This year's Celtics team may not be the beginning of a dynasty, but it did have the greatest turnaround in NBA history.
Nobody would have believed that when a woeful 24-58 2006-07 club had the misfortune of missing out on franchise players Greg Oden and Kevin Durant in the draft.
When the pingpong balls didn't go Boston's way, and Celtics Nation wept, Danny Ainge went to work.
While Boston's executive director of basketball operations didn't have the wins, playoff appearances or luck before this season, he had young players who could play.
Al Jefferson was pegged as a future All-Star with his uncanny scoring touch around the basket.
The Celtics could have built around Big Al, the No. 5 pick in the draft and Boston's emerging young talent, but Ainge couldn't wait any longer.
He aggressively went digging for a franchise player. Allen Iverson was a target the year before, but the price was too steep — Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen and a first-round pick.
This time he went to his good friend and former teammate Kevin McHale, vice president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, for the biggest available prize in the NBA.
Ainge called Paul Pierce with the news.
"I didn't believe it when he first told me," said Pierce. "I didn't want to get too excited because I got excited about Iverson maybe coming here. I basically didn't want to hear it, until it was done."
Ainge said he started talking to McHale two years ago. But last summer it became a possibility after the T-Wolves missed the playoffs.
The Timberwolves were frustrated with Garnett (and his $20-plus million a year contract) and vice versa.
Ainge, pulling a page from the great Red Auerbach, was given permission to fly across the country and meet alone with Garnett over lunch.
"I just tried to convince Kevin we were committed to winning a championship, which is all he wanted," said Ainge. "He liked Paul a lot. But he didn't think it was enough."
The Big Two wasn't enough. Ainge needed another wheel to make The Big Three.
On draft day last summer, he dealt the fifth overall pick, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak to Seattle for Ray Allen and a second-round pick, which the Celtics used to select Glen Davis.
"Ray Allen made us a better team with or without Kevin Garnett," said Ainge. "You add Ray with Paul and Al (Jefferson), and that's a very good nucleus. But we also knew that we needed to do something like this if we were going to convince Kevin Garnett to come here."
It wasn't long after the Ray Allen trade that Garnett, a supremely talented 6-11 forward, was on board. A three-year extension through the 2011-12 season was negotiated and the Celtics had done the unthinkable — they became a championship contender again.
Wasn't that a colossal risk?
"I look at it as a calculated risk," said Ainge. "Sometimes you have to take chances. Red was like that. He wasn't afraid. We took some chances (in 2006) by trading a future draft pick to get (talented point guard Rajon) Rondo."
Nobody could have predicted what has happened this season with the Celtics, going from worst in the Eastern Conference to first in the entire league at 66-16. It was an NBA record 42-game improvement.
While Boston narrowly avoided a stunning first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks, few could argue with Ainge's performance.
"I've been around a lot of (management) people in the NBA, and Danny is one of the most talented I've ever met," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "There have been a few times, especially with players, that he and I didn't see eye-to-eye.
"But he's right most of the time. There are things he sees in players that other people don't. That's a talent."
Four long years
Ainge's fifth anniversary as the director of basketball operations is tomorrow.
For most of that time, any comparison to someone named "Red" would be Red Skelton, the late vaudeville clown.
A Web site, www.firedannyaingenow.com, was born as the Celtics struggled mightily.
While the Web site still remains — the person running the site says Ainge deserves little if any credit for this season — the guess is it's not worth the effort.
"It wasn't so much the collection of talent than it was how young it was," said Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn, the color analyst for Celtics games. "There were some good players that Danny drafted. They just had no idea how to win."
Ainge was, despite the criticism, very patient. Almost too patient.
"I told him a lot of times that it was wearing on me," said Rivers, the fourth-year Boston coach. "It sometimes felt like I was coaching high school and college kids rather than pros. There were a lot of frustrating days and nights. But Danny was always there, telling me to hang in there. He saw the future a lot better than I did, I guess.
"There were times when I didn't think I could take it any more. It was very frustrating. I'm a coach. I want to win. But Danny was always there for me. He would calm me down and always tell me there was light at the end of the tunnel."
Heinsohn said the fact that Ainge watches his coach's back means a lot.
"I trusted Red when I was coaching because we talked a lot," said Heinsohn. "We would talk about players and situations. He let me coach the team. He supported me all of the time. I see that in Danny, too. Players see that."
Ainge: I'm no Red
Ainge does not accept any comparisons to the man most responsible for Boston's 16 world championships — "Red's record is unparalleled," Ainge has said. But his job in turning the Celtics from a big-time loser to a championship favorite, almost overnight, is very familiar around here.
"First of all, this wasn't overnight," Ainge said. "We've gone through some hard times trying to find players, most of them real young, and developing them. That's a lot of hard work by a lot of people. The trades may have seemed like they were overnight, but even they took time."
The first piece of the championship puzzle was already here. Paul Pierce was a superstar before Ainge got here. Maybe he was a little misguided, but it wasn't his fault. Pierce averaged 25.8 points per game the three seasons before Ainge was hired. There simply was nobody else to count on.
But how complete has the overhaul been? Pierce is the only player who has been here for Ainge's entire tenure.
We've seen this before
We have witnessed this "once in a lifetime" transformation before.
It was the summer of 1978, and the Boston Celtics were a mess.
Not only were they coming off their worst season in 28 years, 32-50, only two seasons removed from a world championship, but their new owner, John Y. Brown, was both meddlesome and clueless (see the Bob McAdoo trade).
Worst of all, a bitter Auerbach, who hadn't even been consulted on the deal, was considering a jump to the New York Knicks. Mind you, the Knicks were much like the Yankees around here back then. Despised.
Of course, Red thought better of the move four hours down Route 95 thanks to, legend has it, a last-minute plea from a Boston cabbie. He decided to give it one last shot, to try and build one more dynasty.
Well, the Celtics had an even worse season a year later, winning only 29 games, but the back-room rebuilding had begun.
Red exposed a loophole in the NBA draft - that a player who expressed interest in entering the draft early could return to college even after being selected.
Red drafted Larry Bird with the sixth overall pick despite knowing Bird was going to return to finish his college eligibility at Indiana State.
NBA people thought he was crazy, all but forfeiting the 1978-79 season.
A year later, Red did it again. This time it was trading the first pick of the 1980 draft, which ended up being prized 7-foot-1 center Joe Barry Carroll from Purdue, to the Golden State Warriors for the third pick (the C's took Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish.
Barry was a bust, Parish and McHale were Hall of Famers. Another Celtics dynasty was born.
Lacked Red's good fortune
According to Tommy Heinsohn, Red had a philosophy when it came to building a team.
He wanted a big, big guy. That was first and foremost. Then he wanted guys with a proven track record of success and winning. And he would go anywhere to find it.
"Red figured there were two ways to build a winning team," said Heinsohn, the fiery former coach who guided the Celtics to the 1974 and 1976 NBA titles. "Find a quintessential big guy. That's easier said than done, though. They come out about once a decade. That's what went into getting Bill Russell. He identified Russell as the cornerstone guy in the middle. Plus he won everywhere he played.
"If you can't get that guy, they you have to go back to the talent pool. And you have find guys that are maybe a few inches shorter. Dave Cowens, for example, was one of the guys. When you start looking at guys that are a little shorter, the player pool grows. Nobody was better at that than Red."
Well, Ainge understands the predicament. Only the pool - because there are now 30 teams (22 more than 50 years ago!) - is like a puddle. As the Celtics found out the hard way twice, last summer and in 1998, when the pingpong balls bounced the wrong way, getting the dream player requires a lot of luck.
"What Arnold did was amazing both as a general manager and coach," said Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy. "But we have to remember he was going up against seven other GMs when he got Bill Russell (in 1956). It's a lot easier to outmaneuver seven guys. Danny has 29 other organizations. It's not easy. It's a crap-shoot."
Red, though, did adjust. By the time he drafted Bird and then traded for McHale and Parish, there were 22 franchises.
Blew up Eastern finalists
Ainge arrived a year after the Celtics' unexpected run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002, when they lost 4-2 to Jason Kidd and New Jersey Nets.
Ainge was awkwardly hired during the 2003 playoffs, distracting attention away from the team. The next year Boston took a giant step backward, getting swept by the Nets in the East semifinals.
"We had a pretty good team, but it wasn't a team built for the future," said Ainge, a youthful 49-year-old grandfather.
That meant changes, including the decision to deal Antoine Walker in the fall of 2003. That was a controversial move because Walker, then a 27-year-old, three-time All-Star, was regarded by many as a star and leader.
Ainge also didn't see eye-to-eye with head coach Jim O'Brien, who had been brought in by former head coach Rick Pitino.
"That was a tough time because Danny and Jim weren't on the same page," said Heinsohn. "Danny wanted a more up-tempo game. He also was looking more toward the future. You can't have a general manager and coach on a different page. And they were."
In December, Ainge dealt Eric Williams and Tony Battie for problem child Ricky Davis and Chris Mihm, much to the chagrin of O'Brien. In January, O'Brien resigned.
Draft whiz got off to slow start
In a prearranged deal, Ainge, in his first draft, traded for Marcus Banks of UNLV and Texas high schooler Kendrick Perkins.
Banks was an unmitigated disaster. Despite dozens of heart-to-heart meetings and endless opportunities to be the Celtics' point guard of the future, he was gone in just over two seasons, averaging a disappointing 5.3 points and 2.1 assists. Today he's a backup on the lowly Miami Heat.
Perkins, at 19, was under no pressure to perform. The pudgy center became a project/practice squad player for nearly two seasons.
In the 2004 draft, the Celtics landed Mississippi high-schooler Al Jefferson at No. 15, St. Joseph's guard Delonte West at No. 24 and Oklahoma State swingman Tony Allen at No. 25.
"I remember working Jefferson out," said Rivers. "I told Danny I didn't see it. Danny told me I had to trust him on this one. I disagreed, but he's the boss."
Jefferson, we would later find out, was Ainge's ace in the hole. At 20, the precocious rookie was schooling veteran defensive standout Dale Davis in the playoffs.
"The fact that we got three players in that draft, one who could be great, and two other guys who could be good players in the league is a testament to Danny," said Heinsohn. "Danny gets credit for Jefferson. Al gave them a player who might be an All-Star. And that's not easy to do with the 15th pick."
In 2005, the Celtics brought in their third high-schooler, selecting Houston native Gerald Green with the 18th pick. In the second round it was Providence College's all-time scoring leader Ryan Gomes.
Both were questionable picks. Green was 19, which meant another "kid" to the collection, and Gomes was the undersized local kid who many projected would not make the team.
The 2006 draft was the one most experts called Ainge's biggest blunder. He traded the sixth overall pick, eventual Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy, to Portland for its struggling young point guard Sebastian Telfair.
Later in the first round, at No. 21, Ainge traded the team's future first-round pick they had acquired from Cleveland — for Jiri Welsch — for the rights to take Rajon Rondo, a smallish point guard with a questionable outside shot coming off a mediocre season.
It hardly seemed the makings of a championship team. But patience and a shrewd deal by a bold executive has made the unthinkable happen.
Red would be proud.