Danny Ainge's brilliant moves led Celtics to finals

Mike Fine

Go to ("Paid for by Citizens Who Want to Fire Danny Ainge Now") and you'll see a list of his trade failures, or to a dozen other message boards that claim that Danny Ainge is the Worst General Manager in the history of the NBA. One might be led to think that no other NBA GM has ever made a bad move. Only Ainge.

Yet Ainge, technically the Celtics Director of Basketball Operations, is resting on the verge of the NBA Finals - in which his team is participating, by the way - as the league's reigning Executive of the Year.

Some would also think that Ainge made two very shrewd trades to get his team in this position, acquiring Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota, but in reality Ainge has been working for this day from the moment he was hired five years ago. It was a series of moves that enabled him to acquire the tools and draft the picks he did to get him in this position, moves such as acquiring Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills and a first-round draft pick from Dallas in 2003 for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. Walker a year earlier had helped the Celtics get to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Ainge could see that was a flawed team and he made the unpopular move.

On the night the deal was made, Ainge was raked over the coals for dumping Walker, who then called him a snake. Of course, Ainge re-acquired Walker for a playoff run in 2005 when the Celtics won the Atlantic Division title. Ainge was critiqued for picking up an injured LaFrentz as part of the original Walker deal, but that included the first-round draft pick that enabled Ainge to later ship the player whom they acquired with the pick, Delonte West, to Seattle for Allen last summer. In February, 2005, Welsch was sent to Cleveland for a first-round pick that turned out to be Jeff Green in 2007. Green was included in the trade to Seattle, which in addition to Allen sent along the rights to Big Baby Davis.

Ainge was vilified for his long list of draft choices over the course of five years, but he was able to use picks such as Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and Gerald Green, plus a young Sebastian Telfair, to acquire Garnett. Telfair, of course, had been acquired in the trade in which the Celtics sent LaFrentz to Portland. Ainge then went out and acquired a strong supporting cast, including Eddie House, James Posey and, later, P.J. Brown.

"When we made the Kevin trade, I didn't know if we had enough players to field a team for a while," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He not only went out and got players but he got players that fit, and I think that's really important."

It was his plan all along, and he said it all along: he would stockpile talent until the point where he could use them as bargaining tools. It finally came to fruition and the Celtics improved from 24 wins last season to 66 this season-the greatest turnaround in NBA history. In one season the Celtics went from the bottom of the barrel to elite status, the NBA's best defensive team, one that dominated during the regular season.

Prior to this season, though, Ainge could only be patient as deals came and mostly went. Not until Jefferson developed into a young star did former Ainge teammate and Timberwolves VP Kevin McHale bite on the deal that would send Garnett to Boston. Yet even before that happened, Ainge was counting on the 2007 NBA draft to solidify a team of youngsters. But when he, almost unbelievably, lost out on a chance to draft Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, those plans were dashed. It was sheer luck, but Ainge won in the end. To that point, luck hadn't been involved. Everything was of his doing, good or bad.

Ainge hasn't always made the best moves, but he has made moves, and while he has been criticized heavily, many fans seemed to understand. Last season, the Garden was jumping despite an 18-game losing streak. Fans could see potential, even before Allen and Garnett were acquired.

Though this is Ainge's first go-round as an executive, he has always been a shrewd basketball mind. One story has it that he was sitting at table during the team's 1988 Christmas party with legendary Celts President Red Auerbach and teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. "Look at these two guys," Ainge told Auerbach, out of earshot of the others. "Larry's got casts on his feet (heel surgeries), Kevin's got a screw in his foot (stress fracture). You've got to trade these guys."

He wasn't joking. Ainge would later become coach of the Phoenix Suns, racking up a .602 winning percentage in 3 1/2 years before quitting in the middle of the 1999-2000 season to spend more time with his family and to do some TV work.

The new Celtics management team quietly began conducting talks with the former Celtic guard, hiring him on May 9, 2003. At long last, his hard work has paid off. "What he did off the court with this team, it made a lot of players and a lot of teams in the NBA aware that the Celtics were serious," said Allen.

"He's been great for me as a coach, and that has nothing to do with his moves," Rivers said. "He's just been great for me in a lot of ways so I'm happy when good things happen to good people."

The Patriot Ledger