Danny Ainge is living 2,400 miles away from Boston now, but he’s still keeping close tabs on his former squad.
Back in town Wednesday night to introduce Kevin McHale as his former Celtics teammate was toasted at The Tradition at TD Garden, Ainge caught up with NBC Sports Boston to detail his desire for more NBA front-office work, offer thoughts on Brad Stevens’ early days in Ainge’s former post, and explain why he’s not panicked about Boston’s up-and-down ways to start the 2021-22 season.
Why do you think this team is still struggling to put together 48 consistent minutes again this season?
Danny Ainge: “Well, last year, I think we lost more players to injury and COVID than any other team. And I think that’s part of it. This year is the same way. I think one of the most frustrating things about the team has just been — last year and this year — just every day you’re looking at the injury report to see who’s playing. It’s just been one guy after another. And when you missing two or three key players each night, it takes a toll.”
How do you think Brad Stevens has performed in the infancy of taking over as president of basketball operations?
DA: “I think Brad’s done a great job. I think that getting Dennis Schroder in here this summer was huge. And Josh Richardson is really playing well for the team right now, especially lately after a little bit of a slow start, but he’s playing really well.
“I think that the team — we have seen what Aaron Nesmith and Payton [Pritchard] could do, they showed us what they could do last year. But there’s just so much depth on the team, especially in those wing and outside-shooter positions, that it’s tough.
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It’s a tough place to coach because, when everybody is healthy — but the team is at its strongest when their top guys are all healthy and when Robert Williams and Al Horford and Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum] and Marcus [Smart], Schroder, all those guys. When everybody is healthy, the team is good.”
What have you thought of Jaylen and Jayson so far this season?
DA: “I thought Jaylen started out great, started the season amazing, the best player on the team early in the year. And then the injury happened and he hasn’t been the same since. Jayson has had his ups and downs but we know what a great player he is. And I’m not worried.
“People say, ‘Oh, Jayson’s struggling,’ but that’s the least of every worry, at least in my mind, about the Boston Celtics. He is going to figure it out. And the question is can the rest of the guys step up and play their roles and take some of the burden off of him?”
How weird has it been to be on the outside after 18 years as GM? And are you enjoying the downtime?
DA: “It’s not weird. Like I said, I still have contacts within the organization. And that’s helped, instead of just cold turkey, leave the team. But I watch a lot of NBA games, I still follow the college game. And I love basketball.
“I’m living in Utah right now and it’s a lot nicer because the games start two hours earlier. So I’m not up so late watching games, and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been spending time with my family and my grandkids and spending more time playing golf and enjoying my friendships, traveling a little bit more. It’s been very relaxing.”
I don’t know what your future holds but how does it feel when people mention your name for other front-office opportunities?
DA: “I’m not closing the book on other opportunities but they’d have to be the right situation. I’d have to be working with the right people, in the right role. I don’t want to get back into 18-hour days. I don’t think that’s in anybody’s best interest, for that matter.
“I know how much work it takes to be good at the job. And, at the same time, I have 40 years of experience in the NBA. And I think I have a lot to offer some team that might see me as a helper to people in the organization. But, yeah, just depending on what the role is.”
What has it been like to see some of your draftees start to blossom like Rob and even Marcus?
DA: “Well, I mean, all of them are my draftees.”
True. [Editor’s note: 8 of Boston’s 11 primary rotation players were drafted by Ainge — Brown, Tatum, Smart, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard].
DA: “I feel like — I like them all. It’s fun watching them play and watching them grow. But getting the right players together is important.
“Like I said, Jaylen starts out great; Jayson, we know how great he is. And so those guys go without saying. But Marcus is playing great. Marcus has been a stable force for us and all of our playoff runs for the last six or seven years and it’s hard not to like Marcus what he brings to the table.
With a new coach this year, [Ime Udoka is] trying to figure out who everybody is, and with all the injuries, it’s tough to really establish a rotation. So it’s been tough. … But I’m encouraged by what the team can be.
“It’s just like every team goes through this but putting players within the right roles, so they can have the best chance of success and the team can have success, is always the challenge. With a new coach this year, [Ime Udoka is] trying to figure out who everybody is, and with all the injuries, it’s tough to really establish a rotation. So it’s been tough. It hasn’t been easy. But, like I said, I’m encouraged by what the team can be.
But it has been a roller coaster, especially after the lackluster effort against the Lakers. What’s your pitch on why Celtic fans should remain positive?
DA: “Well, let’s get healthy first. That’s the first pitch, we really need to get healthy. But I know you can’t always wait to get everybody healthy. You got to play the game tonight.
“I think it’s a good compliment to the team: I watch games every night and I thought [Tuesday] was the best game the Lakers have played, by far, this year. They really played with a passion and you could tell that they did not want to lose to the Celtics again and their defense was intense. They got out and pressured the ball and when Jayson started off the way he did, they weren’t gonna let him continue to do that. And I thought the Laker defense and the Laker performance was their best one of the year.
“So that’s a compliment, you’re gonna run into some of those games. But I didn’t think we played our best game. I didn’t think, defensively or offensively, it was one of our best games.”
What do you miss most about this area?
DA: “Well, I miss my three grandkids that are here. That’s what I miss the most. But I miss being around the guys. I call everybody, periodically, but I miss being around the staff that we assembled here over the 18 years. I miss just talking basketball and talking shop with everybody.”
You can watch the full interview in the YouTube video below: