Ainge failed to make Celtics better now at NBA trade deadline

  • Chicago Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler reacts after hitting a 3-point shot against the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) Nam Y. Huh

  • Indiana Pacers' Paul George (13) turns toward the basket during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

Monitor staff
Thursday, February 23, 2017

For the last few years, ever since he robbed Brooklyn in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal, Danny Ainge has been doing the NBA improbable. He has the Celtics competitive in the present and building for the future. So why did he stop now?

After weeks of rumors, speculation and thumb injuries across New England from too many Twitter refreshes, Ainge and the Celtics did nothing at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.

It’s okay that he didn’t make the major fireworks move by unloading prized draft picks for big names. Paul George or Jimmy Butler would have looked good in green, but if the price was too high or the long-term forecast didn’t look good, Ainge made the wise move by staying away and (presumably) keeping the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round picks in 2017 and 2018.

Still, Ainge should have made a tweak to this year’s team. He should have added a dusting of size and rebounding to these Celtics. Big men were available, and a big man would have helped Boston against teams that did get better like Toronto and Washington, and against Cleveland, which remains the East favorite but looks vulnerable with injuries.

Ideally, Ainge would have landed George or Butler and signed them to a long-term deal. That would have completed the “win now” movement he began by signing Al Horford last summer. It surely would have cost the Celtics one of those Brooklyn picks, but at least in that scenario all of their assets would have been on the same timeline.

Instead, Isaiah Thomas and Horford, and perhaps Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, will be past their peaks when the two future Brooklyn picks and last year’s Brooklyn pick, No. 3 overall Jaylen Brown, reach their primes. Which means Thomas and Horford will probably not be part of the Celtics’ next title. Boston’s championship window has moved into the future.

It’s unfortunate Ainge couldn’t mesh the two timelines, but it may be hard to blame him for that. George will be a free agent in 2018 and it’s been reported that he longs to play for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. If Larry Bird and Indiana were asking a premium price for a one-year rental on George, Ainge was wise to decline.

Butler has two years left on his contract and there have been no reports that he’s locked in on a future team. But there were reports that Chicago was asking a king’s ransom for Butler. Plus, he may not have been enough to truly push the Celtics past Cleveland – even with Kevin Love out – or Golden State, so it wouldn’t make sense to mortgage the future bringing Butler to Boston.

Ainge has been able to keep building for the future – half of his NBA improbable act – by not falling for get-rich-quick trade scams. He was nobody’s sucker Thursday and he’s still holding the queen’s jewels in his horde.

Yet Ainge has pulled off the other half of the NBA improbable – being competitive now – by remaining active and aggressive in the trade market. That’s how he brought in guys like Thomas and Crowder. And that’s what he should have done on Thursday.

The Celtics have a glaring rebounding need (they are tied for 27th in the league at 41.2 rebounds per game) and there were multiple rebounders moved at the deadline – Andrew Bogut (8.9 rebounds per game for his career), Nerlens Noel (7.6) and P.J. Tucker (5.7).

Noel and Bogut were traded for each other, and there are reports that Philadelphia will buy out Bogut, so he could wind up in Boston anyway. But that also means the real carrots Dallas used to lure Noel away from the 76ers was a first-round pick in 2017 and shooting guard Justin Anderson. The pick is top-18 protected, and if it lands in the top 18 this year, Philly gets two second-round picks instead.

So two second-round picks and a young shooting guard was the price for Noel. Ainge could have paid that and barely dented his treasure chest.

The Celtics have three second-round picks in this draft alone. And young shooting guards? The Celtics already released one of those this year (R.J. Hunter) and they still have a logjam of young shooting guards with Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and James Young, not to mention the 26-year-old Bradley.

And what would it have taken to get Bogut from Dallas? The Celtics don’t have a commodity like Noel, but they wouldn’t have been asking for Anderson or a pick in addition to Bogut. Maybe Kelly Olynyk would have been enough. Or Ante Zizic, one of last year’s three first-round picks who is currently stashed overseas.

Tucker wouldn’t have been an ideal fit – he’s really more of a muscled small forward – but he would have helped the rebounding deficiencies and he was affordable. Toronto shipped old friend Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks to Phoenix for Tucker. We know Boston has the picks, and we know that Olynyk and Sullinger are comparable. It could have been done.

Noel, Bogut or Tucker weren’t going to turn the Celtics into a true title contender, but they would have helped this year’s team without hurting the future. Ainge has turned that trick in the past, too bad he couldn’t do it again Thursday.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)