Danny Ainge, negotiating wizard? That's his reputation. Today we look at whether it's actually warranted.
Good morning, and welcome to August! We can now say “NBA training camp opens next month.” Crazy how time flies. In the meantime, the Knicks continue to stand pat in the Mitchell talks - more on that below - which gives us some more time to analyze what might happen from here. To do so, today we look back to the past. But first, we’ll talk about the loss of a giant in our sport and in our world.
Last but not least, please note that barring any breaking news, there will be no KFS Newsletter tomorrow, and it will next hit your inbox on Wednesday, August 2. This is the first of a few off-days I’ll be taking throughout the summer to accommodate family time (we’re in Hershey, PA giving our daughters their fill of chocolate and then some), but today’s letter should more than make up for the day off.
News & Notes
🏀 Bill Russell, the winningest athlete in North American professional sports history and a champion for justice and equality over the entirety of his adult life, passed away yesterday at the age of 88.
If the point of sports is to be on the team that wins its final game of the season, then Russell will always have an argument for the greatest that ever lived. 11 times in 13 years, he was the last man standing for the Boston Celtics. Of all of his stats and accolades, my personal favorite remains his MVP finishes from 1958 to 1965: 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st. That the award was voted on by Russell’s peers back then makes it all the more impressive. To those who had to compete against him, there was no one more valuable to his team.
People now glibly talk about players who delivered beer on the weekends in a league with nine teams, but make no mistake: Russell would have dominated in any era. He still holds nine of the best 18 single-season rebounding marks in NBA history, with his longtime rival Wilt Chamberlain fittingly holding the other nine. Despite their parity in this and so many other facets of the game, Wilt never gets dinged with “he couldn’t do it today.” It makes it all the more ridiculous that Russell ever received any such criticism.
The 2011 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Russell’s legacy will live on in so many ways, not the least of which is the Finals MVP trophy that bears his name. As it should. Even if you take away his prodigious rebounding totals (his 1718 rebounds1 in Finals games is almost exactly twice as many as second-place Chamberlain and nearly three times as many as third-place Elgin Baylor), his sixth-place ranking in total points scored and fourth-place ranking in total assists, along with those 11 wins, would be more than enough to justify the honor. On the biggest stage, no one was better.
Russell is survived by his wife Jeannine, his three children, and millions of fans around the globe. He will be missed.
🏀 A new report from Shams dropped on Friday, noting that “as of right now…talks between the Jazz and the Knicks around a Donovan Mitchell trade have stalled out.” He added that there hasn’t been contact between the sides in about two weeks, but that Utah is continuing conversations with other teams, including Charlotte and Washington. He did conclude, however, “the Knicks have been the focus of many around the league, including the Jazz, when it comes to Donovan Mitchell.”
Translation: after the initial back and forth, it doesn’t appear that either side is budging. Which leads us to…
Today’s suggestion comes from Elan:
An interesting article idea could be looking at all of Ainge's prior trades and the context behind them. A ton of work and I am not sure if the readers want it, but I would love it.
I’ll first say that, yes Elan, this would be a ton of work. Not that that’s ever stopped me before, but in this particular instance, there’s already some very good Ainge Trade History pieces out there, including this one on his most notable in-season deals and another on his top-five trades overall. I’m not going to unnecessarily re-invent the wheel. That being said, I am tackling Ainge for today’s column, but from a slightly different angle that I’ll get to in a bit. First though, my reasoning…
More than any other conversion that has taken place since news broke that Donovan Mitchell is on the block, the one surrounding Danny Ainge’s deal-making mettle has perhaps been the most fascinating. The assumption - especially from select members of the media who have a history of inclusion within Ainge’s circle of trust - is that he will not bend, let along break in a negotiation.
And, to be fair, recent history would seem to suggest as much. Ainge just received a previously unfathomable haul for Rudy Gobert. Not long before that, he was still basking in the glow of what turned out to be perhaps the most lopsided NBA trade of the last 20 years which brought a young nucleus to Boston and wrought organizational ruin on Brooklyn. In between, Ainge mostly became known for the deals he didn’t do, never willing and/or able to pull the trigger on one star trade or another, presumably because he didn’t feel the price was right. And of course, the one time he did swing for the fences, it gave the Celtics their only championship since Larry Bird laced up his high tops.
All in all, Ainge has compiled a fairly decent track record, especially considering that even the best execs in the league have nearly as many misses as hits on their resume. But it’s also been a long time since Trader Danny was in the position he’s in now: newly hired by an organization to fix a situation which very clearly had reached an apex in its current form. For as much as we should pay attention to Ainge’s recent history (and I’ll get to that in a bit, as well as why the popular reading of that history may be a little off base), it’s his early years in Boston that interest me far more.
At the time Ainge was hired as the Executive Director of Basketball Operations for the Celtics in May of 2003, he had been out of basketball for four years, having resigned as head coach of the Phoenix Suns 20 games into the 1999-00 season following three playoff appearances in three years. His tenure had ups and downs, but did result in three postseason appearances. Still, no one knew quite what to expect from him as the guy calling the shots.
It didn’t take long to find out.
His first move as an executive was a small but telling one, trading former second round draft-and-stash prospect Darius Songaila to the Kings on the eve of the 2003 draft for Sacramento’s second round pick (the 56th) and a future second. This sort of trade is what he’d eventually be known for: dealing away present certainty for the chance of something better down the line. Often times, the bird Ainge let go wound up being worth far more than those in the bush he chased after, but his commitment to this deal-making ethos has paid off handsomely on more than one occasion.
His second deal happened the very next night, when during the 2003 draft, he essentially swapped the 16th and 20th picks for the 13th and 27th. This trade forecasted a few more more Ainge-isms. First, his drafting record outside of the first few picks has been a tad spotty. The misses - like Marcus Banks at 13 here - have been notable, but so have the hits, like Kendrick Perkins at 27. The Perkins pick was important not only in that he was the starting center on the ‘08 champs, but because it showed a second trait Ainge would become known for: extracting that extra bit of value in nearly every deal.
Both of these trades were mere appetizers to the main course that came a few months later: a deal that sent Antoine Walker, one of the two franchise cornerstones along with Paul Pierce, to the Dallas Mavericks along with part-time starter Tony Delk for Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, Jiří Welsch and - wait for it - a 2004 1st round draft pick. We may not have realized it at the time, but this trade told us just about everything we needed to know about how Ainge was going to act as a lead decision-maker. It’s also where we begin to see some eerie parallels with the current situation in Utah.
We’ll get to those similarities in a bit. First, we need to talk about Walker himself, and emphasize just how big of a deal this was at the time. It’s easy to forget now, but ‘Toine was something of a unicorn well before that term ever entered the lexicon. In 2001, he became the first player ever to average 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two made 3-pointers per game…until he did it again the next year…and again the year after that2. Along with Pierce, Walker was the best thing to happen to Boston since the Bird glory years. Only 27 and already a three-time All-Star, one could argue that his best was yet to come.
Except Ainge didn’t see it that way. He first let his distaste for Walker the player be known while doing television commentary in his years preceding going to Boston, but in case anyone forgot his stance, he reminded them in the post trade presser:
“Antoine had a grasp on our franchise. If Antoine is Michael Jordan, it's OK to have a grasp. If Antoine is Larry Bird, it's OK to have a grasp, or Bill Russell. I think those players had grasps on their franchises. But I didn't perceive Antoine's grasp on us as a positive thing.”
He added, in the ultimate backhanded compliment: “Maybe I didn't have as high a regard for his game as he had for his game, but I certainly respect Antoine Walker as a player.”
Walker, to be fair, was never quite in Donovan Mitchell’s class as a player. Still, there’s no doubting that Donovan had a grip on the entire Utah organization, from the Jazz hiring a new training staff after his dust-up with the previous one to their employment of Mitchell’s close friend Eric Paschall. This summer, after Ainge dealt away Royce O’Neal, another player close to Donovan, Paschall was unceremoniously dumped despite having a nice year.
Back to Boston, and the Walker trade, which had both reasons to do and not to do. Walker doubled his 3-point volume in the 2000-01 season while hitting 36.7 percent from behind the arc, resulting in him easily leading the league in made triples. He then finished second in makes over the next two seasons, but with a plummeting hit rate that fell to 34.4 percent and then 32.3 percent in the year before the trade. In other words, despite helping lead Boston to the Conference Finals just 20 months earlier and the second round the previous spring, Ainge didn’t think Walker was a top-two player on a title team. More generally, it was clear that Ainge was not one to sit tight and accept mediocrity, saying as much after the deal:
“I can't sit here and tell you that we're an NBA championship team right now. I just don't see that. But I'm not satisfied winning 44 games."
However, unlike the Garnett/Pierce trade five years later and Ainge’s discharging of Gobert (and presumably, Mitchell) now, he wasn’t bottoming out by dealing Walker. For one, he got back only one pick in the trade, back when first rounders were far more coveted than now. More importantly, the Celtics were taking on six years and $62 million worth of Raef LaFrentz - a hefty sum of money even then. LaFrentz was a 27-year-old former third overall pick and a serviceable part-time starter, but worth nothing close to those dollars over that many years.
In retrospect, it’s hard not to view this as Ainge getting trigger happy because he felt he needed to move off of a player he didn’t want around. Even though history proved him right on Walker (he was never again an All-Star, was a reserve within two seasons, and was out of the league five years after the trade), this trade was anything but a clear win. While the pick he acquired in the deal conveyed as the 24th selection in 2004 and was used to select Delonte West, who was eventually dealt to Seattle in the Ray Allen trade, one would think Ainge could have gotten more for Walker if he waited.
Now, the notion of Ainge hastily making a big trade seems blasphemous, but this showed how strongly he felt that Walker’s value would only decrease if he remained on the roster. It was also a sign of other things, like how Ainge would go against the grain if he felt it was the best course of action, and that the only perception that mattered was his own. Third, this trade showed how much he wanted to put his own stamp on the franchise shortly after taking the reins, and that he was set on moving Walker in part because of the baby-faced forward’s outsized organizational impact. Fourth, he was comfortable taking things to the brink, trading Walker in the midst of training camp with just a week to go before the season. Finally, Ainge is a damn liar, and a bad one at that. When confronted before the trade with the anti-Walker comments he’d made on TV, Ainge said he “would not make a single phone call with the intention of trading Walker.” Uh huh.
These comments came up again a year later, in the summer of 2004, when Ainge once again tested the waters on making a seismic organizational shift. A few weeks before the draft, Ainge said that he had “absolutely no intention of trading Paul Pierce." Despite the proclamation, it was later reported that the Celtics and Bulls had trade conversations involving - you guessed it - Pierce. Pierce, of course, wasn’t moved, as Ainge never got the package he desired.
Perhaps learning from the Walker situation a year earlier, his ask was probably significant. Pierce was about to turn 27 and like Walker was a three-time All-Star. Also like Walker, the arrow seemed to be trending in the wrong direction. Pierce’s shooting had just declined for the third straight season, plummeting to a career low 40 percent overall and just under 30 percent from deep. After two consecutive All-NBA nods, he failed to earn that honor in 2004, and in part because of his poor play, Boston finished with a record of 36-46 and got swept out of the playoffs by Indiana, losing by double digits every game.
Meanwhile, Ainge had fired Jim O’Brien earlier that season amidst the downturn, and that summer, made his first hire at head coach, bringing aboard Doc Rivers. In less than a year, he’d wiped the organization clear of two of its three biggest figureheads. Pierce was all that was left.
Sitting here now, 18 years removed from that summer, it’s impossible to know how much Ainge wanted to move on from the face of the Boston Celtics. While he did say after the Rivers hire that “I believe we have two special pieces, in Doc and Paul,” he also said the quiet part out loud in an interview earlier that summer:
"I would not say Paul's a superstar. My classification of a superstar is different than a lot of people's classification of a superstar. Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett are the three superstars we have in our league today. Paul's a star. He's a perennial All-Star player. I don't classify that as a superstar. I think a superstar is a franchise player that year in and year out has all the characteristics to carry a championship team."
It’s easy to re-read this as a 2022 quote and just replace “Paul” with “Donovan.”3 The reporting has essentially confirmed that he doesn’t think much higher of Mitchell now than he did of Pierce back then. At the same time, we don’t know how the behind-the-scenes stuff involved with these two situations compares to one another. We also don’t know how much Ainge solicited offers on Pierce over the down years in 2005 and 2006, or what those offers might have been. Regardless, it’s tempting to look back and deduce that because Ainge held onto Pierce in 2004, he might now hold onto Mitchell if he doesn’t get a deal he likes. I’ll get back to this in a bit.
Ultimately, he hung onto Pierce and got him a superstar running mate three years later when he swung the blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett - a move that came after reports that Pierce was getting ready to publicly demand a trade. We know now that Pierce was already privately pushing to be moved to Dallas, and probably would have gone public had the KG trade not happened.
Garnett, meanwhile, had just turned 31 when he was dealt to Boston, with two years remaining on his contract. He netted the Minnesota Timberwolves two big prizes: 22-year-old Al Jefferson, who looked like a future not-quite-All-Star level player, and Minnesota’s own 2009 first rounder that Ainge had stolen from the Wolves a year and a half earlier in a Wally Szczerbiak / Ricky Davis swap. Wouldn’t you know it…Ainge taking advantage of a Timberwolves organization desperate to shake things up isn’t a new concept after all.
Anyway, the Garnett deal and coinciding Ray Allen trade (for the fifth pick used on Jeff Green and salary filler) gave Ainge his rep as a savvy dealer. The trades brought Boston a title, and in retrospect, neither package was a commensurate return for the talent received. Then, six years later, the spiritual cousin of the first KG trade cemented Ainge as a master tactician. In the first trade, he took advantage of two teams realizing they needed to hit the reset button who didn’t have better options. In the second trade, realizing that his own team was the one in need of a reboot, Ainge took advantage of a desperate team looking to make a splash. Finally, the last part of the trilogy occurred in 2017, when one of those Nets pick-swaps gave Ainge the opportunity to draft Markelle Fultz, a player he knew the Sixers pined after. Philly had more than enough assets to throw around and then some, so sure, they’d give Ainge what he needed to drop down to three and take Jayson Tatum instead.
The Garnett trade. The Allen trade. The Brooklyn trade. The Fultz trade. And now the Gobert trade. In the last three, desperation ruled the day. In the first, Minnesota had been trying to deal KG after running it back and failing for years, and was down to two options: the Lakers and Celtics. Ainge’s close relationship with Minny GM Kevin McHale played a role in Boston winning out, as did Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who later said the following:
“L.A. really wanted him. Well, I didn't know if I wanted him in the West. I thought I was getting better players. I thought L.A could not give me the players that Boston did.”
Ironically, the desire of the Wolves’ new owners to make their mark on the franchise seems to have been the driving force behind the Gobert trade all these years after a meddling owner cemented the KG one. For all the talk about this deal “setting the market” for star trades moving forward, history suggests that every trade should be viewed on its own, at least to some extent. Everyone agrees the haul for Utah was absurd. There’s no need to analyze much beyond that.
As for the Ray Allen trade, Sam Presti arguably got a fair return given how high esteem Green was held in at the time. Allen was also closer to a top-25 player than a top-five one, so it’s not surprising he didn’t get a Garnett-level haul.
These deals provide most of the backbone for Ainge’s reputation, but so do the ones not made: the almost-Paul George trade, the almost-Kawhi Leonard trade, the almost-Jimmy Butler trade, the almost-Anthony Davis trade…I’m sure there were a few more almosts over the years I’m forgetting, but the list is a long one. In each situation, Ainge either got gun-shy or didn’t have the horses to pull it off.
Either way, I’m not sure how much any of that has to do with the current environment in Utah. Like the Pierce trade not made, we could read into it that Ainge drives a hard bargain and walks if the price point isn’t to his liking. We could also interpret those inactions as times Ainge simply said “I’m better off standing pat.”
Which brings us back to Donovan Mitchell, and Antoine Walker, and one more trade-not-made we haven’t mentioned.
On draft night in 2015, Ainge tried to trade six picks, including four first rounders, to Charlotte in an attempt to draft Justise Winslow. That Winslow is on his fourth team in three years is immaterial; the key takeaway is that once Ainge decided “I’m better off not standing pat,” he went for it, full bore.
Now, Trader Danny presides over an organization in a league that is very different from the one that existed when he almost traded Paul Pierce and when he successfully traded for Kevin Garnett. The conventional wisdom is that that is a good thing for Utah; teams are far more willing to offer up packages built around future picks than they ever have been. That coin has a flip side though. If Ainge keeps Mitchell, he’s not bypassing some middling return; he’s saying “no thanks” to a mega-haul of picks that will give the Jazz a major leg up other would-be tankers around the NBA (non-OKC division, of course).
I don’t have a source to cite here with certainty, but I feel quite comfortable saying that if the Jazz want all four of New York’s protected first rounders from other teams, plus two of the Knicks own picks without protections, they can have them. Everyone has agreed that Ainge would balk at this return because its Danny Ainge and he will get his pound of flesh.
And maybe he will. But this is the same Danny Ainge who knows what he wants and goes for it, like he did in shedding Antoine Walker at the first opportunity, like he did in grabbing Garnett and Pierce, and like he tried desperately to do with Winslow. Ainge knows he wants Donovan Mitchell off this team for all the reasons that have now become clear (new coach, tanking, get ahead of the formal trade demand, etc). Hell, in the now infamous Mannix clip, he talks about the trade as something that is going to happen. Any suggestion that Ainge is fine standing pat seem a little foolish.
He also knows he wants what the Knicks can give him. Lastly, he knows no one else can.
That’s why the reporting on Utah “engaging” with the Hornets and Wizards is so interesting. Sure, they both fit the bill of desperate teams on the treadmill of mediocrity, but they’re also two of the most pick-encumbered teams in the NBA. The Hornets can’t cleanly trade a first rounder until 2027 while Washington’s protections on their pick owned by the Knicks has them out of luck until 2028.
Would Charlotte put unprotected firsts in 2027 and 2029 on the table, along with a 2028 swap to go with James Bouknight and Gordon Hayward for salary filler? I wouldn’t be shocked. Would such an offer potentially force Leon Rose’s hand to include at least one of his own distant future firsts, along with all the other goodies, to get a Mitchell trade done? It just might.
But the Knicks negotiating against the Hornets is one thing. New York negotiating against the ghosts of Trader Danny’s past is another, because that door swings both ways. If anything, this most recent report goes against the notion that Utah has any intention on keeping Mitchell to start the season. This is all about getting the best offer and then making a move. Why? Because that’s what Danny Ainge wants. And how do we know that when he wants something, he doesn’t let anything stand in his way?
Because history tells us so.
Like he did nearly two decades ago, Ainge is attempting to put his stamp on a team. The moves he has already made and the big one he is attempting to make show that Donovan Mitchell is no longer in charge. Desperation may have ruled the day in past trades he’s made, but even the great Danny Ainge can only control so much. Sometimes, to get what he wants, he needs to make the best deal on the table, not the best deal imaginable.
I have a feeling we’ll find out which camp this falls in soon enough.
Fun fact: Mitchell Robinson has 1720 rebounds in 230 career games, just two more than Russell had in 70 career Finals games.
It was over a decade before another guy pulled off this feat, when Kevin Love did it for Minny in the 2013-14 season. Only three players have pulled it off more than Walker’s three such seasons: LeBron, KD and Luka, each of whom have done it four times.
As for which three superstars he’d pick, your guess is as good as mine.