The Pacers traded Paul George to the Thunder, and everyone is wondering why Danny Ainge and the Celtics couldn’t seal the deal. This has been a recurring theme for Celtics over the past two seasons as Boston has risen from second-tier playoff squad to No. 1 seed. Yet, Ainge has hoarded a horde of premium draft picks and prospects and can’t seem to turn them into a true superstar on the market.
Below the surface, it’s clear that the Celtics’ failure to strike isn’t for lack of trying. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported that Ainge offered Indiana three non-premium picks, Jae Crowder, and another Celtics starter (presumed to be Avery Bradley) for George during the draft. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald independently reported the same, and added that the Celtics made an even better offer at the February deadline: a 2017 pick swap that involved Brooklyn’s selection, which became No. 1 overall.
Larry Bird ran the Pacers in February. He should have taken that deal from the Celtics. Kevin Pritchard ran the Pacers on draft night. He should have taken the Celtics’ offer.
Victor Oladipo is a nice young player, and Domantas Sabonis is a well-regarded prospect. But the chance to nab multiple first-round picks, one of the best contracts in the NBA in Crowder, and a high-character stopgap guard in Bradley is better under every scenario.
If you’re rebuilding, those picks are better assets than Sabonis, who struggled as a rookie. (This is to say nothing of how Markelle freaking Fultz would have helped your rebuild along.)
If you’re retooling while hoping to remain competitive, Crowder and Bradley will be much more help than Oladipo, a 25-year-old who will earn about 20 percent of the salary cap over the next four years. Crowder in particular is highly underrated: he’s a 26-year-old solid two-way starting wing who will make no more than seven percent of the salary cap through 2020.
Unless there were usurious protections on the pick swap Ainge reportedly offered the Pacers in February, Bird committed basketball malpractice by hanging onto George at the deadline. The Pacers were in no man’s land in the East, and only made the playoffs because of a Lance Stephenson inspired winning streak. (Anything goes in 2017.)
In those playoffs, the Pacers were bounced in four by the Cavaliers. Bird stared a gift horse in the mouth, and eventually resigned.
Pritchard’s mistake isn’t quite as egregious. There’s a minor cult around Sabonis despite his shooting less than 40 percent as a big man after two years of college play. Oladipo has stung NBA decision-makers with Cupid’s arrow before.
In a vacuum, it’s not a horrid return. It’s not Buddy Hield and a protected first. It’s not Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and a mid-lottery pick swap. In a vacuum, it’s defensible. Once we know what the Pacers turned down, however, it gets real ugly.
This is why faulting the Celtics isn’t fair. Ainge did everything he could reasonably do to outbid the Thunder for Paul George. He offered the 2017 Brooklyn pick in a swap at the deadline. He offered three firsts and two solid players on good, unobtrusive contracts more recently. The Celtics offered the better deals in both instances.
Ainge didn’t offer one of the premium picks the Celtics control, like Brooklyn’s 2018 pick, or the protected Lakers 2018/Kings 2019 pick. (We should start calling it the Sauce Castillo Special for simplicity’s sake.) Why was Ainge reluctant? Look at what Indiana ended up taking for George! Boston would have been bidding against itself to offer either of those high-quality picks.
Ask yourself whether it would be responsible to offer Brooklyn’s 2018 pick and Crowder for Oladipo and Sabonis. That would be highway robbery worthy of league intervention. And that tells you that Ainge was right to not include one of those premium picks.
Boston made a highly reasonable offer. Some will complain that it’s time for Ainge to make unreasonably generous offers to land that superstar. That’s not what got the Celtics here. Being rash and giving into pressure of the moment didn’t get Ainge or the Celtics to a No. 1 seed and a No. 1 pick in the same year. Sanity, patience, and smarts did.
The Celtics can’t make the Pacers or anyone else take the objectively better deal. That may have been the case in other trade derbies (such as Jimmy Butler), and it may apply in future negotiations. Just because Boston has so many ridiculously sweet assets to deal doesn’t mean Ainge can afford to bid against himself just to pull off a deal. The trade market, for whatever reason, isn’t acting rationally about the Celtics. It takes great discipline not to get really wild and succumb to the pressure.
Luckily, Ainge feels little pressure. He has a top-flight team with top-flight assets in his cupboard. He didn’t land Paul George. He didn’t land Jimmy Butler. Yet all evidence indicates that it’s through no lack of trying.
You can’t blame the Boston Celtics for the foolish decisions of other teams, no matter how attractive that may seem.