As the NBA finds itself riding along an undisguised path toward analytically driven decision-making, Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge stands among the few general managers smart enough to have his cake and eat it too.
He's the jock—a two-sport star who could've easily ended up a professional baseball player had it not been for Red Aurebach's stubborn desire to get him on the Celtics. But in the increasingly narrow battle between going with your gut and letting numbers tell you a story, Ainge represents the best of both worlds.
He understands the game's physical rigors, and takes the very real human element of chemistry and personality into account when making personnel decisions. He balances that by acknowledging statistically strong members of his front office (including assistant general manager Mike Zarren, an analytically sound voice in all of Boston's important conversations).
Overall, Ainge's track record speaks for itself. Out of the 30 current general managers working throughout the league, one more than half have never constructed a division winning team. Ainge has done it six times, tying him with San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford for second (Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has seven). Only six active general mangers have won a title: Kupchak, Buford, Joe Dumars, Donnie Nelson, Pat Riley and Ainge.
In his nine seasons with the Celtics, the team has made the playoffs seven times. He drafted Rajon Rondo—eventually developing him into an all-time great point guard—and signed him long-term to one of league's most team friendly contracts. He also drafted Al Jefferson, who was the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade in July 2007 that brought Kevin Garnett to Boston and changed the organization's entire culture.
But like all general managers who've held their position for nearly a decade, Ainge has made many mistakes. For starters, he lacked foresight after the Celtics won their championship in 2008, letting James Posey go for fear of the Big Three Era lasting only two or three more years (Posey admittedly didn't have much of a career after he left Boston, but Ainge's reluctance to offer a four-year deal had somewhat of a negative domino effect on the team).
In the draft he's done the best with what he could, taking Avery Bradley in 2011 to replace Tony Allen, and grabbing the productive Glen Davis in the second round back in 2007. This might be revisionist, and it's silly to criticize a draft pick so many years after the fact, but Ainge's decision to draft J.R. Giddens in 2008 as a replacement for Posey, while Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan and Omer Asik still hung on the board, was obviously unwise.
The most polarizing transaction of his tenure was the well-analyzed Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green bomb that was dropped on the league minutes before the 2011 trade deadline.
Every person has a different opinion on whether this trade was "good" or "bad" for the Celtics, but my view stands that Boston benefited by making the deal.
It's complicated, obviously, and the Celtics have yet to replace Perkins' tenacity in their frontcourt, but Green is the better player—a much less debatable point than whether the trade was wise—and even though his contract is much debated around the league as being one of the least team-friendly, Green's value within the Celtics organization is high and he regularly plays above average basketball on both ends of the court.
Meanwhile the Thunder find themselves on the cusp of amnestying Perkins, a player who's structurally useless in a Finals matchup against the Miami Heat.
It needs to be said that Ainge didn't purposefully back himself into a corner by holding onto Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He's been aggressive in communication with front offices throughout the league, had an asking price and didn't settle when it wasn't met. That's good.
Is he getting a free pass from Celtics fans? That probably isn't fair. Ainge is one of the five best general managers in basketball, and it's difficult to say any in front of him or behind could have done a better job steering the Celtics through some seriously choppy waters over the past few years.
Getting to the top is so much easier than staying there. And Danny Ainge is as qualified a basketball mind as any to lead the Celtics to an 18th title.