Danny Ainge, TNT and lessons from Red

by: Paul Flannery on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 12:33am

There’s a story Danny Ainge likes to tell about a Christmas party at which Red Auerbach shared the secrets of trades not made. One involved sending Larry Bird to Indiana for Chuck Person, Herb Williams and Steve Stipanovich and the other had Kevin McHale going to the Mavericks for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins.

Of the two, the McHale deal would have been the far better move, and not only because Bird is, and was, a franchise icon. Stipanovich’s career ended abruptly after just five seasons, the victim of a degenerative knee condition.

The first takeaway is that you never know what you’re going to get when you make a deal (see Jeff Green’s heart surgery for a more recent example). The second is that if you have a chance to trade an aging great player for two young starters then you do it.

“This was not for Kevin McHale, the top-50 player of all-time,” Ainge said on WEEI’s Big Show on Thursday. “This was the Kevin McHale whose ankle was the size of an orange for the rest of his life Kevin McHale. You're getting two young starters. People might not remember how good those players were. None of those guys were as good as Kevin, but I'm saying that Kevin was done as a good player at that time.”

Ainge added, “Larry and Kevin would have done the same thing too. It's not just me.”

(Listen to the whole interview here).

The story is making the rounds again because Ainge told it to the Globe with an underlying message to his underperforming team: Don’t think I won’t do it, because I will if it helps the Celtics in the long run.

“It's just obvious,” Ainge said on WEEI. “Of course if we get the opportunity to make a trade that will help our team, we'll do it.”

There’s a deeper moral to the story that often gets overlooked. It’s not, as some would suggest: Blow things up like Wile E. Coyote with a fistful of ACME-brand TNT while you still have the chance. Rather, it’s don’t get sentimental about players and that’s a lesson Ainge has already proven time and again that he understands.

He almost traded Ray Allen in 2010. He’s talked about trading Rajon Rondo on at least three different occasions that have become public and probably more than that. He did trade Kendrick Perkins, lest anyone ever forget. There’s no reason to think that Ainge wouldn’t trade anybody if he thought it would help the franchise, up to and including Paul Pierce, which would be incredibly difficult because Pierce is different than the others. He’s been here longer and meant more, but that’s sentiment talking not cold-hearted logic.  

Up until now Pierce has been one of two names that have never been mentioned in the swirling vortex of trade rumors in the new Big Three era, the other being Kevin Garnett. That changed when Yahoo! reported that other teams have called on Pierce and it’s worth pointing out that inquiring and shopping are not the same thing.

No matter. It’s on now and one has to think that this is all part of a larger plan for Ainge as he attempts to maneuver the franchise from one era to the next.

First, he’s sending a clear message that he expects better results and everyone is on notice, even the captain. Ainge denied that he tries to motivate his team through the press and suggested that his veteran team was immune to that kind of buzz, but they heard it anyway. Everyone across the NBA heard it.

Two, it indicates a willingness to listen and if some team decided that Pierce was the final piece of a championship puzzle and was willing to bet some amount of young talent on that belief, then Ainge wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t listen.

The question isn’t, would Ainge do it? That’s obvious. He would.

The deeper, and more complex, question is how would he do it? Would he build around Rondo, an undisputed star but an equally unorthodox talent who would require a very specific team around him, or would he seek to start all over from scratch? That’s the question that leaves everyone stumped for an answer beyond the obvious play for pending free agent center Dwight Howard who has never given any indication that he would consider playing for the Celtics.

“You don't just take anything back because there's great value in having flexibility next summer,” Ainge said. “So, you don't want to mess that up at the expense of taking back something you don't want just because it's something.” 

And if there’s no free agent prize to be had?

“That's the danger,” he said. “That's why I've said all along that cap space is a little bit overrated. But with the new collective bargaining agreement it does provide opportunity. There's not a quick fix. Unless you can get franchise players to come in for your salary cap space, like what happened in Miami, there's not a quick fix.”

Things have begun to clarify themselves a bit over the first month of the season. Rondo showed up to camp in tremendous shape and has reverted back to being the All-Star playmaker that he was from 2009 until last spring. He’s attacking the basket, scoring more and it’s no longer a question of who’s running the team on the court.

Additionally, there are fewer places for Rondo to go. Ainge couldn’t interest the Hornets in a trade for Chris Paul who is now safely stashed in Los Angeles throwing lobs to Blake Griffin and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook signed a max contract extension that put an end to that intriguing hypothetical.

If Rondo is the future, or at least a significant part of it, then the Big Three take on less importance as they slide toward the latter parts of their career. They can’t keep up with him on the break and they are ever more reliant on Rondo’s creativity in the halfcourt for their shots.

“We've all known there's a window for this group, so we're constantly evaluating that and been evaluating it for the last couple of years,” Ainge said. “I don't have anything on the books. I don't have anything imminent. There's nothing out there that I'm actively doing. I'm being patient with this group of guys. They believe that they’re much better than they're playing right now. Doc [Rivers] believes they're much better than we're playing right now. I believe that too.”

Ainge can afford to be patient because one way or another a significant amount of money is coming off the books after this season. The Celtics as we know them are going to be blown up whether he pulls the trigger on a deal or not, but he also has to listen. That’s the real lesson from Red and there’s no reason to think he won’t follow through if, and only if, the right opportunity presents itself.