Danny Ainge is the best GM in sports.
Better than Bill Belichick. Better than R.C. Buford.
(Yes, I know neither Ainge or Belichick have the official title of GM – so spare me those emails. We all know the buck stops with each of them.)
Ainge tops my list of front office minds because he has completely rebuilt the Celtics twice now. The first rebuild resulted in one title, two trips to the NBA Finals and multiple trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. The second rebuild is already guaranteed to result in sustained trips to at least the conference finals as Ainge would have to turn into the absolute worst GM in sports overnight to screw this thing up now. The hardest part of rebuild No. 2 is over.
The 2013 Nets trade seemed like a fleecing at the time, but it’s even better than originally imagined. The Celtics own Brooklyn’s pick this year but also next year, and the year after that. The Nets are going to continue to be one of the worst teams in the league these next couple of years, so the C’s will continue to reap the benefits of that swap.
What makes Ainge so great is that he adapts better than anyone. He's not afraid to change his plan on the fly.
He could have traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce much earlier than he did, but he didn’t like the offers he was getting. He waited and waited and waited for a team to panic, and the Nets eventually obliged. I remember as far back as 2010 that people were calling for Ainge to trade off Garnett and Pierce. But it was the right deal or no deal for Ainge.
I truly believe that if the Nets never crapped their pants, Ainge would have held on to Garnett and Pierce and we would have seen something similar to what’s going on in San Antonio right now. He would have eventually gotten a player like LaMarcus Aldridge to Boston in an attempt to lift the Celtics from a still formidable team in the East (remember, Rondo was injured the year the Celtics lost to the Knicks in Round 1) to a title contender again. I firmly believe that “keeping things afloat in anticipation of getting another star” was Ainge's Plan B.
People often chalk up the 2007 Garnett trade as Ainge being lucky (read: Kevin McHale doing him a solid). But we now know that this was likely more skill than luck because we have now seen Ainge pull off an even better trade. In the past 10 years, the only better sports trade than Garnett for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and a first round pick is Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans, three first round picks and the right to swap picks in 2017 in exchange for Garnett, Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White.
You can easily make the case that Danny Ainge has made two of the greatest sports trades this century. Doing it twice is not luck.
Ainge has also hired just two head coaches since he took over the Celtics in 2003 - Doc Rivers and Brad Stevens. Both are regarded as top five coaches in the league today.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough has already admitted that Ainge got the best of him 15 months ago when he traded Isaiah Thomas to Boston in exchange for Marcus Thornton and what will be the No. 28 pick in this year’s draft.
Belichick vs. Ainge
Belichick’s resume is a little more shady as we’ll never get the answer as to whether or not the Patriots’ dynasty is due more to him or Tom Brady. (We'll also never know for sure if it was actually Belichick who wanted to draft Brady).
I’m of the belief that great quarterback play lifts all boats as we saw Peyton Manning get to the Super Bowl under three different head coaches, and the narrative in these parts says that Brady is superior to Manning.
As a GM, Belichick has some famous misses. Dominique Easley (first round), Ras-I Dowling (second round), Chad Jackson (second round), Jermaine Cunningham (second round), Terrance Wheatley (second round), Brandon Meriweather (first round) and Laurence Maroney (first round) were all pretty rough draft whiffs by the hooded one. Adalius Thomas, Monty Beisel, Joey Galloway, Shawn Springs, Donald Hayes and Tim Tebow are just a few of Belichick’s ugly free agent signings.
As for Ainge, more often than not - he comes through on draft night. He landed Al Jefferson at pick 15, Rajon Rondo at 21, Tony Allen at 25, Ryan Gomes at 50, Avery Bradley at 19, Jared Sullinger at 21 and Big Baby Davis at 35.
He has his misses. James Young at 17 and Fab Melo at 22 jump out. But Ainge has done exceptionally well considering he’s never actually made a selection in the top five of a draft.
You can argue for days about what is more difficult – sustained success in the NFL or two massive overhauls in the NBA. But I happen to believe it’s the latter.
Buford vs. Ainge
Buford’s selection of Kawhi Leonard at pick 15 in the 2011 draft is one of the best picks in league history and we’ll even give him credit for the organization taking Tony Parker at No. 28 in 2001 (Buford was technically assistant GM at the time). Buford also landed Aldridge in free agency last summer and Ainge still hasn’t lured one great free agent to Boston.
But, like Belichick, Buford has a whole lot of guilt by association to greatness going on here. The truth is, this whole Spurs thing never even gets started without the ping-pong balls falling the right way in 1997. Ron Mercer and David Robinson weren’t going to get the Spurs a title in 1999 just as Drew Bledsoe and David Patten weren’t going to get the Patriots a title in 2001.
At the heart of Buford and Belichick’s success is great draft or draft lottery luck. Ainge is due for some draft lottery luck this Tuesday.
It's just amazing that he's gotten this far without it.