybody, their bench, our bench, me, and frankly we all deserved it.”

Green was whistled for a double technical for tussling with Ingram late in the second quarter – and Green’s foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 1. He already served a one-game suspension March 17 at Atlanta for his 16th technical.

Green committed an offensive foul moments later and players for both sides tangled, Green’s feet getting caught up with Herbert Jones’ head. A replay showed no additional infractions but Kerr briefly took Green out with tensions running high because of his “extreme energy” in that moment.

“We looked dead those first 18 minutes of the game,” Kerr said. “We had to find some energy somewhere. I knew it wasn’t just going to come.”

Three straight 3-pointers by Curry late in the third got Golden State within 89-83. Poole then stole the ball from Ingram and dunked on the other end as the Warriors trailed 89-85 going into the final 12 minutes.

Golden State started the third on an 8-0 burst fueled by Donte DiVincezo. He made a putback dunk over Ingram early in the second half then a three-point play before Thompson’s 3 at 10:44 made it 63-54.

McCollum’s 3 with 1:40 left before halftime put the Pelicans up 60-43, then Ingram made it a 20-point game with a 3 New Orleans’ next time down.

The Pelicans, coached by former Warriors assistant Willie Green and longtime Golden State assistant Jarron Collins on his staff, had won five straight after a 124-90 romp at Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors’ victory prevented the Sacramento Kings, coached by former top assistant Mike Brown, their first playoff berth since 2006 that would end the worst drought in NBA history at 16 years.

Nowitzki, Wade, Gasol, Popovich reportedly headline Hall of Fame class

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It will not become official until Saturday, but this is shaping up to be a legendary Hall of Fame class.

Dwyane Wade. Dirk Nowitzki. Gregg Popovich. Pau Gasol. Tony Parker. Becky Hammon. They are all in, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a deep class, and there was no question about any of those players’ Hall of Fame credentials.

Wade is one of the (arguably THE) greatest shooting guard in the history of the game, winning three rings as a member of the Miami Heat, plus making eight All-NBA teams and 13 trips to the All-Star game. Nowitzki is the greatest Maverick ever and the greatest European player in NBA history, an NBA champion and Finals MVP, plus he won the regular season MVP in 2007.

Popovich, the legendary coach of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs — a team that won 50+ games 18-straight seasons with him at the helm, plus he coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Parker was the point guard for much of that Spurs run, is a four-time NBA champion and was Finals MVP in 2007. Gasol is a two-time NBA champion, four-time All-NBA,and led Spain to the FIBA World Championship in 2006 and won three Olympic medals.

The Hall of Fame class will officially be announced on Saturday.