It is one of those what-ifs that determine the course of a franchise in ways big and small: What if the lottery odds had fallen in the most predictable way possible in 2007 and the C’s ended up with either the No. 1 or No. 2 pick? Would they have used it to draft either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, even though the decision to do so would have meant a full-fledged youth movement and a likely trade of Paul Pierce? (For the uninitiated: The C’s ended up with the 5th pick and dealt it to the Sonics in the Ray Allen deal).
The Sacramento Bee’s great beat reporter Sam Amick got Danny Ainge to discuss this in some detail. From his Oct. 31 piece:
It has long been assumed and reported that the Celtics’ pivotal trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007 never would have happened if Boston had landed the first or second pick in the draft instead of the No. 5 pick that was seen as so unlucky. Ainge said that wasn’t the case.
“What people don’t understand is that we could’ve still done all that (the trades) and, with the No. 1 pick, maybe been able to keep a player like a Delonte West or an Al Jefferson (who were sent to Seattle and Minnesota, respectively),” Ainge told The Bee over the summer.
“We hated trading them away. We had discussed the possibility of trading the No. 1 pick or the No. 2 pick also. And when you get the No. 5 pick, you just don’t have the same (leverage). If you got the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, sometimes that by itself gets you a lot.”
It is well-chronicled that Paul Pierce wanted veteran help after 2007 and was not excited about playing with a West-Jefferson-Rondo-Durant/Oden nucleus as he entered his thirties. He would have preferred the C’s include the pick in a trade for a quality veteran or deal him to a winner.
But was Ainge really on board?
Peter May’s book Top of the World about the ’08 Celtics gets into the draft/trade conversation, and the conclusions are a bit murky. There is no question that the team indeed discussed trading the pick even if it ended up being No. 1 or No. 2. But there is considerable question about which way the ultimate decider—Ainge—was leaning on that decision.
May’s book makes it appear that Doc Rivers, not Ainge, was the strongest voice in favor of dealing the No. 1 or No. 2 pick and thus passing on Durant/Oden. Per May:
Rivers said he proposed trading the pick because, even with Oden or Durant, the Celtics would still be far from a championship. He said he wanted to use the pick to get Kevin Garnett, now widely assumed to be available for the first time, while also being able to keep Al Jefferson. “That was my thinking going in, and that would have made us absolutely remarkable,” Rivers said.
Ainge was likely not as committed to trading the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, and had a well-publicized infatuation with Durant. (May reminds us that the NBA fined Ainge $30,000 for “excessive contact” with Durant’s family after he sat next to Durant’s mother during a college game). May goes on to describe how Ainge spent a lot of time researching players projected to go from No.3 through No. 7 in case the ping pong balls betrayed the team again. Here is May, quoting Ainge:
“I figured I would have the next six weeks to focus on those two guys [Oden or Durant] if we had gotten the first or second pick,” Ainge said. “So I was focusing on the other guys…I was preparing more for us not getting either [the No. 1 or No. 2] pick, because if we had gotten one of them, then it was going to be easy.”
“Then it was going to be easy.” That sure sounds like a GM ready to pop some champagne and pull the trigger on Durant or Oden, doesn’t it? Of course, that doesn’t contradict what Ainge told Amick in the Sacramento Bee. If you read the quote carefully, all Ainge says is that the team discussed the possibility of trading the pick even it came up No.1 or No. 2—that drafting Oden or Durant was not a foregone conclusion. And that’s certainly true. Just read that Doc Rivers quote again.
I’m sure Ainge went back and forth a million times in his head. But it seems like there’s a pretty good chance Doc led a vocal pro-trade faction that, at least initially, may not have included Ainge. Just something to consider when we’re doling out credit for reinventing the organization with the KG and Allen trades. Perhaps Doc deserves more than he’s given. That doesn’t mean Ainge deserves less. He made the phone calls, he played golf with KG, he pulled the final trigger. But he really did love that Kevin Durant…