Now in his third decade as a general manager or team president, Danny Ainge is in the next stage of what’s been a blessed NBA existence. As a supporting player on a pair of championship Celtics teams, he was one of the league’s first 3-point specialists, reached the NBA Finals with Portland, then Phoenix, losing to Jordan’s Bulls both times.
As an exec, he’s building a Hall-of-Fame resume from the front office. His final outlet from Kevin McHale brought K.G. and a title to Boston. In 2013, he crossed up Nets GM Billy King in the halfcourt by unloading an aging KD and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, a deal that set Boston up for the next two decades. He finessed the 76ers into drafting Markelle Fultz by trading down in the 2017 Draft, earning a second first-round pick, and yet still got his man, and best player in the draft in Jayson Tatum. With Utah, he changed the gravity of the market again by swishing the Rudy Gobert trade from logo range, pissing off his peers in the process. And now he has the Knicks’ front office negotiating with him like the poor Drew League defender stuck defending LeBron.
NBA2K might put Ainge on the cover if he keeps this up. He is so deep in his bag as an exec, I’m surprised he isn’t dating a Kardashian. Ainge has turned Utah into a League Pass offseason team that everyone is watching.
Utah Jazz fans haven’t groused at how this offseason has shaken out when most fanbases probably would have. They replaced their menacing sideline scarecrow Quin Snyder with a neophyte coach who resembles Buzz Lightyear. Their hiring of Will Hardy signaled that they were prepared to change course. Trading Gobert to Minnesota for a boatload of first-round picks, pick swaps, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Pat Beverley and Leandro Bolmaro was a clarion call for suitors interested in their lone remaining star, Donovan Mitchell.
Whatever rebuild on the fly they try this time likely won’t involve Mitchell. Mitchell has left a trail of clues all summer that lead to Miami or New York. Back in June, Mitchell and Jimmy Butler kickin’ it at NBA trainer Chris Brickley’s birthday party launched the initial round of rumors. Dwyane Wade would be charged with tampering by the league for endorsing Mitchell being traded to Miami — if he weren’t a minority owner in the Jazz. Given Riley’s Machiavellian ways, Wade’s years-long mentorship of Mitchell and Jazz ownership may just be a clandestine sector of Riley’s player development program.
However, on the trade front, Miami has been silent. New York is stomping its Timbs, apparently overeager to engage with Ainge for Mitchell. Ainge is on the verge of turning New York into his personal showcase like M.J., Reggie Miller, and Trae Young have over the years. According to numerous reports, Ainge is in the process of putting a double-nickel on the Knicks. Ainge reportedly asked for four players and six first-round picks. The Knicks declined. But if there’s anything we know about Ainge it’s that he’s a virtuoso negotiator. He knows a desperate opponent when he sees one, and the Knicks smell like chum to a shark. Even if he gets half of what he asked for, Ainge will have the Knicks limping off, thinking they collected a narrow victory.
The Heat have been lukewarm. Maybe Pat Riley is weighing his options of an all-out negotiating battle with Ainge or a less taxing deal for Kevin Durant. The Knicks are concerned with assembling a CAA Mid-Stars squad led by Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, and possibly Mitchell. Ainge can dangle Mitchell.
Leon Rose and Scott Perry see his moves coming, but Ainge’s misdirection and ball skills are so refined, rival execs are calling out where he’s gonna go, but he might as well be Zion Williamson rolling downhill. The Knicks won’t be able to help themselves from prematurely biting on the right Mitchell offer like it’s a vintage Kobe head fake.
As high as Utah rose over the last four regular seasons, he quickly realized their peak in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Who knows what Ainge’s picks will garner them in the long run. However, he gets the benefit of the doubt because we’ve seen him do this before in Boston.
By the time he slipped out the Celtics’ back door last summer, the team he left behind was a bundle of TNT waiting for the right spark. Even after Gordon Heyward’s injury and Kyrie Irving’s about-face after they traded Terry Rozier, Ainge’s core got over the hump in the Eastern Conference. He drafted Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams and Robert Williams.
And it’s obvious from his evaluation that it’s better to move Mitchell than try to salvage a 41-win team out of the debris. Mitchell may not be the top option on a championship team. He’s probably geared more toward being a Paul George-caliber talent than Kawhi Leonard. The Jazz weren’t going to attract an All-NBA talent to pair with Mitchell in free agency, and a superstar with any leverage would bolt in free agency unless Utah were a threat in the West. Ainge’s methodology is realistic while also creating soaring expectations for this rebuild.
Ainge could be content to just tank for Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. Wembanyama is Gobert with a more diverse skill set. In a few years, the top prospect in the 2023 NBA Draft may be the ultimate NBA unicorns. Henderson is another potential franchise pillar available in next year’s draft.
Courtside seats in Salt Lake City are never going to attract celebrities, unless it’s for next year’s All-Star Game, but Ainge has the streets buzzing. The product on the floor might stink in 2022-23, but it’s not all bleak. Ainge has done for Salt Lake City what Watchmen did for Oklahoma and Breaking Bad for New Mexico. He’s putting them back on the map.