Whenever the prospect of acquiring players come into question, Danny Ainge likes to remind us that there are only three ways to add talent: the draft, trade, or via free agency and that he intended to explore all three in rebuilding the Boston Celtics. Just because there are three avenues that are open, not everyone will take the same path, or even attempt to drive down a particular road.
Most teams choose the draft because it’s the easiest, most cost-effective path toward securing great players. It doesn’t hurt that there’s no one to negotiate against and no culture to sell, especially when you’re rebuilding.
Other teams work the trade market, securing assets to package with players for high-stakes moves that will be scrutinized and assessed for years to come. This requires patience and cunning. Assets are prizes to be collected, valued, and discussed. They can keep followers engaged during long losing streaks and fan a million rumors, the surest manna this league has to offer to its rabid consumers.
The problem with trades is that not everyone values those assets the same. Rival GMs will downplay their importance hoping to get more, while the GM in possession of those treasures tends to overstate their worth. Sometimes that treasure chest gets to be so big that everybody wants to talk about the crown jewels while you’re hawking the costume trinkets.
The surest way toward acquiring a good player is to sign them in free agency. The only two people who matter in this equation are the guy offering the money and the one who wants to take it. When there is more than one team offering the same amount of money there is a recruiting process, which serves as a referendum for your franchise.
Most teams can’t play this game. It takes something special to woo a prized free agent, be it location, culture, or a legitimate chance to win. That narrows the field considerably before we even get to the precious few invited to make a formal pitch.
Like most people, back in 2013 I assumed Ainge would work the first two avenues the hardest during his rebuilding process. Free agency seemed like a distant dream. The Celtics had the history but not the location. The culture was under construction and winning was a long way away. The fact that they had never even attempted to enter high-stakes free agency hung ominously in the background.
For a time, the Celtics followed the expected path. Ainge drafted several players who played important roles and filled out the rest of the roster with shrewd trades that had an eye out for untapped potential. When the time came to make a big move, the kind that would put the Celtics into contention, that figured to be the best way toward acquiring the missing pieces to the puzzle.
While they have been linked to every star player to come along, Ainge has been a discerning shopper at the moment of truth. He were nowhere near the DeMarcus Cousins fire sale and he held off on Jimmy Butler’s draft night trade to the Wolves.
He wanted Paul George, but he wanted to do it on his terms and his timetable. The Pacers said no and we’ll see if that was a wise move or impulsive. For his part, Ainge wasn’t giving up on the Brooklyn pick or the Sauce Castillo Swap (as Ziller has termed it) and he wasn’t giving up their young guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown either.
At some point the Celtics were going to have to reckon with the star tax and factor that into their accounting. Under those parameters, Ainge had every right to continue saying no, even if he said yes a bunch of times and teams still didn’t pull the trigger on deals. In that, he may have been fortunate.
That left free agency and this is where Ainge has truly made his most aggressive moves. He went hard after Kevin Durant only to come up short. (It doesn’t matter where he finished. There are no consolation prizes in free agency.) He did, however, get Al Horford, beating out several other teams in the process. That was a coup that took the Celtics from a playoff team to a conference finalist.
Now he’s landed Gordon Hayward, a scoring wing who appears to be hitting his prime. Hayward put up career highs in points, rebounds, and shooting percentages and he also made the most of his first extended playoff appearance, averaging 24 and 6 for a Utah team that advanced to the second round.
Neither Horford nor Hayward are superstars or franchise players. They alone will not carry you to a championship. At the very least, they are really good players everyone would like to have, including a few teams who tried everything they could to have them on their roster.
In that sense, this is a victory for the Celtics culture that has taken shape under Brad Stevens. It must be said that Hayward was a special case. He played for Stevens at Butler and cited their history in his farewell letter to Utah. Hayward may be the only player in the league to choose the Celtics specifically because of Stevens, but it never would have entered into his thinking if the C’s were hopelessly adrift.
However you want to categorize him, Hayward is an offensive star and offensive stars solve problems. He should fit seamlessly into a system that was desperate for another shot-creator and shooter to pair with Isaiah Thomas. One or the other should be on the court at all times, meaning those interminable minutes when the Celtics couldn’t do anything but fire up contested threes will become a thing of the past.
Hayward does come with a cost. To clear the space to offer him a max contract, the Celtics had to waive Tyler Zeller and renounce their free agents, including Kelly Olynyk. They’ll also need to trade somebody from their roster. That somebody will be one or more of the following: Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, or Jae Crowder.
If Ainge had a failing in this process it was hanging on to those players for a split second too long. Somebody had to go and in waiting until the very last minute with no good options left, Ainge will have to dump somebody for a fraction of the return. You can argue it wasn’t entirely his fault, or you could say that he screwed up royally, but that’s the cost of doing business in the deep end of the NBA’s talent pool. There’s always a price to be paid.
Had Ainge landed both Hayward and George, we’d be marking space for a statue next to Red Auerbach in Faneuil Hall. It was a moon shot and it would have ultimately cost them at least three of the four players listed above, as well as most of the treasures in their vault. There would have been no guarantees with both players on board, but it would have been a hell of a thing to witness.
Missing out on both would have been embarrassing and the schadenfreude both here and west of the Mass Pike would have been thick and maybe even deserved. There are only so many opportunities to make big roster scores, even when the timeframe is measured in years and not months.
Getting George and not Hayward may have made the bigger impact on the court. PG is a top-10ish player. Hayward is a one-time all-star. Both were under consideration for the All-NBA team, but George is a three-time honoree. He’s also in the last year of his contract with no guarantee that he’d be in for the long haul.
Getting Hayward alone was the best outcome in terms of preserving the war chest. Ainge still has a stash of premium draft picks. That’s why Hayward was always the first hand Ainge wanted to play this summer.
On paper, this doesn’t put the Celtics ahead of Cleveland in the East and the Warriors aren’t losing any sleep over it either. They’ve got bigger things to worry about in the amped up West. Hayward places the Celtics in a stronger position than they were before, but still not all the way there.
Their frontcourt is awfully thin and there are still the other transactional shoes to drop. By using cap space to sign Hayward they won’t have the more valuable exceptions to pad out the roster. Depending on what they can get back in trade, they’ll be relying on rookies and near-rookies to play meaningful roles. Free agency looms for Isaiah Thomas after next season, as well.
That’s alright for now because Ainge and the Celtics are still primed for the future. No doubt there will be more interest about those draft picks and no doubt there will be a million more rumors between now and whenever this incredible string of assets has finally run its course. Ultimately what getting Hayward does is buy even more time for that vision to materialize.
Give Danny Ainge this: He’s walked down all three roster avenues to build this team and he’s not done yet.