Anderson: If these are Celtics' biggest problems, Danny Ainge is even better than we thought

Ty Anderson
January 26, 2018 - 1:26 pm

Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

Entering Wednesday’s game against the Clippers, a meeting rather easily won by the Celtics, the walls were most definitely caving in on the East’s alleged best team.

To put the disaster in perspective, the Celtics were on a four-game losing skid (their first since March 2016), Kyrie Irving was nursing a knee that gets mummified when he’s taken out of games, and superhuman rookie Jayson Tatum had shown his first real signs of hitting the dreaded rookie wall with about two weeks of so-so performances.

Needless to say, the C’s were in trouble. Their playoff spot was in jeopardy, ‘Mad’ Brad Stevens was back on the hot seat for the first bus back to Butler, and Red Auerbach’s ghost was storming the locker room showers for a switch to freezing water.

(If the sarcasm here isn’t dripping off the URL and into your office or home, I must admit that I probably look and sound like a complete crazy person. Then again…)

But perhaps, these ‘dire times’ and ‘problems’ speak to just how absolutely, ridiculously perfect Celtics president Danny Ainge played the entirety of this past summer.

Begin with the obvious: Kyrie.

A player that wanted out of Cleveland so badly that he was willing to essentially over exaggerate an injury and miss an entire season, Irving has been incredible in Boston. That’s known. I think saying he’s been as advertised, with 24.5 points per game and a career-best 47.7 field goal percentage out of the gate, is almost selling him short. Of course, Irving is dealing with a knee issue that will require minor surgery at some point (it’s not considered to be season-derailing, but rather something that will help Irving’s day-to-day aches and pains go away), yeah.

But overall, is it possible to have a single complaint?

Nope. Not when you consider the lemon of a package the C’s sent to Cleveland.

It took 46 games (and 43 starts) for the Cavaliers to realize Jae Crowder is not a starter if you’re a truly elite team. He’ll begin their next game on the bench, and I’m sure he’ll do something weird on social media to make it known that he’s not happy with it.

The 2018 Nets’ pick the C’s sent to the Cavs has a mere 3.5 percent chance of finishing as the No. 1 overall pick (the eighth-best odds among those currently in the lottery). That means it’s no longer the pick to help the Cavaliers land Anthony Davis, and it might not be enough of a headlining future to pull off a trade for the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

Ante Zizic, a player we were fooled into thinking was going to be a big time player this year, has played just 40:50 total minutes this season. You could double his time on the court this season and you’d still have like another five or six songs to get through on the new Migos album.

Then there’s Isaiah Thomas.

After what was a three-month wait for his debut, Thomas has come across as a borderline malcontent, allegedly ripped into teammates (teammates that have won in Cleveland), and just doesn’t seem like a great fit given his status as a guard that likes the ball in his hands as a shooter versus a facilitator. (You know this is by all means factual when Brian Windhorst, ESPN’s All Things LeBron James Insider, says it on TV.)

I mean, it’s been borderline heartbreaking to watch Thomas try to bring his game back to what it was. And without the prolific offensive game there -- Thomas has converted on just 28 percent of his three-point attempts this season, ‘good’ for a near 10-percent drop from his MVP-caliber mark set with the Celtics one good hip ago -- it’s tough to justify his minutes given his undeniable ineptitude on the defensive end of the floor.

It’s hit the point where trading Thomas before the deadline seems likely if you’re the Cavs, especially with a continued scouring of the market in search of guard help (George Hill and Kemba Walker are two names rumored to be of interest). And with each passing day, and with each story of further Cleveland unrest and team meetings, it seems like Ainge bailed on I.T. at the perfect time. As cold-blooded as it appeared to be.

And an ice-wrapped and hypothetically minute-restricted Irving is still better than all four pieces of the trade package. (Sorry, five, actually, as I forgot to include the 2056 second-round pick Ainge sent to the Cavaliers to make shut up about Thomas’ hip.)

Ainge does have a legitimate concern on his hands when it comes to Tatum, though.

Forty-six games into his NBA career, Tatum has already played 600 more minutes than he did during his one-and-done season at Duke, with 1,500-plus minutes logged this season.

That is probably more than the Celtics expected out of the gate, especially if we use Stevens’ usage of Jaylen Brown in his first NBA season as a basis for minute goals.

It’s worth noting that Gordon Hayward’s opening night injury obviously put Tatum’s development into hyperdrive (it’s admittedly hard to imagine the 19-year-old averaging 31 minutes a game with a healthy Hayward on the court), and that that has likely accelerated the arrival of the wall that’s blocked Tatum harder than an L.A. bouncer. (Oh, and the Celtics definitely sound like a team getting Hayward, the man they paid over $100 million for this past summer, back in game action before the end of the season.)

If Tatum is what he appears to be, which is the clear-cut top talent of the 2017 draft class, though, he’ll find ways to work through slumps like he did Wednesday, with a 7-of-16 night for 18 points, along with six rebounds in over 33 minutes of play.

But even if Wednesday’s rebound effort against the Clippers was a ‘last gasp’ of sorts, a wall-leveled Tatum is better than the alternative. This after we’ve all come to find out that watching once-obvious No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz ‘shoot’ a basketball is enough to put you in a coma or include Rick Ankiel The Pitcher on your Hall of Fame ballot.

Consider the alternatives of a 'safe' offseason -- headlined by the hypotheticals of building around Isaiah and his wonky hip, drafting Fultz, and doing your best to simply wait out the Cavs' stranglehold on the East -- and it's enough to make your ‘problems’ look and feel like Parquet Paradise.

Where Ainge has apparently set up a residency as the league’s most cunning exec.

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