- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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There was a time when Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was roundly booed by Boston fans -- in the middle of a ceremony to honor his former teammate Cedric Maxwell. Five years later, after he delivered a championship, he was toasted by those same fans as the boldest general manager in the game.
In between, Ainge traded 35 players and 11 draft picks.
He sent Antoine Walker packing in 2003, then reacquired him in 2005, neither of which seemed like a particularly good idea at the time. He traded for such immortals as Raef LaFrentz, Ricky Davis, Jiri Welsch and Chris Mihm, yet eventually parlayed them into new players and more draft picks that helped the Celtics win.
"He runs his basketball team the same way he used to play -- he lets it fly,'' asserts Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird. "It's always all out with Danny.''
Since the Celtics' title run in 2008, Ainge has swapped out 10 players and one draft pick.
As the Celtics stagger toward the finish line of the regular season, Ainge's controversial decision to deal the popular Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City as well as introduce five new players to the mix has the boobirds warming up their vocal cords again. Team chemistry has clearly suffered, the Big Four is underperforming, and after an initial burst of spirited play, center Nenad Krstic has slipped into the lackluster play that made him expendable in Oklahoma City in the first place.
With home-court advantage seemingly slipping away and Boston having lost three of the past four (and seven of 12), its front-office guru is once again under scrutiny.
Ainge isn't flinching. Although he concedes it was excruciating to deal Perkins -- "I love that kid; I raised him'' -- he still believes the trade made sense in both the short and long term.
During a lengthy interview last week, Ainge acknowledged a number of factors led him to move Perkins, among them the fact he was recovering from major knee surgery, had two balky shoulders and had suffered an injury to the other knee. The center's limited offensive capabilities (and a maddening tendency to drop pinpoint passes from Rajon Rondo) contributed to his departure, but the most obvious unresolved issue was his intent to test free agency this summer.
Would the Celtics have pulled the trigger on the deal if Perkins had agreed to the four-year, $22 million extension they offered him earlier in the season?
"Probably not,'' Ainge answered, "but in fairness to Perk, the only extension we could offer him was not fair market value. I understood why he didn't take that. And, I had a strong feeling talking with a few teams that three in particular were going to make a strong bid for Perk and there was a real possibility that it could have ended up in a bidding war that we weren't going to win.''
One of those three teams was Oklahoma City; shortly after acquiring him the Thunder inked him to a four-year, nearly $36 million contract.
Perkins missed the first three weeks with the Thunder because of the aforementioned knee injury.
"That's the ironic thing,'' Ainge wryly noted. "Everyone was worrying about Shaq [O'Neal] and [Jermaine O'Neal's] health, but we wouldn't have had Perk available either.
"Look. Perk isn't Perk right now. I think he will be back to his old self by next year. I think he will be fine. I want him to be. But the truth was we were playing much better with Shaq as a starter this year than at any time with Perk.''
Counting on Shaq
It's no coincidence that Rondo's assist totals were up around 15 a game when the Big Shamrock was on the floor. His dominating presence on the block forced teams to abandon the double-team on Paul Pierce and/or Kevin Garnett for fear of leaving the big fella alone for a rim-rattling dunk.
Shaq last played on Feb. 1. A nagging Achilles injury has become a chronic Achilles problem. A recent walk-through, which was supposed to be the precursor to O'Neal's return, instead resulted in inflaming the Achilles so significantly that he received a cortisone shot and was put in a boot to immobilize the foot.
With the season ticking down, Shaq's status becomes a major factor in Boston's hopes for a title run. Jermaine O'Neal hopes to return by the end of this week, but if neither big man can play sustained minutes, was the Perkins deal a bust?
"I don't think so,'' Ainge answered. "We believe we will have both Shaq and J.O. back. Now if they don't, and Krstic can't play at the high level he was performing at when he arrived, obviously we won't have the kind of depth we want, but our recent struggles have nothing to do with the center position.''
GMs split on Perk trade
An informal sampling of NBA general managers revealed them split on the Perkins trade. A couple expressed doubts over a plan that relies on a 39-year-old and a 32-year-old to fill the center needs, particularly with their injury history. Another felt the Celtics have lost an identity -- toughness -- they won't recoup with Perkins gone. Yet others, like Bird, endorsed the move.
"I'm a big Jeff Green fan,'' Bird said. "It was a chance for Boston to look long-term and still keep themselves in it for this year.''
Nets general manager Billy King, who nabbed Deron Williams at the trade deadline, said the changing landscape of the Eastern Conference may have played into Ainge's thinking.
"I think maybe the way Danny was looking at it is there is only one big center to deal with in the East and that's Dwight Howard,'' said King. "But now you've got to worry about LeBron [James] and Carmelo [Anthony], guys who are hard to guard, and that's where Jeff Green comes in.
"It also lets the Celtics go small with Green in the lineup, which they like to do," added King. "Danny probably figures he can win it this year with the Big Three and Rondo, and rebuild on the fly without damaging the core.''
Rolling the dice
Ainge doesn't view the Perkins swap and the subsequent salary dumps as the riskiest moves of his Celtics tenure.
He anointed the June 29, 2007 deal with Seattle in which he traded Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the No. 5 overall pick in the draft (which, ironically, turned out to be Jeff Green) for Ray Allen and the No. 35 pick (Glen Davis) as the transaction he considered the most perilous.
At the time, Allen was coming off double ankle surgery and was one month shy of his 32nd birthday.
"I loved Ray's character, but at the time the KG trade wasn't a guarantee, and I was worried about Ray's health,'' Ainge admitted. "We were giving up a No. 5 pick to get an older player.
"It was risky, but I felt it was worthwhile. Even if we ended up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson, it might have not been what I hoped for, but I still wouldn't have regretted it. We needed Ray to have any chance at KG.''
Ainge's ability to pry Garnett free from the Timberwolves remains the crowning achievement of his front-office career. Although many have dismissed that transaction as one close friend (former Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale) aiding another, Boston was not the only team in the hunt for KG. The Lakers and the Phoenix Suns were in hot pursuit and Indiana was also interested.
"I was shocked when I heard Danny got KG,'' Bird said. "I called McHale every year about him and he always told me he wouldn't trade him.''
McHale ultimately received the go-ahead from owner Glen Taylor, who didn't want to pay KG a lucrative extension. The Suns weren't willing to pay him and the Lakers offered Andrew Bynum, "but Bynum wasn't healthy or producing nearly the way Al Jefferson was at the time," Ainge said.
"Relationships in trading do make a difference,'' he added. "You have to be able to talk, be open and honest. It's back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. The fact there is a relationship enables you to keep going.
"But Kevin McHale did not trade Kevin Garnett to me because we're friends. Kevin is a Celtic and will always be a Celtic, but when he was working for the Minnesota Timberwolves that didn't matter. I can tell you for sure there was no way Kevin was rooting for us to win a championship with his former player.''
"I knew if I traded Rasheed to them they could win it all,'' Ainge said. "I didn't care because it had nothing to do with us.''
At the time, Ainge explained, the Celtics weren't competitive enough for Wallace to consider re-upping with them. He was looking to sign with either New Jersey or New York, two teams in Boston's division.
"I could make two teams in my division a lot better and get nothing, or I could move him to Detroit and I could get a first-round pick,'' Ainge said. "We ended up getting Tony Allen with that pick. Sheed ended up helping them win a championship, and Tony ended up helping us win one.''
Sometimes the best deals are the ones that are never consummated and the Celtics' flirtation with Allen Iverson in 2006 certainly qualifies. At the time, Boston was a struggling team that lost 18 straight and won only 24 games all season. Attendance was suffering, morale was low, and both ownership and coach Doc Rivers were pushing to bring in the mercurial point guard.
"We would have done a deal for Iverson,'' said Ainge, "but never for what they wanted.
"We have internal disputes about it to this day. My own guys will say, 'You would have given up Al Jefferson for Allen Iverson.' I wouldn't have. Never.
"They wanted Iverson and Delonte West. We had all sorts of discussions about different scenarios, but there's a difference between talking about it and intending to do it.''
Iverson wound up in Denver and was a colossal disaster. Had the Celtics acquired him, they never would have ended up with Garnett or Allen and would not be hanging a 2008 championship banner from the Garden rafters.
'Fearless in his approach'
In Ainge's earlier years as a front-office executive, he left some of his peers scratching their heads over some of his unorthodox transactions.
"I remember thinking when Danny traded for LaFrentz and then LaFrentz was immediately hurt, 'That doesn't make any sense,'" King said. "But what you saw with Danny over the years was he was acquiring assets. Deals are so hard to make in this league, and Danny figured out how to use contracts to make other trades.''
"He seems fearless in his approach,'' added Suns general manager Lance Blanks. "He's not afraid to try and improve his team.''
Ainge once worked for Phoenix, too, and in 1996 he was in the war room when the Suns tried to grab a young high school phenom named Kobe Bryant.
Phoenix had the 15th pick and was initially confident Bryant would still be on the board. But Lakers general manager Jerry West also lusted after Kobe and traded Vlade Divac to move up to the 13th pick (and to clear money for the free-agent signing of Shaquille O'Neal). The Suns spent the final hours before the draft trying to leapfrog Los Angeles by prying away the 12th pick from Golden State.
"We offered the Warriors our No. 15 pick and our pick the following year -- unprotected,'' Ainge said. "That's how badly we wanted Kobe. Their stance was, 'If the guy we want is there at 12, we won't do it.'"
No consolation prize will appease Boston fans. If the Celtics don't win Banner 18, the Perkins deal will be viewed as a major blunder.
"But there's no guarantee we were going to win a championship with Perkins,'' Ainge said.
"I know,'' he said. "I know how it works. Boston cares about their guys. Everybody hated it when I traded Eric Williams, even though he never really played again for anybody.
"I remember seeing some poll that said 90 percent of the people were against trading Al Jefferson for KG.
"In the end, it's all how it turns out that matters.''
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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