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EGGERS: Ex-Blazer Ainge rebuilds Celtics

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Oregonian Danny Ainge celebrated the Boston Celtics NBA championship with then-coach Doc Rivers. Ainge has been instrumental in rebuidling the Celtics.In their pursuit of an NBA championship in 2014, the Trail Blazers are invading near-virgin waters.

Portland finished 33-49 last season, a .402 winning percentage. Only one team in NBA history has followed a worse season by winning the title — the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who hoisted a flag one year after going 24-58 (.293).

Danny Ainge knows that bit of history well. The Eugene native and one-time Blazer guard was the mastermind behind the trade that landed the Celtics Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the catalysts to the 66-16 turnaround in 2007-08 that earned Ainge the NBA Executive of the Year Award.

“Of course, it can be done,” says Ainge, now in his 11th season as Boston’s president of basketball operations. “The Blazers are proving it on a consistent basis. They are winning at home and beating good teams on the road. They’re a terrific team. It’s fun to see teams that can make that quick of a turnaround.

“They’ve been a really fun team to watch. Coach (Terry) Stotts deserves a lot of credit in how that team is playing. (Damian) Lillard and (LaMarcus) Aldridge are having great years, and (Nicolas) Batum and (Wesley) Matthews are playing excellent basketball. It’s been one of the best stories in the NBA this season.”

Ainge, 54, will not be with the Celtics when they visit the Moda Center to take on the Blazers on the last stop of a five-game road trip, even though brothers Doug (Hillsboro) and David (Lake Oswego) still live in the area. Ainge will be scouting college players and preparing for a draft that seems likely to land a lottery pick for the Celtics, who were 13-21 following a loss Sunday at Oklahoma City to start the current trip.

I’ve known Ainge since he was a three-sport star at North Eugene High, arguably the greatest all-around prep athlete the state of Oregon has ever seen. He was the best basketball player of a terrific era in the state that included Mark Radford, Ray Blume, Bob Fronk, Jeff Stoutt and Rob Holbrook, as well as an outstanding shortstop in baseball (he would go on to play three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays) and a standout quarterback/receiver for the Highlanders.

Ainge is one of my favorite Blazers ever, a bright, engaging, talented member of the 1990-91 and ‘91-92 teams that came within a whisker of delivering the city’s second NBA championship. Ainge later coached the Phoenix Suns for three seasons, spent some time in the broadcasting booth, and then moved on to Boston to work for the team with which he played from 1981-89, helping the Celtics to a pair of league titles.

The Celtics knew this would be a transition year when they sent Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in the blockbuster offseason deal that left them depleted of immediate talent, but in much better position for the future.

“We knew we were going from a team that had been one of the oldest teams to a younger team,” Ainge says. “Three of our guys who play significant roles should be college seniors. And we’ve been without our best player all year.”

That’s point guard Rajon Rondo, who is rehabbing and close to a return after undergoing ACL knee surgery last January. Rondo will come back to a Boston team that is on the outside looking in at a playoff berth in the weak Eastern Conference under rookie coach Brad Stevens, who took Butler to a pair of Final Four appearances before signing a six-year, $22-million contract with the Celtics.

Ainge isn’t unhappy with the performance of his team so far.

“The guys are playing hard, and together,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed watching our team play.”

Ainge is impressed with what he has seen from Stevens, too.

“I love Brad,” he says. “He is a very hard worker, an easy guy to communicate with, for me and with all of our players. He’s a great coach. There’s a learning curve, for sure, going from college to the NBA. But Brad is a very quick study, and he has great support around him from his staff and the players.”

Without Rondo, there is precious talent available. Boston starts Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger in the frontcourt, with Kris Humphreys and Gerald Wallace in reserve, along with rookie Kelly Olynyk, the 7-foot center from Gonzaga whom Ainge took with the 13th pick in the 2013 draft.

The backcourt features Avery Bradley — probably Boston’s best player sans Rondo — and Jordan Crawford, with newly acquired ex-Blazer Jerryd Bayless coming off the bench. It’s not a recipe for much success, especially with the promising Olynyk missing five weeks with an ankle sprain early in the season.

“You take the starting point guard from any team and you’re going to struggle,” Ainge says. “Rajon was a starter in the All-Star Game last year. Without him, we’re not the same.”

Olynyk had his best game of the season on New Year’s Eve, going for 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting to go with five assists and four rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench in a 95-92 loss to New Orleans. Olynyk played only eight minutes in each of Boston’s next two games, an indication he has not yet gained the confidence of Stevens as a consistent presence.

“To begin with, we have a really deep frontcourt,” Ainge says. “When Kelly was hurt, Humphries, Bass and Sullinger all played well. Kelly is going to get a lot of minutes some nights and not so many others. He had a terrific summer and a solid training camp and was competing to be a starter when he got hurt, and he took a step back.

“He’s going to be a very good player for us. He works hard, he’s getting stronger and he’s making the adjustment to the NBA game.”

What is Ainge’s long-range plan for the Celtics? For now, he won’t address the possibility of moving Rondo before the Feb. 20 trade deadline if the club seems out of the playoff picture by then. How serious is the thought of forgetting about this season to better prepare for the future?

“We’re going for it day by day,” Ainge says. “The guys are working hard. The coaches are putting in a ton of time to prepare. It’s my job to have realistic expectations and everybody else’s job to do the best they can.

“That’s where we are right now. We’re not a championship contender, but our guys feel like they can win any game. We go for wins every night. Every game is a big game. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

Perhaps Ainge will choose to move Rondo to get some young talent to build for the future. Boston has multiple first-round picks on tap for the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, so there will be the opportunity to bring in players who can soon make the Celtics relevant again.

The man working with Ainge most closely is Austin Ainge, 32, Danny’s oldest son who is in his third season as the club’s director of player personnel.

“It’s been fun to work with Austin,” Danny says. “He’s a hard worker who is passionate about what he does. I have a whole group of young guys working with me who live and breathe Celtic basketball. And having Austin’s two sons close to me has been even more of a blast. His family lives about a mile away from me (in Wellesley, Mass.). That’s been great for me and (wife) Michelle.”

Ainge, who suffered a heart attack in 2009, says his health is “great. I feel wonderful. I’m doing good. I feel very healthy. Got a couple of rounds of golf in during a trip to Arizona (last week). That was good.”

I don’t think retirement is in the future for Ainge any time soon.

“I love my job,” he says. “I love the challenge. The draft, free agency — it’s all fun. It’s hard to win consistently in the NBA. I like the challenge of us retooling and trying to figure it out again and becoming a contender.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers