If the Boston Celtics can’t turn things around in the second half of the season, Celtics decision-maker Danny Ainge could soon find himself in a less powerful role — if at all — within the organization, according to Bill Simmons and veteran NBA reporter Jackie MacMullan.
Boston’s season thus far has been a disappointment. Following a trip to the Eastern Conference finals last year and an 8-3 start to this campaign, the Celts have dropped 14 of their last 23 and at one point dipped below .500 for the first time since 2015.
Meanwhile, Ainge, the former Celtic guard and Boston’s president of basketball operations since 2003, has come under fire for constructing a roster short on depth and for not yet doing a difference-making deal, despite owning the largest-ever $28.5 million traded player exception from Gordon Hayward’s offseason trade to Charlotte.
“They’re at this pivotal point and if this trade exception goes away, they’re really not gonna be able to replace it,” said Simmons, a multi-faceted NBA columnist for ESPN from 2001 to 1015. “They’re deep into salaries, there’s gonna be no real way to improve this team unless they do it right around now. And if it doesn’t go the way we think it’s gonna go, I do wonder if maybe Danny graduates and becomes maybe a senior advisor. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t feel like things will be the same a year from now.”
MacMullen, in turn, suggested that Ainge could be close to stepping down altogether, and that he might try to bequeath the role to his son Austin Ainge, Boston’s current director of player personnel.
“If in fact there was a change and Danny, let’s say, did decide to step down — which he might be close to doing anyway. What is he, 60-something? [Ainge is 61] I can’t imagine that his son then gets to succeed him if things continue to go the way they have, fair or unfair,” said MacMullan. “I don’t think it’s as simple as Austin stepping in. I would think if you’re ownership, you have to say hey — we need a new fresh look at things, we’re gonna mix this up.”
Personnel a Problem
Simmons and MacMullan, who was a columnist at the Boston Globe for multiple decades, discussed what they see as some of the issues with how Boston’s roster currently stands. In effect, they were critical of Ainge’s personnel moves up to this point. Defensively, Simmons observed that this squad seems to lack the stopping power of previous years, particularly ones helmed by head coach Brad Stevens.
“The defensive identity of this team has been in disarray pretty much the whole season,” Simmons said. “They have trouble getting stops when they need stops. They’ll be up 12, then all of a sudden they’ll be up two. It’s a team that just can’t really play good five-minute defensive stretches. And when they do play good defense, [announcers] (Mike) Gorman and (Brian Scalabrine) will get excited cause they know that ‘Oh my God, look at this, we’re playing some defense!’ I just don’t feel like they have that switch on D like some of the other Stevens teams. That’s personnel more than him.”
In the fourth quarter, Boston ranks 26th in defensive rating, 27th in defensive rebounds (i.e. lots of offensive boards for the opponent) and 24th in 2nd-chance points.
“They’re all too small,” declared MacMullan about the Celtics, who have the shortest roster in the league. “There are many reasons they miss Gordon Hayward, but one of the biggest ones is, he was a big wing defender that could guard bigger guys. And offensively, he could handle the ball. Name another backcourt player on the Celtics who can generate his own shot or can handle the ball. Marcus Smart is out. Who else? That’s not what (Payton) Pritchard does.”
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Short on Height and Veterans
The back and forth continued with Simmons speculating that Stevens would prefer a different kind of offensive makeup.
“This isn’t a Stevens team offensively,” said Simmons. “The team that he wants to coach is the 2014 Spurs. He wants multiple offensive players who can play off the ball, who can have the ball, who get rid of the ball. I don’t think he wants to coach a team where with seven seconds left you dump it to somebody and they try to make a play. (Jaylen) Brown and (Jayson) Tatum — who I love and who are untouchable are to me — the thing they’re not good at yet is making other players better, they just don’t know how to do it.”
“They don’t make each other better either and that’s the most frustrating part,” volleyed back MacMullan, who declared several times during the show how exceptional she believes Tatum and Brown are as players. “And they get along fine together, there’s no rift between them. But they don’t really make each other better yet.”
In addition to being the shortest, the Celtics have the fifth-youngest team. And the veterans they did acquire, says MacMullan, aren’t much help.
“They need veterans that have been there, so they went out and got Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague,” said MacMullan. “And I’m like ‘Ok, I didn’t mean two guys who have been there and who aren’t going back there again.’ Those two guys haven’t panned out. Thompson has had some moments. So when I see them blow off the mere mention of JJ Redick, I don’t really understand that. Now I know that defense is a problem and I know that JJ Redick isn’t this great defensive player, but you don’t think JJ could help that team? I disagree. He’s got guts. He’s got a nasty edge to him and he moves.”
And without naming names, MacMullan asserted that some guys shouldn’t even be on the team.
“Danny, that roster…you know there’s four guys on that roster who shouldn’t even be in the NBA. So that’s a problem,” MacMullan said.