The Utah Jazz now employ a man who, for the most part, built a current-day NBA Finals roster.
Even skeptics of Danny Ainge’s hire as CEO and alternate governor of the Jazz have to acknowledge that what the Celtics have done in the NBA playoffs this season has been extremely impressive. Despite being from a bigger market, the Celtics built their roster essentially entirely without the benefits of free agency.
Utah, famously, is not the most exciting free-agent destination in the NBA world. So the Celtics’ ability to get this far could serve as a blueprint for the Jazz’s future success — even if it might take more time than Jazz fans hope for.
With that in mind, let’s break down the Celtics’ starting lineup, how they ended up on the roster, and what it teaches us about a Danny Ainge-style approach to team-building.
The Celtics acquiring Jaylen Brown is the result of one of the boldest trades in NBA history.
The first involved sending Hall-of-Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the newly-moved Brooklyn Nets in 2013 — along with Jason Terry and D.J. White — in exchange for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and Keith Bogans, all of whom were mostly salary ballast for the stars in the deal. The critical part of the deal was three first-round picks that the Celtics would receive from the Nets, in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The Celtics also received the rights to swap picks with the Nets in 2017.
Boston was a team stuck in the middle: it had been five years since the Celtics’ last NBA title, and they finished the 2012-13 season with just a 41-40 record. Meanwhile, the Nets, purchased by Russian billionaire politician Mikhail Prokhorov, wanted to be an immediate contender, so they relinquished a massive part of their future for the 37-year-old Garnett and 35-year-old Pierce.
It was a monumental mistake. Pierce lasted just one season in Brooklyn, Garnett just a season and a half. Brooklyn was able to hang on and make the playoffs for three seasons after the deal in total, but collapsed to 20 and 21 wins in 2016 and 2017. Boston, then, had the No. 3 pick in 2016, which it used to take Brown.
Brown, by the way, was a controversial pick. Many figured guard Kris Dunn was the third-best player in the 2016 draft, and statistical projection models hated Brown — ESPN’s Kevin Pelton’s projections put him as the 101st best player in the class. That was because Brown was a mess of bad shots, missed shots, and turnovers in his one year at Cal.
Many Celtics fans booed the pick. But Ainge believed in his high off-court IQ and tools, and the 19-year-old proved him right.
Lessons: Ainge wasn’t afraid to take criticism by trading away two franchise legends, and exactly nailed their quick downturn in order to get an incredible haul. Then, he correctly saw past Brown’s poor collegiate track record in identifying him as the right pick.
In 2017, the Nets’ bounty gave the Celtics the No. 1 pick. There was a consensus No. 1 overall selection: Markelle Fultz.
Ainge wasn’t sold on Fultz, though. As he said on draft night, he believed Jayson Tatum was just as worthy of a No. 1 overall selection. Ainge figured the Duke star was at least as, if not more, likely to be an NBA superstar than Fultz thanks to his size, scoring ability, and defense.
He was 100% right. Fultz struggled more than expected with injuries and then a mental inability to shoot. It’s hard to how much of Fultz’s struggles Ainge saw coming. Nevertheless, Tatum proved to be someone worth believing in, and Ainge picked up additional assets while also drafting the superior player.
In the end, the Celtics got an additional first-round pick from Philadelphia to move down from No. 1 to No. 3.
Lessons: Ainge has a pretty stellar record at selecting the correct top-of-draft picks. Even better, he then uses his assets correctly, getting additional value out of identifying his preferred player.
The Celtics’ story of Marcus Smart’s acquisition is pretty simple: After the Garnett/Pierce trade, the Celtics were a bad basketball team the next year, got the No. 6 pick as a result, and used it to draft Smart in 2014.
You’ll remember, though, that the Jazz had the No. 5 pick in that draft, a pick they used to draft Dante Exum instead. Essentially, then-general manager Dennis Lindsey believed in Exum’s stratospheric potential in the NBA, because Exum was longer, faster, and younger than the collegiate veteran Smart. Smart was a tenacious defender and a reasonably good scorer in college, but still lacked the elite speed Exum had.
Exum turned out to be a bust, while Smart essentially turned out to be the player his college track record said he would be. It’s logical that the Jazz would go with a high-risk, high-reward player at that draft slot, but the risk side won out, while Smart remains a key contributor, and figures to be for years: he’s under contract through 2026.
Lessons: Ainge knew the Celtics would struggle to win after trading away the team’s best players; he wasn’t afraid to rebuild. The trade led to the Celtics improving their own draft picks, and Ainge wisely drafted again.
Horford actually signed in free agency with the Celtics in 2016, but then left in free agency three years later in 2019.
So how did they get him back? Well, it’s complicated. In 2019, the Celtics wanted a new point guard after Kyrie Irving left, so they chased after free agent Kemba Walker. Ainge got him, using the cap space the team gained when it let Horford walk.
But Walker’s 4-year, $141 million contract proved to be a bust — Walker’s output significantly declined after he turned 30 and after injury. He was a negative asset by two seasons later. So the Celtics essentially reversed the deal, trading Walker to Oklahoma City for Horford, but also had to give up their own first-round pick to do so. (This deal took place a couple of weeks after Ainge’s departure from Boston, so new executive Brad Stevens made the deal.)
Horford looked like he had lost a step, too, but found a way to decrease his usage rate and still contribute in a huge way in his comeback to the Celtics after disappointing in Philadelphia.
Lessons: From Ainge’s point of view, Horford was a solid pickup in 2016, and he was right to say that he was overpaid in 2019 to let him walk. But Ainge made a big mistake on the Walker contract, and Stevens’ later deal (at the cost of a pick) bailed him out of it.
Robert Williams was considered to be a lottery-level prospect, thanks to his huge athleticism and adeptness as a shot-blocking big man.
So how did he get to the 27th pick (apparently, the NBA draft’s home for rim-protecting bigs)? Well, he’s a bit of an inconsistent personality: he didn’t impress during the interview process, and there were questions about his maturity. Famously, those concerns were validated when he showed up late to his own post-draft press conference with the Boston media.
And yet, that just doesn’t matter that much. Williams did become more mature with some age, and when he does come to work, he’s incredibly valuable. He can defend inside and out, and while he doesn’t have much of an offensive game besides finishing lobs, he’s not asked to do much more than that, anyway. He’s a key piece of the Celtics’ success.
Lessons: When a lottery-level prospect drops in his lap, even with maturity concerns, Ainge isn’t afraid to draft him.