Ainge, Celtics still at a high level
Danny Ainge answered the phone on a walk this week in Savannah, Georgia, where he was on vacation at a resort with his wife of 40 years, Michelle, along with two children and seven grandchildren.
The NBA All-Star break is the one opportunity for a respite from October to June for the long-time president of basketball operations of the Boston Celtics. The family vacation offered a chance for plenty of rest, but exercise is doubly important for Ainge, 60, who suffered his second heart attack last April, 10 years after his first one.
Ainge won't be with the Celtics when they invade Moda Center for a game against the Trail Blazers next Wednesday, but he'll likely return to his home state in April to attend the annual Nike Hoop Summit. The former North Eugene High three-sport star — arguably the greatest all-around athlete the state has ever seen — will get to visit with a pair of brothers, Doug and David, who live in the Portland area.
Danny and Michelle have six children, including Austin, who serves as assistant general manager under his father with the Celtics. The Ainges have 15 grandchildren; no great-grandkids yet.
Ainge is in his 17th season running the basketball operations in Boston, where he played eight of his 14 years in the NBA and helped the Celtics win championships in 1984 and '86.
The former All-Star shooting guard played two seasons with Portland (1990-92), serving as sixth man on the team that reached the NBA Finals in '92.
During Ainge's time in Boston's front office, the Celtics have won a title (2008), reached the NBA Finals (2010) and made the playoffs 13 times, missing them only three times.
Last year, the Celtics finished fourth in the East at 49-33 and lost in the conference semis to Milwaukee. They have won five playoff series over the past three years.
This year has seen dramatic improvement. Boston enters the second half of the regular season in third place in the East at 38-16, the league's fourth-best record behind the Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto. The Celtics come out of the break 8-1 in their last nine games, with wins over Miami, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and the L.A. Clippers the last two weeks.
Ainge switched high-profile point guards in the offseason, allowing Kyrie Irving to sign a free-agent contract with Brooklyn while signing Kemba Walker to a maximum deal. Walker and forward Jayson Tatum — who turns 22 on March 3 — represented the Celtics in the All-Star Game last weekend.
Danny talked Celtics, Blazers, Highlanders and a lot else (just a little on his health) in the 20-minute discussion that follows.
Tribune: How do you feel about your team's play through 54 games?
Ainge: I like how our team has played. We've had a rough patch here and there, but for the most part, we've played really well in spite of some injury issues we've had to face. Not as bad as Portland's injury situation, but we've had some challenges also.
Tribune: Does this Boston team remind you in any way of the 2008 championship club?
Ainge: They're not to that level yet. I say yet, because I don't know what level they can reach. They have improved through the course of this season. The team has played better than what I thought they would when the season started. I'm hopeful they can still take it another step.
Tribune: Only three teams are among the top five in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating — the Lakers, the Bucks and the Celtics. You have a pretty well-rounded club.
Ainge: We do, which has been impressive, because of all the injuries. We've only had our starting lineup together 10 games the whole season. I'm very optimistic about we can do when we get healthy, and we're gaining ground on that.
Tribune: You lost five rotation players from last year's team (Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes) but have come back stronger this year with the addition of Walker. How important has he been to the Celtics' success?
Ainge: Kemba has been great. His attitude and quality of play have been fantastic. We lost a lot of really good players, but the biggest factor in our jump this season is the improvement of Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. They have all taken a step forward this season.
Tribune: Is Walker a better locker-room guy and team leader than Irving was?
Ainge: They're just different. I hate to make comparisons. Kyrie was a really good player for us. Overall, our team chemistry is much better this year. I think many people gave too much attention to what they consider the negative side of Kyrie. I blame everybody for the chemistry issues we had last year. A lot of our players learned from their experience last year. We have collectively been much better in that regard this year. And the guys have also played much better, which is the key.
Tribune: Tatum is averaging 22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals and has blossomed into one of the league's top players. What do you like best about him?
Ainge: That he's fearless. He knows (opponents) are out to stop him, that he's a target, and he loves that challenge. He wants to prove he's a two-way player. He has improved his defense this season. I like his mind-set, his mentality.
Tribune: You have three players averaging 20 or more points — Tatum, Walker and Brown. And you have Hayward, who is averaging 17.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting .504 from the field and .392 from 3-point range. Is he back to the player you paid
max money for in 2017?
Ainge: Gordon has been our most efficient player in terms of making great decisions on the pick-and-roll. He has been valuable in so many other ways, too — leadership, experience, sacrifice. His contributions have gone under the radar. I have to mention Marcus Smart, too. He has been an emotional leader of our team. He plays with great intensity and has been huge part of our team on both offense and defense.
Tribune: Blazer fans were disappointed when center Enes Kanter, who played so well for Portland the second half of last seaosn, signed with you as a free agent. He has averaged 9.2 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting .586 from the field in 18.6 minutes per game off the bench.
Ainge: Enes has played really well for us. He has been a little bit banged up and has been playing that way because we've been shorthanded. He has had to play through some aches and pains; he'd have been sitting out had we not been desperate. We needed his body out there. To his credit, he's been out there playing, and playing well.
Tribune: How is your health?
Ainge: I feel great.
Tribune: After your second heart attack last April, did you make changes in your lifestyle? Did you lose weight? Switch to a plant-based diet?
Ainge: I don't want to say too much about it. I'm eating better. Eating more plants, and exercising more. I have lost some weight. It's not that complicated. I want to be around awhile, and I have to follow the rules. I've been doing that, and I feel much better.
Tribune: Are you still playing low-handicap golf?
Ainge: I get out and play now and then. I'm a 4. Old Sandwich (Golf Club) in Plymouth (Massachusetts) is my favorite course.
Tribune: How has the job changed since you started with the Celtics in 2003?
Ainge: It's changed a lot. The biggest changes are dealing with the luxury tax, managing the payroll and the amount of people who are working for organizations nowadays. I often ask, why do we have so many people around here? Coaching staffs, analytics, sports science, training, doctors, medical staffs — there used to be one or two people in each of those groups; now there are numerous. There are a lot of people benefiting from the success of the NBA.
Tribune: Are there too many employees, then?
Ainge: It's a good question. I think so personally. I think it can be done with fewer, but I have to admit, I'm not sure of that. It just seems the more people you hire, the more they try to create value for themselves. I feel it's more difficult to manage a front office that used to be 25 (employees) and is much larger than that now.
Tribune: Do you delegate authority now more than you used to?
Ainge: Yes. Austin, (assistant GM) Mike Zarren and I delegate a lot of things these days.
Tribune: It's hard to believe Austin is in his ninth season working under you in the Celtics' front office.
Ainge: He's doing really well. It's fun working with him. We have a great chemistry.
Tribune: It's also hard to believe it's been 43 years since Danny Ainge and North Eugene won the second of back-to-back 3A state titles.
Ainge: My memories are mostly of how motivated and driven our players and coaches were. We had a deep team that won 51 straight games over the course of those two years. The other starters were Greg Niko, Mike O'Neill, Mike Babb and Rodger Bates. Everybody was between 6-3 and 6-5. It was a very well-balanced team.
Tribune: So were those Blazer teams you played on. The 1990-91 team, which went 63-19 in the regular season, should have won a championship, don't you think?
Ainge: Of course. We had the best record in the regular season, but lost to the Lakers in the West finals. That was as disappointing a series loss as I had in my career. I thought we were going to get by them, but we weren't able to do it. It was a great team to play for. Rick Adelman was a terrific coach; we had excellent talent and great chemistry. We got by the Lakers the following year and made it to the (NBA) Finals, but came up short against the Bulls. Those two years were a blast. I really enjoyed my time in Portland. And I particularly enjoyed my next-door neighbor — Terry Porter.
Tribune: Are you having as much fun at your job as you did in your early years?
Ainge: Hey, I'm having a blast. The game has changed, the players have changed, but I really enjoy our group of players. I still love the competition. The game is still a bright spot in my life.
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