A year ago today, Danny Ainge was the general manager of a 24-58 team whose infamy included losing 18 games in succession. It was clearly going to be an active offseason.
"We were in a mind-set to really shake things up," he explains. "And we really wanted to build around Paul."
That would be Paul Pierce, his unhappy star. Pierce had just concluded his ninth season with the club and he felt, for obvious reasons, his career was going backward. He had become the league's reigning expert on the art of scoring 25 points a game in a losing cause, which is not how any talented player wishes to be remembered.
Now Pierce is captain of a 66-win team that begins play tonight in the NBA Finals. By pulling off two deft trading maneuvers, Ainge instigated the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history. It all seems simple enough now. Take the fifth pick in the draft, throw in Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak, and you've got yourself an all-time shooting guard in Ray Allen (plus an intriguing young player in Glen "Big Baby" Davis). Then package Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff (and his delectable expiring contract), and a pair of future first-round picks, and you have a Hall of Fame, multiskilled forward and team leader in Kevin Garnett.
But you don't stop there. You sign James Posey, a savvy veteran forward who can defend and hit threes. You sign Eddie House, a registered jump shooter. And when you're looking for a little veteran oomph for the playoffs, you get Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown.
All this certainly comes under the heading of "shaking things up."
Ainge should be enjoying life, admiring his creation, and aw-shucks-ing the endless accolades. But he's a general manager. That's not what they do.
"It's nothing like playing," Ainge says, and he should know. He was an NBA player for 14 years, the first seven and change as a Celtic, with whom he earned two rings. He was an excellent 3-point shooter, a dogged defender, and such a relentless competitor that it became extremely fashionable to despise him, or, at least, claim that you did. So ingrained was Ainge as a villain that to this day people think he bit Atlanta's Tree Rollins at the bottom of that infamous pile, rather than the other way around, which is the truth and nothing but the truth.
"Playing is so much more enjoyable than coaching or being a general manager," he declares. "And when you're coaching, you spend all that time with your staff and you're always preparing for the next game. It's hard to enjoy anything, even when you've won. Sometimes all you can think about are the two guys who didn't play well."
Coaching became a burdenAinge left a successful post-playing career as a broadcaster with TNT to become part of the Phoenix Suns coaching staff in 1996, taking over for the venerable Cotton Fitzsimmons nine games into the 1996-97 season and lasting on the job until handing it over to Scott Skiles more than three years and three playoff appearances later. There is no doubt he was a successful coach, but he said it was just too much of a burden on his family, which includes wife Michelle and six children. He has never coached again.
Being a general manager is the least fun of all. "There are so many things to get in the way [of enjoying a game]," he says. "You're either preparing for the draft, or doing this or that."
Some GMs - Jerry West comes to mind - are so intense they can't even watch the games. Danny Ainge is not one of those guys.
"I watch every minute of every game," he explains. "They may not be all live, but eventually I watch them all. I think I watch them more from a coach's perspective."
He has no set routine for home games. "A lot of times I watch from my office," he explains. "Sometimes I sit with the video operator in the locker room. And sometimes I go out on the court. But I don't like to be distracted."
He is as intrigued with the Big Three as anyone. It's not as if he was running out to Las Vegas to put a hundred grand on his team getting to the Finals.
"I didn't know how good we were going to be," he says. "I knew the Big Three would be compatible. That was the least of my worries. But nobody knew for sure. We felt we would be good. But I don't think anyone thought we would be this much better."
He hoped Rajon Rondo would develop into a reliable point guard. He hoped Kendrick Perkins would flourish in his assigned roles. But he didn't know how it would turn out.
And, like everyone else on the planet, he never foresaw the Celtics becoming a team whose primary identity would be on defense.
"If you had told me before the season we would be the No. 1 defensive team in the league I wouldn't have believed it," he acknowledges. "There was no way to know that. I knew we'd be improved, but No. 1? No. It starts with KG; we all know that. But Paul has been a big story. He has done a great job against the top players in the league. Ray has had a strong commitment. Rajon is a young player with great quickness. And Kendrick . . ."
The longer the season has gone on, the more impressive Perkins has become. "In the Cleveland series, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a very good player [at 7 feet 3 inches], scored on 4 of 21 possessions in the low post against Kendrick," Ainge reports. "Those are staggering numbers. He has given us that kind of great one-on-one defense all year, which means we don't have to double-team as much, which is great."
Ainge grabbed 18-year-old Kendrick Perkins out of Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas, in a draft day deal with Memphis in 2003. He has watched Perkins grow up as both a player and person in this very difficult environment. This now looks like a terrific decision.
Lottery ramificationsHe has no trouble making decisions. Trade Antoine Walker. Bring back Antoine Walker. Trade for Ricky Davis. Trade Ricky Davis. Take a shot with Raef LaFrentz. And he certainly hasn't been afraid to take a chance with kids, winding up with high school players three years in a row, two of whom, Jefferson and Green, helped land Garnett. Danny will deal, all right.
But what would have happened had the Celtics won the lottery last year? It's a moot point, sure, the Celtics having gotten as little out of the lottery as was allowed by law. It's still fun to contemplate. Would the Celtics be the ones waiting on Greg Oden?
"We would definitely have gone in one direction or another," Ainge says, meaning that he might either have taken Oden or traded the pick. "I'm not saying we wouldn't have done something if we had a better pick in the lottery. But we did feel that the fifth pick wasn't going to help us much."
It was appealing enough to Seattle to make possible the Allen trade, and without the Allen trade there would not have been a Garnett trade. "KG was all about winning," Ainge explains. "He never said anything bad about Boston, but he wasn't coming here if we didn't have more to offer. Ray being the guy made it a lot easier for him. They had a relationship. So he came here with renewed enthusiasm."
The one thing Mr. GM has imparted to his players is that the job is not done. "I know how painful it is to lose in the Finals," Ainge points out. "I've been in six Finals, and I've lost four. It's no fun to lose."
So there's the sad thought process of a GM (and a coach). Forget the 66 wins. Forget that you've just won three playoff series for the first time since 1987. Forget that a year ago today the odds on you getting this far were, as Danny Sheridan might say, a kazillion to one. There is far more sadness in losing than there is joy in winning. What a strange life these people lead.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.