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Once-green Ainge thriving in role

Celtics architect builds a winner

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / October 27, 2009

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Last week, Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers were standing in a hotel lobby on 57th Street in Manhattan, awaiting the Celtics’ team bus. They began feeling antsy at about the same time, so they decided to walk to Madison Square Garden.

“We beat the bus over,’’ Ainge said. “And we got to talk on the way.’’

That 30-block jaunt confirmed Ainge and Rivers are still in synch in their thinking and also that Ainge has returned to health after undergoing surgery for a mild heart attack, a month after his 50th birthday, on the eve of the playoffs last April.

“I guess I was a little surprised,’’ Ainge said of the heart attack. “I’ve changed my eating habits, my exercise routine. I don’t think I’ve changed much else. I don’t feel any different.’’

Instead of fast food, Ainge is consuming tofu burgers these days. And, even if he has a slow food diet, Ainge still works swiftly. He was first in line in the Rasheed Wallace free agent recruiting race, and his acquisitions have made the Celtics among the championship favorites this season.

Ainge does have an impatient streak. Within days of undergoing surgery, he was playing golf and back on the job as president of basketball operations.

“Perseverance and tenaciousness,’’ managing partner Steve Pagliuca said of Ainge. “He had those qualities as a player and he has them as a GM. He never gives up. He’s always on the phone. He’s taking one more trip overseas. He’s looking at one more player, going to college games, watching tapes. He has that tenacity and competitive fire - he wants to win.’’

Good judge of talent
Ainge’s edge might well be the result of hard work. But when it comes to evaluating talent and developing a team, plus managing situations during a season, other qualities come into play.

“Danny was the key that unlocked the championship for us,’’ managing partner Wyc Grousbeck said. “When we bought the team we didn’t have a roster that was going to win, in our opinion, so it was part of the plan to build up the team with youth and investment. We needed a GM who could make draft picks wisely.

“Steve knew Danny and when we interviewed him, he convinced me and my dad he knew his stuff. He knew every player in the league, he knew our roster. He told us, ‘I’ll be a partner with you, a part of the team. I’ve checked on you and I think I can work with you guys.’ And that’s what it’s been - a partnership.’’

Indeed, Ainge and the Celtics owners appear to be kindred spirits. If Ainge is a risk-taking wheeler-dealer in player personnel matters, that is the style Grousbeck was seeking. But before raising the stakes, Ainge needed to collect some chips.

“Danny took Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, all three quality starters, if not All-Stars, plus Delonte West and Tony Allen,’’ Grousbeck said. “He recommended Doc as coach and Doc showed he could coach kids and improve them.’’

After three seasons, the Celtics’ record did not indicate they were improving. But management did not measure progress in wins and losses.

“A lot of people suggested I make the call and change Doc or Danny, and I chose not to do it,’’ Grousbeck said. “Doc did not have the tools to win yet, and Danny had done the best he could with draft picks. Trades are tough propositions, and it’s not always clear if you win, because you are giving up something. We didn’t have much to trade, expect for Paul Pierce, and I was adamant about not trading Paul. But drafting is a one-way street - you’re not giving up anything. And Danny is phenomenal with drafting, maybe the best in the league.’’

By 2007, Ainge had a strong enough hand to start making deals. His bosses told him to go for it. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived in exchange for a mix of established players and draft choices. A 17th NBA title followed.

Prudent risks
“Danny is a prudent risk-taker, not just a gunslinger,’’ Pagliuca said. “He knows what he is getting into and has a very realistic sense of things. The fantastic thing is that, having been a star player, he really understands players’ strengths and weaknesses, the chemistry of a team, all the nuances, and not everyone gets that.

“But in that position, you’ve got to be smart and you’ve also got to be fearless, because you are going to be criticized by a lot of people. We never had any doubts about Danny. He laid out a plan and we knew it was going to take three to five years to get that plan executed. And we knew many NBA teams stumbled because they tried to fix the situation overnight.’’

When Ainge was performing for the Celtics, he was not among the first options in the offense. If Ainge improvised on a clear-out play, or missed a shot, there were some Hall of Fame egos to answer to. But that never seemed to inhibit him.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m a . . . risk-taker might not be the best [description],’’ Ainge said. “I’m not afraid to take chances. Hopefully, I’ll make a lot more good ones than bad ones. Hopefully, when you make a bad one you can make up for it by doing something to rectify it somewhere down the road.

“If you’re afraid to take a risk it prevents you from being great, and that’s why I’m grateful to be working for the ownership I’m working with. I feel like they’re the same way, they’re not afraid to take risks, but we need to think it through.’’

Ainge said he isn’t afraid of public ridicule.

“I’m not afraid of losing my job, I’m not afraid of what somebody says,’’ he said. “I’m not afraid of any of that. Maybe it’s because as a player I really wasn’t afraid. I grew up in the spotlight as a youngster in high school in a small town. I’m not afraid of criticism. So if I think it’s going to be good I’ll do it and live with it, and I’m not worried about those things.

“I didn’t play the game for those kind of things, for the attention, and don’t do this job for any special attention. I want to succeed, I don’t want to fail, ever, but I don’t need praise from somebody else. I want my people I work for, owners, to trust me and believe in me, and I think we’ve developed that kind of relationship.’’

No second-guessing
Ainge received credit for bringing in the players to win a championship. But there was criticism of his offseason moves last year, the Celtics failing to overcome the loss of James Posey to a four-year free agent contract with New Orleans.

“We both probably agreed on Posey, we just knew we couldn’t do it,’’ Rivers said. “Danny wanted Posey as much as I wanted Posey. It wasn’t a basketball decision.’’

Said Ainge, “I don’t think [the loss of Posey] prevented us from winning. I think the health of players was the biggest factor. I agree with Doc some of the chemistry wasn’t as good as the year before, and we anticipated that a little bit going into the year, just coming off a championship year - and I think the injuries might have magnified it a little bit, because KG is such a spiritual leader of our team. And when he’s not on the court it’s not the same, chemistry-wise.’’

He tries not to look back and second-guess.

“The most scrutinized deal was Posey, but we just couldn’t do that,’’ he said. “We’ve got other players to take care of, a whole bunch of free agents next summer. I don’t think we would have had a lot more success if KG wasn’t going to be there, so I don’t second-guess, because I know why we didn’t sign [Posey] and I know the thought process that went into it. We did everything we could to sign him that we thought was reasonable, and even a little bit more, and we couldn’t get it done.

“We started out 27-2 and had a 19-game win streak. We won 62 games, we lost KG, and the guy who started for KG, Scal [Brian Scalabrine], Tony [Allen], and Leon [Powe]. I thought losing Game 7 to Orlando, I thought we ran out of gas. It was a tough game to swallow, and if we win that one we would have had about as spectacular a season as we could have hoped for under the circumstances.’’

Ainge can understand why people wanted Posey, but he said, “If Posey was with us I don’t think we start out better than 27-2 and I don’t think we win the championship if KG is not playing. And if we did that [deal], we probably wouldn’t be able to have Rasheed or Marquis [Daniels] and have other flexibility going into next summer.’’

The best players, in any sport, are able to project four or five sequences ahead. That is what Ainge is doing as an executive, making moves to set up other moves, so he can make a play when it counts. The latest example is Daniels, who turned down better offers to join the Celtics this year. Ainge attempted to sign Daniels as an undrafted free agent five years ago. When he became available in June, Ainge made another offer, the deal sealed with a handshake.

Patience a plus
Ainge and Rivers might have impulsive streaks, but they have had patience of Biblical proportions in building a team.

“Danny’s great, Danny’s in better shape than me,’’ Rivers said, recalling their crosstown stroll. “We trust each other. Relationships start with trust, and we have great trust. I believe 100 percent in what Danny does, he believes the same way in what I do. We can have real conversations and never take them personally, have a debate. And that usually means you have a good relationship. We don’t always agree but I don’t want anybody to agree with everything I say.

Rivers said their relationship goes back to the 1988 All-Star Game in Chicago, the only appearance in the contest for both Ainge and Rivers. “We were both role players more than stars,’’ he said. “All-Star role players means you were team player.

“I just think we think a lot alike in a lot of ways. Politically, we’re probably different. We disagree and we are still getting along. If it’s Danny’s feel I usually go with him, if it’s my feel, something we’re doing with the team, we’ll usually go with me at the end of the day. Danny would never give me a player I completely don’t want, even if he loves him. Vice versa, if he really wanted a guy that bad, I would probably say, you know what, I trust your instinct enough, I’ll go with it.

“Danny sits down and works and looks at how I run our defense and our offense, our system, and he doesn’t find any player, he finds a player that fits our system. Risk with equation, with percentage. Educated risk.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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