BOSTON – Danny Ainge looked and sounded like a man who had done virtually everything right and was still trying to figure out how it all went so wrong. Not with his own health – he allowed that he has to eat better and exercise more following a minor heart attack suffered during the conference semifinals – but for the health of a Celtics franchise that he spent the better part of a decade getting back to the cusp of the mountain top, only to watch it careen off a cliff this spring.
Starting with the masterful trade of an aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry for unprotected draft picks that would become potential stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, to getting assets for Rajon Rondo, to rebuilding a winning culture behind Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, to spending carefully protected maximum free-agent contract slots on All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, to the trade for megastar Kyrie Irving, nearly everything fell into place year after year, and yet somehow then all fell apart.
Now, as Ainge looks at the likely departure of Irving, massive roster uncertainty this offseason, and a decision whether to once again build around youth or swing for immediate gratification, the Celtics president of basketball operations is facing some of the same old questions at a time of year he hoped he would have been talking about the possibility of championship parades for years to come.
“I thought we had some moments that we came together and it was going well,” he said during a 21-minute press conference at Auerbach Center on Wednesday – his first since suffering the heart attack one month ago. “But during an NBA season you are going to have adversity. You’re going to have bad moments. You’re going to have team meetings and things that you have to find out.
“But you have to have resolve to do it all the time to play through that adversity. When you don’t have that cohesion, it’s harder to have that resolve.”
While Ainge cautioned about putting too much blame at the feet of Irving – in perhaps one, last, likely futile, and maybe obligatory, attempt to stay in the almost-certainly-soon-to-be-departing star’s good graces – it was clear throughout the season that the team’s collective mood soared and suffered along with Irving’s whims. It was a warning well-sounded when Ainge traded for Irving two years ago, but a warning Ainge said on Wednesday he has “no regrets” in taking a chance at proving unfounded given the potential reward.
Ainge said he has been given no firm indication that Irving won’t resign in Boston – about the farthest cry one can get from Irving’s pledge of having “every intention” to re-sign with the Celtics to season-ticket holders in October – and he perhaps summed up the collective enthusiasm about a potential Irving-Celtics extended marriage Wednesday with: “He can do what he wants. It’s his choice.”
And without that one, true superstar, Ainge is without a legitimate path back to the NBA Finals, and with only a handful of charms and trinkets left from the treasure trove of draft picks and assets he began the rebuild with back in 2013.
After nearly two decades running the Celtics, he is neither clearly ascending toward the top or, nor plotting a short-term dip to the bottom with a swift reversal of direction clearly in sight. Ainge is a man who took all the right turns to finish first in the race, only to somehow find himself right back at the starting line.
He is a man who saw his best-laid plans fulfilled, only now to face the prospect of having to formulate them all over again.
“I learned some things this year,” he admitted. “I think that it was a unique situation where we overachieved to such an extent the year before with young players. Then there were so many expectations. Not just their own expectations, but expectations from everybody.
“I think I learned a lot this year from how a team can respond.”
And, perhaps, the most valuable lesson of why this one never did.