BOSTON – Danny Ainge spent 12 minutes on the Celtics podium at nearly 1 a.m. on Draft Night trying his best to say absolutely nothing. Ten days later, it has become clear he revealed quite a bit more than it first appeared about Boston’s plans to avoid the dreaded rebuild in the wake of reports both Al Horford and Kyrie Irving were soon headed out of town.
“I am very excited about what the possibilities are over the next month,” Ainge hinted at his press conference. “We’ll be able to talk a lot more about all of it over the next month.”
On the first night of free agency, instead of all talk being centered around the sting of the Brooklyn Nets bringing in both Kevin Durant and Mr. I Want To Be The Reason No One Wears No. 11 In Boston Again, and Horford doing a heel-turn to Philadelphia, it was also about the Celtics signing their third maximum-contract free agent in the last four years with the commit from three-time All-Star Kemba Walker.
The Walker signing – while not alone making the Celtics a legitimate NBA title contender – keeps them in the conversation in the East and relieves the suddenly swirling doubt whether Boston is truly a destination city in the NBA.
“Maybe the players and the names on the jerseys change,” Ainge foreshadowed on Draft Night, “but the approach is the same. We have a very attractive franchise to play for. There’s a lot of people who would be dying to come play here.”
Make no mistake – the Walker signing for four years and $141 million is far more than reassuring symbolism. The UConn product has turned into one of the best pure scorers in the game with fourth-quarter-takeover ability that matches anyone in the league. He also has the reputation for impeccable professionalism and leadership that his point guard predecessor in Boston sorely lacked as his era in green circled the drain this spring.
“I’ve always said that everybody is leading somebody,” Ainge said. “They are leading you the right way or the wrong way. I consider everybody as a leader. Character and leadership are very important as we look for players.”
With one big swing, Ainge takes a team with the look of a 38-win squad hoping to become a 43-win squad and puts it in the 48-win realm once again. And with that home run, Ainge makes a bold statement that the Celtics are not planning to endure the growing pains of simply allowing a young roster to mature. It is a declaration that the Celtics are willing to extend themselves to stay relevant and poised to go toe-to-toe with any team in the East.
Creating a salary exception with the reported sign-and-trade of Terry Rozier to the Charlotte Hornets – for a Scary Terry-validating $19 million per year – instead of letting him walk for free opens possibilities for deals to help fill the now-canyon-sized void in the frontcourt. You don’t sign a max free agent to sink or swim in the paint with Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, Grant Williams and Robert Williams, so expect more significant additions to come this summer.
“I wish I could tell you everything I know,” Ainge foreshadowed on June 20. “But I can’t.”
But now we know. We know that Ainge did have something up his sleeve as he prepared to watch Irving and Horford walk out the door. We know that the front office and coaches believed that the roster model built over the past few years is still viable – it was just the failed centerpiece that needed replacing.
“We knew with what was before us coming into July that this was very possible,” Ainge said of a forecast that looked quite bleak from the outside at the time. “And we’re prepared. Very confident.”
It sounded a bit like a sales job that night from a guy who wanted to get out of the Auerbach Center so he could get home and to sleep before dawn. Ten days later, it sounds a lot more like a team president who believes his squad has a very bright present to go along with its promising future.
Kemba Walker is a Boston Celtic tonight.
That shows Ainge is still in the business of shooting for the stars.