Celtics GM Ainge reportedly refuses Jimmy Butler deal; what is he thinking?

When it comes to Danny Ainge's philosophy as Celtics president of basketball operations, a pretty clear rule has emerged: Whatever almost every other executive in the league would do, Ainge likely will do the opposite. Most recently:

  • He traded the No. 1 overall pick to Philly, netting Boston the No. 3 pick

Over the past 70 years, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft has been traded six times, and only three of those happened before the draft. So, yeah, it's safe to say not many teams would have done this. You could argue there is not another single current team boss who would have, given the scouting reports on Markelle Fultz. 

We won't know whether moving the top pick was a smart move for some time, but it definitely was a risky one. If Fultz becomes the superstar many experts foresee, well, let's just say Boston fans never will forget the day Ainge gift-wrapped him and gently placed him on the porch of a budding future rival. You can get a pass for drafting a bust, but there are no passes for giving away a star. Trading the No. 1 pick might be more palatable for Boston fans if it netted an established star, which could help a team on the verge of championship contention win right away. But instead, on Tuesday ...

This is the second time Ainge reportedly has turned his nose up at a potential Butler deal. The other was at this past season's trade deadline, when it was said he was reluctant to give up Jae Crowder. From David Aldridge in February:

"I think the Jimmy Butler stuff is real," Aldridge told NBATV's GameTime. "[The Celtics] have been trying to get Jimmy Butler. [Ainge] doesn't want to give up Jae Crowder. That's the main sticking point there and he doesn't want to give up Jae Crowder in a deal and that's the guy the Bulls are insisting on right now in any package for Butler."

All the while, Ainge has piled up draft picks. All told, Boston has seven first-rounders in its pocket over the next three years, including three potential top-five picks over the next two years -- hardly a bad thing. 

And yet, there's an elephant in the room. It is rare that a whole bunch of good, young players equals a superstar in his prime, and many would argue Butler is precisely that. There also is no one on the Celtics' roster who has shown the potential to become the two-way threat Butler is. 

If there is a player in this draft who could end up a Butler type, it's probably Fultz, which Celtics fans won't want to hear. So now they don't have Butler or Fultz when they reportedly had each in hand -- and one would have cost nothing except a slip of paper handed to Adam Silver on draft night. It's easy to imagine a growing contingent of Celtics fans saying: "Isn't the point of piling up assets to eventually cash them in?" 

  • So, what is Ainge thinking?

Whatever it is, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Rebuilding Boston's roster while keeping a conference finals team on the floor is testament to his methods. You can say it's mostly because of that 2013 robbery Ainge pulled on the Brooklyn Nets, but there aren't many team executives with the backbone to give up a franchise icon the way Ainge coughed up Paul Pierce. The Lakers didn't do it with Kobe Bryant, and they've been a bottom-tier team since. Perhaps some, or all, of the following is at work:

  1. He might like Josh Jackson at No. 3: If he can get the same player at No. 3 he would have taken No. 1, which he apparently thinks he can, why not trade back and stow an extra pick? Ainge values athletic, versatile players. Last year, he took Jaylen Brown at No. 3 overall when almost nobody ranked Brown that high. This year, Jackson fits that mold. Having a lot of like-sized perimeter athletes is gold in today's NBA, proven by the ever-versatile Golden State Warriors. So while everyone keeps waiting for Boston to flip one of these guys, Ainge is comfortable keeping them. If the right deal presents itself, all these similar players make each other expendable. Roster flexibility like that is hard to come by.

  2. He doesn't appear to think Butler is a savior: Think about it: If Ainge won't give up a single No. 3 pick for Butler, when he well could have two more top-five picks coming next year, it tells you: A) He doesn't value Butler enough to reach even a tiny bit, and B) He values Jackson (or whoever the Celts take at No. 3) like crazy. Again, there are a lot of execs who would look at both assertions and shake their head, but Ainge isn't most execs. 

  3. The Warriors, and LeBron James, have everyone thinking differently: A lot of teams are in a state of urgency, trying to play catch up. The Cavs are trying to get Paul George and Butler. The Lakers are making deals to presumably clear space for next year, when George, James and Russell Westbrook are free agents. The Clippers have been in George talks as well, and now they're reportedly shopping DeAndre Jordan. Yet the Celtics appear content to hang around in the weeds and wait for James to head west and/or the Warriors to fall off a bit. If that is what Ainge is thinking, it would be hard to blame him. Are the Celtics, even with Butler, going to beat the Cavs? Maybe. Are they going to beat the Warriors? Probably not. To get in that conversation, it likely would require getting another star. Which brings us, finally, to ...

  4. Gordon Hayward is Ainge's main target: There has been a lot of talk about Butler and George, but those guys aren't free agents and would cost Ainge, who doesn't like giving up ... well ... anything. He signed Al Horford last year, and he's reportedly interested in doing the same with Hayward this year. Signing Hayward and drafting Jackson would be progress without compromising a single asset. This must be music to Ainge's ears. And if Hayward is on board, it becomes easier to part with Jackson if the Bulls would be interested in the one-and-done Kansas stud in a deal for Butler. And that could be the move that puts Boston over the top, creating a core of Isaiah Thomas, Horford, Hayward and Butler. But without Hayward, Ainge might be thinking Butler is not enough and thus not worth surrendering that No. 3 pick. 
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