So, uh, Danny. Whatcha up to?
Most Celtics fans greeting president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would like to ask some version of that question in regards to the direction of the franchise, especially in light of all the action surrounding the team recently.
“It’s going to be a really interesting next month,” Ainge said Tuesday night following the NBA Draft Lottery in which his team landed the sixth pick.
While much about this team is up in the air, one thing that fascinates me is something Ainge has been doing fairly consistently: talking down the 2014 draft class.
“I don’t think anyone is going to come in and change the face of our franchise out of the gate,” Ainge told reporters on a conference call after the lottery. “But I do think there is some good quality in this draft.”
In March, Ainge called the draft class overrated, saying it was “not even close to one of the best draft classes in the last 10 years.”
And last October, Ainge poured more cold water on this group of prospects.
“If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story,” said Ainge. “I don’t see that player out there.”
While Ainge’s statements have been consistent, they also fly in the face of the way he constructed his team this season. The big move, of course, was jettisoning Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn last offseason. The move was designed for future success at the expense of current wins and losses, a fact Ainge didn’t hide. A January trade that sent Courtney Lee to Memphis for Jerryd Bayless was made mostly to free up salary cap space for this summer. Again, wins and losses in 2013-14 were secondary.
The natural question raised here for Ainge is: If you’re not keen on the 2014 draft class, what was this past season for? A couple things are likely at play, one of which is that Ainge can be both truthful and deceptive when he says there isn’t one guy in this draft who will change it all. There may be 5 or 6 guys Ainge really likes, but like anyone else he can’t be 100 percent certain which ones will pan out. I’d be shocked, however, if this year’s top pick — even at No. 6 — doesn’t figure highly into the plans.
Another thing at play here is Ainge’s role as a team spokeseman. From the basketball operations side, he’s the guy. Brad Stevens told me a month ago he had yet to get involved in draft preparations, and though he became more involved after the season ended, Ainge still calls the shots in the front office. It behooves Ainge to temper fan expectations, and it takes pressure off whomever is picked not to have to be the man. Even if Danny thinks Noah Vonleh or Julius Randle will be a perennial All-Star, he’s got no obligation to tell us.
The final element of “truthiness” in Ainge’s public comments is that this year’s draft, while important, is one part of a larger picture. The Celtics didn’t trade Pierce and Garnett for this draft class; they traded them for several. Ainge has shown a willingness to deal, and based on the earliest rumors to come out this offseason is no different. So when Ainge is asked about whether or not he sees a potential starter next season at the No. 6 pick and says, “probably not”, what he really means is, “Even if I do, do you really think I’m going to tell you?”
Nothing to see here. Just a good GM, doing his job.