Danny Ainge’s Two Window Dream
Danny Ainge didn’t make a trade today. And I’m relieved.
After weeks of buzz, whispers, and rumors, the trade deadline has passed, and the Celtics didn’t get Jimmy Butler. Or Paul George. And no, they didn’t top the Pelicans’ weak offer for DeMarcus Cousins.
And it’s not because they couldn’t have paid the king’s ransom required to acquire these players. The Celtics had the pieces to get it done. But I think Danny Ainge is shooting for something bigger, something better — something that I call the Two Window Dream.
The Two Window Dream — that sounds fancy (or stupid), you think to yourself. But what does it mean?
There are a handful of teams in the NBA that have a window — in other words, an opportunity — to truly compete for a championship right now. But if you’re lucky enough to have a championship window, you understand that there’s an expiration date, too. The party is gonna end at some point.
There are another handful of teams that are exceptionally well-positioned to contend in 2020 and beyond. These are the teams hoarding draft picks and young talent. They may be racking up the Ls, but the future is bright. (Or, maybe more accurately, the future feels bright.)
Most of the franchises in the NBA are floating somewhere in the middle, struggling to figure out if (and how) they can compete now, or if they should “blow it up” and build for the future.
Depending on how Ainge plays his hand this summer, thanks to the team’s financial flexibility and treasure trove of assets, the Celtics may be able to live in the best of both worlds. Contending now while a stable of young, blue chip prospects learn the ropes while playing for a winning franchise, ready to take over when the time comes.
Let’s back up. First of all, let me say this: Ainge doesn’t have a plan. And I mean that as a compliment. He has a framework, sure. But more than anything else, he’s opportunistic. He’s nimble. If the chance arose to acquire multiple superstars at fifty cents on the dollar, sure, he’d jump on it. But he has the job security, the vision, and the patience to understand that sometimes the best trade is the one you don’t make at all. It’s a luxury most of Ainge’s peers don’t enjoy.
The Celtics refused to go all-in on Allen Iverson in 2006 — despite tremendous media and fan pressure to do so — because Ainge knew it wouldn’t quite make them a contender. He waited another year or so and managed to land Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, instantly transforming them into the most talented team in the NBA. He’s extraordinarily patient, much to the annoyance of many WEEI listeners and rival basketball executives. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey even called Ainge “the best negotiator [he’s] ever known.”
So, while it may frustrate fans who were excited by the prospect of getting an all-star to make a run this season, by punting on a decision on Jimmy Butler and Paul George until the summertime (and yes, those discussions will heat up again in June), Ainge gave the Celtics a chance to pry open not one, but two windows.
There are countless moving parts, making it nearly impossible to predict exactly how things will play out, because it could go so many different ways — but I wanted to lay out a potential path to Two Window glory. Just please go ahead and humor me. Thank you. Here we go:
STEP 1: After what is hopefully a successful playoff run (an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, to me), the first domino of the offseason to drop will be the draft lottery, set to take place on May 16. If the Nets maintain the worst record in the league, the Celtics, proud owners of Brooklyn’s 2017 pick, will have a 64.3% chance at a top 3 selection — and a 25% chance for #1.
Let’s say the Celts finally get lucky in the draft lottery (1997, the Duncan lottery, was 20 years ago…2007, the Durant/Oden lottery was 10 years ago — both ended in heartbreak, so we’re due) and select freshman standout Markelle Fultz on June 22nd.
STEP 2: Fast forward a week. As soon as the clock ticks past midnight to mark the start of free agency, Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, Wyc Grousbeck, Isaiah Thomas, and Al Horford need to be on a call to Gordon Hayward. The Celtics applied the full court press to Durant last summer (and managed to bag one of the premiere free agents in Horford) and they need to do something similar for Hayward…though Tom Brady can stay at home for this one. Hayward has improved every season he’s been in the league. He won’t turn 27 until March, has a record of durability, and puts up an efficient 22/6/4 for Utah. He’s a top 25 player in the NBA.
Hayward also played for Stevens at Butler, which is nice — but the detail I’ll be keeping my eye on is whether or not he makes an All-NBA team. If he doesn’t, there’s not much of a financial advantage for him to stay in Utah, thanks to an odd wrinkle in the CBA. For the sake of this scenario (remember, you agreed to humor me), let’s say Ainge nabs Hayward on a four year, max deal.
STEP 3: Next, the Celtics need to bring over Ante Zizic. He’s a 20 year old center they drafted in the middle of the first round last summer, and has been playing very well in EuroLeague. Abdel Nader, a 2016 second round pick and hidden gem for the Maine Red Claws, is a prime candidate to come to the big club next season, too.
STEP 4: Avery Bradley becomes expendable as his free agency looms only a year away and with the addition of Ball. It’s tough to get proper value for players on expiring deals, but the 76ers reportedly covet him. Maybe Philly would be open to swapping Bradley for Robert Covington and Oklahoma City’s 2020 first rounder that they own. See ya, Avery.* You were the last connection to the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett Celtics. Thanks for the memories.
*If Avery Bradley is reading this, I’m sorry.
STEP 5: Then, Ainge should prioritize re-signing Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart, giving them each four year deals.
STEP 6: Finally, it’s time to fill out the roster — Amir Johnson, Gerald Green, and Jonas Jerebko would all be prime candidates to bring back. I imagine James Young, Jorday Mickey and Kelly Olynyk move on for playing time and/or financial reasons.
Still with me? At this point in the dream, the Celts are loaded for 2017–2018 — and beyond. Here’s what the core would look like (age at the start of next year, years under contract):
Al Horford (31 years old, signed for 3 years)
Isaiah Thomas (28, signed for 4 years)
Gordon Hayward (27, signed for 4 years)
Jae Crowder (27, signed for 3 years)
Marcus Smart (23, signed for 4 years)
Jaylen Brown (21, signed for 3 years)
Ante Zizic (20, signed for 4 years)
Markelle Fultz (19, signed for 4 years)
The roster would be rounded out by Robert Covington, Amir Johnson, Abdel Nader, Jonas Jerebko, Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, and Demetrius Jackson.
Oh, and Ainge would still have plenty of bullets left, including:
The rights to Guerschon Yabusele, a first round choice last summer
2 first round picks in 2018 (Brooklyn’s is the big prize)
3 first round picks in 2019
2 first round picks in 2020
3 second rounders from this coming draft (including Minnesota’s, which will be a good one) and a handful of other future second rounders
As for the rotation (and there are still a few roster spots open for second rounders, camp invites, etc.) here’s what I see:
Horford / Johnson / Zizic
Crowder / Jerebko
Hayward / Covington / Nader
Brown / Smart / Green
Thomas / Fultz / Rozier / Jackson
That’s a team poised to challenge Cleveland next season, and soon, completely rip power in the Eastern Conference away from LeBron. The core players would be locked in for years to come, giving the roster a rock-solid foundation. In this scenario, there’s also flexibility — still — to go get a superstar, like a Paul George or a Jimmy Butler, if and when the price comes down.
So. That’s the Two Window Dream. This is just one possible path. I totally get that this plan could be seen as flimsy, as it’s sort of “if this happens then that happens…” type of deal. But I don’t think any of these moves, individually, are insanely far-fetched.
As a Celtics fan, I preach patience, but deep down, maybe I wanted a big splash to happen today. Player movement in pro sports is fun. But the Two Window Dream is the best possible outcome, and would give us the opportunity to watch a contender now while enjoying the development and eventual reign of some tantalizing prospects, too.