What exactly are the Utah Jazz getting in bringing Danny Ainge to the front office?
Announced this week as the team’s CEO and alternate governor, the 62-year-old Ainge now stands as perhaps the second-most powerful person in the entire organization, under only owner Ryan Smith. Ainge will, unquestionably, play a large role in determining what the Jazz look like on the court moving forward.
To look into the future, there’s no better guide than the past. And in his 18-year tenure with the Boston Celtics, Ainge left plenty of evidence pointing at what kind of basketball executive he is.
We have his track record, decades of media interviews and, thanks to the reporting of NBA writer Keith P. Smith earlier this year, a wealth of insight from Ainge’s competitors about how the former BYU and NBA star goes about the business of making deals.
So what do we know about Danny Ainge? We know this:
Ainge is absolutely unafraid of hurt feelings
Ainge will make any deal that improves his team — and then worry about picking up the emotional pieces later.
Ainge was put in charge of the Celtics in 2003, one year after Boston was an Eastern Conference Finalist under head coach Jim O’Brien.
The next year, Ainge traded three-time All-Star Antoine Walker. That’s already a big move. But a different deal was enough to frustrate O’Brien enough to cause him to quit his job midseason. Right as the Celtics had won five games in a row, the team traded Eric Williams, Tony Battie and Kedrick Brown to the Cavaliers for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm and Michael Stewart — essentially sealing their fate to lose games for the rest of that year. Ainge and O’Brien confronted each other shortly after that about their ideological differences, and O’Brien resigned rather than coach the team Ainge was building.
“I guess if a guy doesn’t want to work on the relationship and see the things going forward, then I respect the fact that he’s willing to walk away and not drag us down, in his own words,” Ainge said then.
Fast forward to 2017. Point guard Isaiah Thomas was just coming off a season in which he finished fifth in MVP voting, again taking the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. But Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving became available — and Ainge jumped, trading his older, beloved franchise player for the younger — and ultimately better — championship-winning guard.
“I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen,” Thomas said. “I’ll talk to everybody else, but what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right.”
Ainge was right in both instances — among others in which he’s set aside emotional connection for higher player value. O’Brien later said that all of Ainge made “accurate assessments” in his moves. Thomas never had a season like that ever again, while Irving remains an elite player (when he plays). Other franchise executives likely wouldn’t have been as aggressive in making the trades that upset the apple cart, but Ainge was.
Ainge isn’t a truth-teller to the media, but is a straight-shooter with execs
Ainge’s comments to reporters have been poor indications of his next move.
Again, you can go back to his first days on the Celtics job, when he told reporters he had “absolutely no intention of trading Antoine Walker.” Walker was traded the next season.
Or you can go to his last day on the Celtics job, when he “insisted” to the Boston Globe that his next job would be in an “as a kind of advisor, not as a lead executive.” He is now the Jazz’s Chief Executive Officer.
In between, there have been numerous examples of falsehoods told to the public. He said he wasn’t trying to trade Rajon Rondo, while simultaneously working on a deal involving him and Chris Paul. He told the public that the team wanted to keep coach Doc Rivers, then locked out Rivers from returning.
“I was very disappointed in that part of Danny’s press conference,” Rivers, now coaching the Sixers, said. “Danny knows just like I know, that that’s not true.”
But the executives that work with Ainge say that the Celtics are one of the more straight-forward teams to work with on the trade market, in part because of his honesty.
“There’s no (expletive) with Boston. Get in, get out. It might take a bunch of conversations, but they aren’t wasting your time. And you get brutal honesty,” Smith quoted one Eastern Conference GM as saying. “Once we asked them what they thought of one of our players and the response was ‘You’re asking because he can’t play. Why would we want him if you don’t?’ And they were right. He couldn’t play.
“I think Danny has made so many deals with everyone because there’s no (expletive). No one feels like information is being withheld or that they are being lied to. That’s important in our business. You have to have trust and I trust Boston when making a trade.”
Ainge is a tough negotiator
But executives are consistent in saying that Ainge drives a hard bargain in his dealings with other teams.
“I don’t think it’s the whole thing that he has to win the deal, but he wants everything he can get,” a Western Conference assistant GM told Smith. “One time our GM hung up the phone and said ‘I think I just gave Ainge the right to pick our next jerseys and the right to swap first-born children of future draft picks.’”
Or this, from an Eastern Conference executive: “I find with the Celtics that they know what they want and don’t move off of it. It’s both infuriating and refreshing. At least you don’t waste time.”
This tendency to fight for every bit of a deal has paid real dividends.
Getting Jae Crowder, then a bit player for the Dallas Mavericks who was scoring just 3.6 points per game, in the Rajon Rondo trade proved to be a critical step. Getting a whopping seven picks In trading away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett proved to be brilliant. He got a second-round pick in the Ray Allen trade that became Glen Davis, a key contributor in the Celtics’ championship.
Refusing to agree to a sign-and-trade with the Jazz in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s decision infuriated the Jazz, but was the right move from a Celtics perspective. But when the Celtics lost Hayward in free agency, he was able to extract a sign-and-trade out of the Charlotte Hornets — which allowed them to get Evan Fournier.
Detractors might note that the insistence on a high price results in trades that should have been done, but weren’t. He had multiple first-round picks in the last couple of years, but didn’t trade them. As a contending team, Boston needed support around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and clearly needed to trade those picks for immediate help. He didn’t, instead using the picks in drafts on players that now exist at the ends of Boston’s rotation: Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, and Grant Williams.
Ainge has nailed some huge moves
When you look at the biggest moves of Ainge’s career, well ... he’s nailed a ton of them, often in brilliant fashion.
Yes, Antoine Walker was a three-time All-Star, but all were earned in his Celtics career — even though Ainge traded him at just 26 years old. Ainge was right in seeing him as a player unlikely to improve, one of the notorious “empty stats” All-Stars of the era.
There was worry of the same with Paul Pierce after his presence contributed to the 2002 USA men’s basketball team falling apart. But when Pierce asked to be moved, he countered by acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett — putting together a Big 3 quality enough to win the NBA championship in 2008 and nearly another in 2010.
Fast forward to 2013. Ainge saw the writing on the wall that his championship core was done, and extracted the largest possible price from the Nets for it. Pierce and Garnett played just one and 1.5 seasons for the Brooklyn Nets, who made it only to the second round, meanwhile, the Celtics had extracted seven high-value picks and pick swaps.
One of those picks turned out to be the No. 1 selection in the 2017 draft with a clear highest-value player: Markelle Fultz. But Ainge correctly identified the player in the top five more likely to succeed in Tatum. Trading the No. 1 selection to the Sixers for No. 3 — Tatum — and two future first-round picks was a brilliant move.
Trading Isaiah Thomas at the absolute peak of his value was another wow move in retrospect.
Or as an Eastern Conference GM pointed out to Smith: “He’s made like 60 trades in almost 20 years. You don’t get to make that many trades over that many years if you don’t win most of them!”