Give Danny Ainge his due for a remarkably swift rebuild

Danny Ainge has the Celtics in excellent position for the present and the future.
Danny Ainge has the Celtics in excellent position for the present and the future. –Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Danny Ainge holds onto his precious assets too long and overvalues his own players. He won’t pull the trigger on a deal unless he’s certain he’s winning the trade. The Celtics aren’t going to take down the Mighty LeBrons of Believeland, so why bother trying to compete now?

That should about cover it, right? Oh, yes, one more:

No major NBA free agent will ever choose Boston — especially when Miami is involved — and don’t even try to give me Al Horford. He doesn’t count. He missed 48 percent of his threes in the playoffs! What a bust!

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All right, I think that’s it. If there are any more edamame-brained opinions on Ainge’s competence as the Celtics president of basketball operations, I’ve been fortunate enough to have somehow missed them.

No reminder of any further stray anti-Ainge hot-takes is required today unless it’s for the same purpose that I regurgitated the aforementioned: to mock how silly and short-sighted they were, and to celebrate that they are officially dead and gone.

Don’t bother trying to board the Ainge bandwagon now. It’s already chugging toward its destination: the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, at least. The doubters have been left in the empty road, gulping down dust. They never could keep up.

After a few hours of bonus suspense on the Fourth of July, the news became official: Gordon Hayward, the 27-year-old Utah Jazz forward who averaged a career-best 21.7 points per game this season, was leaving the only professional basketball home he had ever known to sign with the Celtics. He was reuniting with his college coach and mentor, Brad Stevens, on a four-year, $128 million deal.

I’ll leave it to you to find some fireworks metaphor that has yet to be set off, so let’s just say this is exactly what Celtics fans have been waiting for. Hayward, a creative and well-rounded offensive player who will habitually knock down the open looks that less-skilled shooters on the roster so often missed, isn’t just the prize of this free agency period, though he certainly is that.

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Hayward’s arrival is the culmination of a remarkable post-New Big Three rebuild by Ainge, one that managed to set up the Celtics remarkably well in both the present and future, and one that was pulled off in just four years without requiring the team to tank.

It’s the confirmation that the Celtics — that Ainge — pulled off perhaps the highest-degree-of-difficulty franchise rebuild that the NBA has seen since Red Auerbach was still pulling off heists of rival rosters.

Consider: Four years ago, on the night of the NBA Draft, Ainge traded franchise icon Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and trivia question D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets for three first-round draft choices, the rights to swap a fourth, and a bunch of spare-part players who are slightly more memorable than D.J. White. Four years ago! That trade feels like it occurred a decade ago; so much has happened since, and almost all of it good for the franchise.

Roughly a week after that trade, Ainge hired Stevens, who had guided Butler to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA men’s national championship game. It looks like the easiest decision in the world now — Stevens is one of the best coaches in the sport, and “young” is not needed as a qualifier — but there were legitimate questions then, given the struggles some high-profile college coaches have had in adjusting to the NBA. It was a bold move that proved a brilliant one.

What has Ainge done in the three-plus years since? Not much, other than stealing popular scoring machine Isaiah Thomas from the Suns, turning a regressing Rajon Rondo into Jae Crowder in a trade with the Mavericks, signing Avery Bradley to a four-year, $32 million deal that looked steep then and is now one of the great bargains in the league, extending Stevens’s contract, drafting defensive menace Marcus Smart, and drafting hard-working, bright athletic marvel Jaylen Brown . . . among other things.

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And that doesn’t even include what he has done in the last month, which includes turning the No. 1 overall pick and a player they didn’t favor, Markelle Fultz, into 6-foot-8-inch scoring forward Jayson Tatum and another potentially high draft pick down the road while also adding Hayward to a roster that won a conference-best 53 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals this past season.

Yeah, so Ainge is good at this.

It’s always boggled my mind how there’s such a vocal segment of Celtics fans who genuinely seem to believe he’s not good at his job. I recognize that some of the talking points come from sports radio, and Stockholm Syndrome takes effect if you listen to too much of that noise on a daily basis. I almost sympathize, though I’d be glad to recommend a few satisfying podcasts if you need some guidance and a mental cleansing.

And I recognize that there’s going to be some frustration when a star player is presumably available – Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, whomever – and that player ends up elsewhere.

But we know Ainge around here. We know he was a hyper-competitive player. We know he’s regarded as impatient. We know he’ll take every angle he can to win any given competition. We know he’s infinitely more bothered than you are when the Celtics lose out.

And yet, that never slows the quest. While setting up this team for the future and the present, he was remarkably patient and perhaps even prescient (hiring Stevens directly led to the Hayward signing four years later) while presumably working from dozens of potential blueprints, depending on which players were available.

Some of this was luck, sure. It would feel different today had Hayward joined Pat Riley with the dastardly Heat. But he didn’t. He came to Boston, and it’s time to realize that most of Ainge’s success has been by design.

All Celtics fans should appreciate this, even the most accomplished Internet cynics among us. The bandwagon may have left them behind. But there’s still time to appreciate the ride while catching up.

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