With Danny Ainge in charge, the Utah Jazz have begun a drastic rebuilding process. Ainge, who joined the front office a year ago, has traded away five of the team’s best players — Bojan Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, and, early this year, Joe Ingles — in exchange for a few veteran players and a remarkable collection of draft picks — 11 first-rounders (including three swaps) spread out over seven years.
It’s a bold plan and one that stakes the Jazz’s future on one thing: Ainge. The Jazz have bet the house on the draft, and that means they have bet on Ainge and his ability to evaluate talent and craft deals.
The swap of players for draft picks is actually sensible if you don’t mind offering fans a few poor seasons. It is really the only way to build a team in the smaller Utah market. The Jazz are not going to attract superstar players through free agency; they must get them through the draft (and then win ASAP before their rookie contracts expire). The Jazz are not a destination team, as we were reminded by Gordon Hayward’s exit after the Jazz had invested years in his development (Ainge was on the other end of that one, taking him from the Jazz to the Celtics).
This is not the first time Ainge has razed a roster and begun a major rebuild. In May 2003, the Celtics hired Ainge as director of basketball operations. Five months later he traded All-Star Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to the Mavericks for three players and a first-round draft pick. A month after that, Ainge traded Tony Battie, Kedrick Brown and Eric Williams to the Cavaliers for three players and a second-round draft pick. He also arranged a complicated three-team trade that landed him another first-round pick.
The Celtics finished three of the next four seasons with a losing record. The nadir was Ainge’s fourth year — in 2006-07 the Celtics finished with a 24-58 record, the second worst in Celtics history — and Paul Pierce, the team’s star player, demanded a trade if they couldn’t field a more competitive team.
Ainge responded by completing two blockbuster trades for superstars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — two future Hall of Famers — to form the so-called Big Three (with Pierce). The very next season the Celtics produced the NBA’s best record, 66-16 — a league-record 42-game improvement in one year — and won the NBA championship.
Over the years Ainge continued to live up to his growing reputation as a fearless trader. In 2013, he traded away the aging Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets for five players and three first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, plus the right to swap picks in 2015 and 2017. The swaps proved to be golden — the Nets finished with the NBA’s worst record in 2016-17, giving the Celtics the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017.
And then the deal got even better. Ainge gambled and traded the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia in exchange for the No. 3 overall pick and a future first-round draft pick. Ainge knew that the 76ers, like most everyone else in the league, were enamored with guards Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Ainge had his eye on another player, and he knew he could get him with the third pick, plus another first-round pick in the future. It was a gamble — it was only the second time in 25 years a team had dared trade away the top pick — and he knew the pressure was on.
“This is certainly a trade that is under the microscope more than others, but we’re not afraid of that,” said Ainge.
The 76ers were giddy with the deal. “History suggests that No. 1 has the greatest odds of producing franchise-level talent and we are confident that this year’s draft class has that very potential,” said 76ers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo. “(Draft night) will see us take another significant step toward building a successful and sustainable basketball program.”
Not quite. It turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades ever. The Sixers chose Fultz with the first pick. An injury limited him to 14 games as a rookie, and he lasted just two seasons with the Sixers before they traded him. Fultz has played in just 26 games the last two seasons. After five years in the league he has a scoring average of 10.9.
And whom did Ainge draft? Jayson Tatum, a three-time All-Star, an all-NBA first-team pick in 2022 and an All-NBA third-team pick in 2020. He has averaged 26 points per game in consecutive seasons.
The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals last season; the Sixers continue to be frustrated in postseason play, unable to get past the second round.
This is why some say that no general manager should answer the phone if he sees Ainge’s name on caller ID.
In the summer of 2017, Ainge arranged another blockbuster deal. He traded All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas plus two other veterans and one of those first-round picks he had collected from the Nets in 2013, to the Cavaliers for All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. It was another shrewd move. Thomas was demanding a max deal north of $200 million, but Ainge didn’t want to jeopardize the team’s salary cap or his ability to trade Thomas if he needed to in the future. As Forbes magazine put it, “The Celtics solved their Isaiah Thomas problem in the best way possible: They traded for a younger, bigger and better player in Kyrie Irving to replace Thomas.”
Not all of Ainge’s deals have panned out. The Thomas-for-Irving trade produced mixed results. Because of a previous hip injury to Thomas, the Celtics had to add a second-round draft choice to the deal a week after the trade was made, and Thomas played only 15 games that year. He has never been the same player and has been in and out of the league. So maybe Ainge avoided trouble there, but he got trouble from the irascible, grumpy Irving, too.
Irving missed the last 13 games of his first season in Boston, plus 19 playoff games, with an injury. He lasted only two seasons in Boston. After earning All-NBA second-team honors the following season, he signed with New Jersey. He had a poisonous relationship with Boston fans.
Some of Ainge’s moves in his last years with the Celtics have been criticized and he became the scapegoat in some quarters for the team’s 2020-21 season. But the Celtics did advance to the NBA Finals a year later, and Ainge’s role in it has been debated (he drafted four of the team’s starters in the Finals and recommended the hiring of head coach Brad Stevens).
Now Ainge has put himself on the hot seat again with his sudden housecleaning of the Jazz. As previously stated, he must draft wisely, and, as the 76ers learned in 2017, the draft can be a crapshoot.
How will Ainge fare with all those draft picks? Let’s check his history. The following is a list of Ainge’s first-round draft picks from 2003 to 2020 (with the number in parentheses noting where the player was chosen in the first round and the year). In cases where draft choices were immediately traded for another team’s draft pick(s), only the latter are counted toward Ainge’s record since that is the end result of his draft strategy (noted with # and the draft choice the other team used to select the player).
Kendrick Perkins (27, 2003) — 14-year career, eight with Boston. Career: 565 starts, 5.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, one NBA title. A very good pick that deep into the draft.
Al Jefferson (15, 2004) — 14-year career, three with Boston, one NBA title. Career: 15.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2014 All-NBA third team.
Tony Allen (25, 2004) — 14-year career, six with Boston, six-time NBA all-defensive team, one NBA title. Career: 8.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.4 steals. Another very good late-round pick.
Rajon Rondo (21#, 2006) — 17-year career, nine with Boston, four-time All-Star, two NBA titles, three-time season assists leader, four-time NBA all-defensive team, 2012 all-NBA third team. Career stats: 9.8 ppg, 7.9 apg.
Avery Bradley (19, 2010) — 15-year career, seven with Boston, two-time all-NBA defensive team. During one five-year stretch, he averaged 14-16 points per season. A great outcome for a No. 19 pick. Career: 11 ppg.
Marcus Smart (6, 2014) — Heading into ninth season with Boston. 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Three-time NBA all-defensive team. Career: 10.5 ppg, 4.5 apg.
Terry Rozier (16, 2015) — Started only 30 games in four years with Boston — none in his first two years — and didn’t really take off until he was traded to the Hornets in 2019. Averaged 18, 19 and 20 points, respectively, the last three seasons, plus more than four assists. Career: 12.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.2 apg.
Jaylen Brown (3, 2016) — 2021 NBA All-Star. Career: 16.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2 apg.
Jayson Tatum (3, 2017) — Three-time All-Star, 2022 All-NBA first team, 2020 All-NBA third team, Eastern Conference Finals MVP. Career: 21 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3 apg.
Robert Williams (27, 2018) — Heading into fifth season with Boston. Made 2022 NBA all-defensive team. Became full-time starter in 2022, averaging 10 points and 9.6 rebounds. Yet another excellent late-round find. Career: 7.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg.
Delonte West (24, 2004) — Eight-year career, three with Boston. A talented but troubled player whose behavior probably shortened his stay in the NBA. Still another good late-round pick. Career: 9.7 ppg, 3.6 apg.
Gerald Green (18, 2005) — Played 12 years, but only two with Boston, and averaged 10.4 points in his second season. He was out of the league for three years playing overseas and in the D League before resuming his career in the NBA. He has played for nine teams (including a one-year return to the Celtics). Anyone who plays 658 games can’t be considered a failed pick, but he didn’t help Boston much. Career: 9.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg.
Kelly Olynyk (13, 2013) — Averaged 20 minutes and 8-10 points each of his four seasons in Boston. Spent the last six seasons with three teams. This offseason he was traded to the Jazz, reuniting him with Ainge. Career: 10 ppg.
Grant Williams (22, 2019) — Good bench player in three seasons with Boston. Career: 19.4 min, 5.4 ppg, 3 rpg.
Payton Pritchard (26, 2020) — Another solid late-round pick, so far. Heading into third season with the Celtics. Career: 16.6 min, 6.9 ppg.
Marcus Banks (13, 2003) — Eight seasons in the NBA, three with Boston. Played only 47 games in the last four years in the league. More is expected from the 13th pick. Career: 5.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 2.1 apg.
J.R. Giddens (30, 2008) — Played in 38 games in two NBA seasons, then overseas and the D League. Career: 1.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg.
JaJuan Johnson (27#, 2011) — Played in 36 games. Career: 3.2 ppg.
Jared Sullinger (21, 2012) — Played four of his five NBA seasons in Boston. Signed with Toronto, traded to Phoenix and waived. Plays overseas. Career: 10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg.
Fab Melo (22, 2012) — NBA career consisted of six games.
James Young (17, 2014) — NBA career consisted of a little more than three seasons and 95 game appearances. Career: 8 min., 2.3 ppg.
R.J. Hunter (28, 2015) — NBA career totaled 45 games in four seasons. Career: 3 ppg.
Guerschon Yabusele (16, 2016) — Signed with a Chinese team after playing in the NBA Summer League in 2016. Spent two years with the Celtics and has played overseas in the three years since then.
Romeo Langford (14, 2019) — Has made 98 game appearances in four NBA seasons. Traded to Spurs last season. Career: 14.5 min, 3.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg.
Aaron Nesmith (14, 2020) — Played two seasons for Boston. Traded to Pacers this summer. Career: 12.7 min., 4.2 ppg., 2.2 rpg.
That adds up to 11 hits, 10 misses and five “solid” first-round picks for Ainge. The Jazz have bet everything that he can find a few Marcus Smarts and Jayson Tatums for his new team.