Danny Ainge keeps his eye on the ball
Danny Ainge turned 59 on Saturday, which makes me feel old and may have the same effect on you as well.
If you're old enough to have been of age in the late 1970s, you probably remember Ainge's three-sport exploits at North Eugene High, where he was a quarterback/receiver in football, a swashbuckling 6-4 swing man in basketball and a shortstop in baseball. Led by Ainge and coached by Barney Holland, the Highlanders won back-to-back state 3A basketball championships in 1976 and '77. During Ainge's senior year, they reached the state semifinals in baseball, where they were beaten 1-0 by Corvallis.
As a very young reporter for the Oregon Journal, I covered Ainge in a state playoff game in football as a junior and at the state basketball tournament as a junior and senior. Those two years were a golden age of prep basketball in the state, with players such as Sunset's Stan Walker and Bobby Fronk, who both went on to great careers at Washington, and Grant's Mark Radford, Parkrose's Ray Blume and Rob Holbrook, Lake Oswego's Jeff Stoutt and Medford's Ed Singler, who all moved on to play at Oregon State — Singler as a starting quarterback in football.
Ainge was the cream of the crop, and then some. He was an All-America basketball player at Brigham Young and then played major league baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays in a short-lived career as a second baseman before embarking on a 12-year NBA career, the first eight with Boston. He made an All-Star team and helped Larry Bird's Celtics claim NBA titles in 1984 and '86. I consider Ainge and Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker the greatest all-around Oregon-bred athletes ever. Ainge was the best I ever saw at the high school level.
We called Ainge "Danny Boy" when he served as a key reserve on the 1990-91 and 1991-92 Trail Blazers squads that won 120 regular-season games and reached the '92 NBA Finals, losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The 1990-91 club was the best I ever covered, winning an NBA-best 63 games before being upset in the Western Conference finals by Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers. That Blazer team should have won a title.
After retirement as a player, Ainge served three seasons as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, did some broadcasting and then took over as general manager of the Celtics in 2003. After landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in trades, Boston won 66 games and the NBA title in 2008. Six years later, in one of the greatest heists in NBA history, Ainge sent Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn for five players and what became four first-round draft picks. The Celtics are still benefitting from that deal.
Ainge, now in his 15th season on the job, trails only San Antonio's R.C. Buford in terms of longevity in handling the basketball side of an NBA club.
"It's as much fun as it has ever been," Ainge says from his Wellesley, Massachusetts, home. "I'm having a good time. It's fun to be around a young team with a young coach (Brad Stevens), and I love my staff. I'm enjoying it."
Among the staff members is the oldest son of Ainge's six offspring, Austin, who is in his seventh season as Boston's director of player personnel. When I ask Danny if he has any new grandchildren, he quips, "Nope — we're stuck on 15."
The senior Ainge won't be with the Celtics when they visit Moda Center Friday night for a date with the Blazers, but as the club's president/basketball operations, he is the architect of a team that, if healthy, should contend for the NBA crown this spring.
"It's been a very good year so far," Ainge says. "We've had to overcome some challenging injuries that have hurt us, but we've had more bright spots than disappointments."
Boston is 48-23 after a miraculous home victory against Oklahoma City on Tuesday, rallying from a six-point deficit in the final 24 seconds to win 100-99. The Celtics are out on a four-game Western trip that begins at Portland.
Boston has been without its starting backcourt — point guard Kyrie Irving, who had missed four straight games with a sore knee, and shooting guard Jaylen Brown, who had sat out five games after sustaining a concussion. Also out are key reserves Marcus Smart (thumb) and Daniel Theis (knee), both lost for at least the rest of the regular season. The Irving situation is game to game; Ainge is hoping Brown will return for the Blazers game.
That's not to mention the loss of Gordon Hayward, the small forward the Celtics signed to a four-year, $128-million free-agent contract in the offseason. Hayward fractured his left ankle six minutes into a season-opening loss to Cleveland.
"It had been such a beautiful thing to watch Kyrie and (center) Al Horford alongside Gordon during training camp and in the preseason," Ainge says. "It was such a tragic loss, and our expectations changed."
The Celtics dropped their first two games of the regular season, then went on a 16-game tear that left them 16-2 in late November. Later, they ran off another seven-game streak. They have held together fairly well even with the rash of injuries of late.
It's a testament to the coaching acumen of Coach Stevens, whom Ainge plucked out of the college ranks from Butler at age 36 five years ago. The Celtics' record has improved every season under Stevens, from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53 to what could have been 60 this season if not for the injury load.
"Brad is a hard-working, smart, well-respected guy and a well-balanced person," Ainge says. "Our players have great respect for his approach and his knowledge. He is still very early in his career and is getting better and better as a coach."
Credit Ainge, too, who shuffled the deck considerably after Boston went 53-29 and reached the Eastern Conference finals a year ago. During the offseason, he traded the top three scorers from team — Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder — along with letting sixth-man Kelly Olynyk go as a free agent after Hayward was signed. To clear cap space, Bradley was sent to Detroit for power forward Marcus Morris.
Besides Hayward, the other big offseason move came when Ainge sent a package that included Thomas, Crowder, Ante Zizic and Boston's first-round draft pick to Cleveland for Irving. Neither Thomas nor Crowder are with the Cavaliers now. Irving, meanwhile, ranks 11th in the NBA in scoring (24.4), is shooting superbly (.491 from the field, .408 from 3-point range and .889 at the line) and, at 25, is the Celtics' point guard of the future.
"Kyrie has had a fantastic year," Ainge says. "He is such a dynamic player, does so many things. He's a smart, crafty guy with the ball, sneaky good defensively at anticipating plays. And he has been a good leader. He has been a really good example of how to work and take care of yourself and pay attention to detail."
Boston's top three scorers came by virtue of the acquired draft picks — Irving, second-year pro Brown, 21, and rookie small forward Jayson Tatum, 20.
"Jayson got an opportunity quicker than he expected as a rookie on a team that was supposed to contend for the East title," Ainge says. "With Gordon's injury, he immediately was put into the starting lineup, and he has had a really good year. He has been one of our most steady guys.
"Jaylen was the opposite of Jayson. As a rookie last year, he had to play behind some veterans. He probably deserved to play a little bit more, but there weren't as many minutes because of guys ahead of him. He worked hard in the offseason and he has thrived at both ends of the court."
Ainge made one more savvy move at the trade deadline this year, signing center Greg Monroe — an excellent two-way player and only 27 — to a one-year, $5-million contract after he had been waived by Phoenix. He has been a key piece off the bench for the Celtics in recent weeks.
Boston ranks fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage and is among the top three in the league in scoring defense, opponents' field-goal percentage and opponents' 3-point percentage.
"We've been streaky offensively," Ainge says, "but defense has been our calling card."
It appears the Celtics are locked in at No. 2 in the East between conference leader Toronto and No. 3 Cleveland.
"You're probably right, but you never know in this league," Ainge says. "We're not trying to manipulate the standings or play for seedings. We're just trying to win every game and see what happens."
Could Hayward return for the playoffs?
"It doesn't look like it," Ainge says. "Gordon would tell you something different, but Brad and I are not counting on him."
With a healthy Irving, though, the Celtics will contend in the East this season and beyond. Irving, Brown, Tatum, Smart and Terry Rozier are all 25 and younger, and the Celtics have four future first-round draft picks besides their own (from Memphis, Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers and the L.A. Lakers).
"Gordon is only 27, too," Ainge says. "I really expect him to have a great year next year. We have a terrific nucleus going forward."
Ainge has kept an eye on the Blazers from afar this season.
"I've watched them play on TV late on the East Coast a few nights recently," he says. "They're well-coached. They're playing good defense, and they're still a dynamic offensive team. They'll be a fun team to watch in the playoffs."