When the new Celtics ownership group hired Danny Ainge as head of basketball operations, I heartily applauded the move.
"You'll love him," I told anyone who would listen. "He will be fearless."
Somewhere along the way, fearless turned into reckless.
You wonder where Ainge is taking the Celtics. You wonder how the team Jim O'Brien helped methodically rebuild from the ashes of Rick Pitino's whims could be torched again so swiftly, easily, and definitively.
You wonder what Ainge is thinking, because when Jim O'Brien quits on you, you've got problems.
Ainge forgot to listen to his coach. Even worse, he forgot to respect him. In the basketball hierarchy, it was understood Ainge's name would appear one line above O'Brien's, but the very best managers find a common plane where the front office and the coach can exist comfortably and work together. O'Brien quickly learned his input was welcome, but not weighty. In the end, what he had worked so hard to create was not valued enough by his new boss.
O'Brien had already dutifully forged ahead through a horrendous trade (Vin Baker) he vehemently opposed made by the previous front office regime. He bit his lip until it bled when previous owner Paul Gaston refused to re-sign Rodney Rogers and Erick Strickland, whose unique roles with the Celtics had enabled the team to get to the Eastern Conference finals. O'Brien never said Rogers was an All-Star. Rogers, in fact, is having a horrid year in New Jersey, but that's because he's not being utilized the way O'Brien and his staff used him. Want further evidence of how valuable Rogers was here? Ask the former coach. He has reams and reams of numbers that prove Boston was better when Rogers was on the floor.
Those numbers are useless now. O'Brien's philosophy was junked the day Ainge walked into his glass office overlooking the practice court. Danny has his own ideas about how this team should be run, and some of them are sound. You can disagree with trading Antoine Walker, but Ainge was right -- the Celtics could not be a championship contender standing pat. O'Brien understood that logic, even though it meant his record would take a hit.
But O'Brien's players believed in him and his system, and the Celtics were enjoying a five-game winning streak and jockeying for position in the East when Ainge lit another match to his team's chemistry. He dealt away Tony Battie and Eric Williams, the latter of whom was at the heart of helping O'Brien maintain his team's respectability, for Chris Mihm, who may or may not develop into a low-post presence, and Ricky Davis, who may or may not be moving on to his fifth team in six seasons before it's all over.
The coach couldn't have been more explicit in how much he opposed that trade. He cited leadership, continuity, and character as major reasons it shouldn't be made. But Ainge would hear none of it. He looked at it strictly as a basketball transaction, both in terms of talent and cap space, and later explained he thought chemistry and leadership were overrated. Apparently, he thinks defense is overrated, too.
This is where I part company with Ainge. You cannot measure athletes or coaches strictly on points and rebounds, or X's and O's. Character does matter. Chemistry is essential. The Patriots are preparing for their second Super Bowl in three years this week with a collection of players who have been handpicked not just for their individual talents, but for their psychological makeup. Coach Bill Belichick and personnel man Scott Pioli have gone after quality veterans with strong leadership qualities to fill out their roster. As one team official told me, "Our goal is to have an [expletive]-free locker room." You know what? They are very close to succeeding.
I wandered into last Friday's Celtics game against the hapless Washington Wizards, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. After Boston built a comfortable third-quarter lead, the team's best player, Paul Pierce, began taking one ludicrous shot after another. He was actually fooling around in the middle of an NBA game, one that certainly had not been decided. If Williams had been there, or, for that matter, Walker, they would have told him to knock it off. Davis? He joined in, firing up a few jumpers of his own.
Pierce will be one of the biggest casualties now that O'Brien is gone. He is carrying too much of the load, both on and off the court. Ainge was the first to admit Pierce isn't a leader in the locker room. He is a very talented, very fine basketball player whose work ethic is outstanding. But he can't do it alone, and you wonder where this leaves him.
So what is next? Ainge, you can be sure, is not done retooling. He better not be. His vision, whatever it is, should be given time to take shape and evolve. It was supposed to be a three-year plan, after all. Yet, that plan suddenly looks a lot murkier to me when someone like Jim O'Brien isn't part of it.
It takes a principled person of uncommon character to walk away from millions of dollars. The Celtics and O'Brien likely came to some kind of small buyout agreement, but believe me, it's not about the money with this man. He's already made more than he's ever dreamed.
Don't worry about O'Brien. His reputation in the NBA is impeccable, and he will get another job. This is a positive move for him. He is someone who loves basketball -- is obsessed with it, actually -- and it must be a relief to no longer have to put in so much time and effort into a philosophy that trivialized defense. That was simply too much to swallow.
You wonder if Danny Ainge truly knows where he is headed. You want him to take a good, long, hard look at the direction he is choosing, because when it leads you away from a quality basketball man like Jim O'Brien, you've got problems.
Problems you'll have to solve all on your own.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.