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.