Exclusive: Danny Ainge opens up on Irving deal, the risks of trading with Cavs, Smart’s extension and more

(Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports)

Danny Ainge has never been afraid of risk and he made that clear again this summer when electing to complete a blockbuster trade with his top conference rival. BostonSportsJournal.com caught up with Boston's president of basketball operations earlier this preseason in an extended interview to get a deeper glimpse into Ainge's decision-making this summer, the risks involved and what lies ahead for the Celtics this season and beyond.

BSJ: Going back to last June, could you have ever really envisioned this much change after the season you guys had last year?

Ainge: No. I mean, we were trying to build more stability and a little more continuity with what we did this summer. Hopefully, we can keep this group a little longer than (last year’s).

BSJ: Kyrie Irving had to waive a $5.8 million trade kicker to make the trade math work with you guys. That's a hefty chunk of change. How does something like waiving a trade kicker come about and what does it mean to you guys that Irving was willing to pass on that money?

Ainge: I mean, there are a lot of different ways things like that happen. Ultimately, Kyrie has to be willing to walk away from that money that he's entitled to. He wanted to come to Boston and he was willing to waive his trade kicker. It just tells you how much he wanted to get here.

BSJ: You guys have been tracking Kyrie as a player for years, going back to his Duke days. Is it tough at all to gauge what a player like Irving can become on his own when he has been playing next to a guy like LeBron James for the last few years of his development?

Ainge: We've been watching Kyrie playing for a long time. He's a great player no matter who he is playing with. He's a terrific player in his own right. LeBron is a terrific player and makes everybody's job easier, of course. He’s a good passer and is a player with greatness. Kyrie is a terrific player in his own right. He'll be a great fit with our group of guys and with our coach. I think he's a great fit for us.

BSJ: The big knock on Kyrie Irving is his defense. Coming to Boston, how much of a jump do you think he can make there and are his struggles more reflective of Cleveland's system or his own play?

Ainge: Time will tell on that. Kyrie needs to get better. He knows that. We'll see.

BSJ: When you were making the trade for Irving, you guys knew you would be in a tough spot financially next summer with new expensive contracts for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart looming. How much did it help you guys to make that decision now (to move on from Thomas) and have core pieces in place instead of kicking the can down the road?

Ainge: I think there were tough decisions this summer. We're going to have tough decisions no matter what. You can do them now or you can do them later. We had every intention of doing them or we were willing to do them later to keep the group together for a little while longer. But when opportunities came up to sign Gordon and to get Kyrie, we felt like they were good enough opportunities to do right now obviously. They were very difficult decisions and we think they are going to work out for us short term and long term.

BSJ: You've never been afraid of dealing with any team, and you've always just stated you want to do what's best for the team. However, a lot of people questioned you trading with the Cavs given the circumstances Cleveland faced this summer and the potential impact this deal could have on LeBron's long-term future in Cleveland. Did that factor in at all to your decision making with the deal and what you were willing to give up? Did it make you hesitate any more than usual?

Ainge: You know what, I think dealing with Cleveland, it's not ideal. It's not ideal to deal with your rival. They probably had some trepidation and vice versa, but ultimately it was just trying to do what was best to build our team. Cleveland is getting our best point guard and we are getting their best point guard. It'll be interesting to see how that all works. Obviously, there are a lot more factors than all of that, but I would say it was not as comfortable as dealing with a team from the other coast when you are trading other key players away. Both teams were willing to do it, so as rare as that is (to deal with a rival), it's not impossible.

BSJ: There was an incredible amount of movement around the league this summer with star names and you guys were reportedly in on a number of those players before they were traded. How frustrating was it to see those pieces move elsewhere even though you guys had very legitimate offers in play for a number of them?

Ainge: You know, every deal is unique. There are all sorts of different conversations and talks, but yeah, anytime good players become available that we think can help us become a better team, we have conversations. Sometimes they go long and other times they go short. Finding the right match with elite players is sometimes very challenging. Like I said before, I think there are often times that teams want to trade within their own division or trade within their own conference even. They would rather move guys away to a team where they can be a championship contender, but I sensed some of that has gone on over the last couple of years as we tried to make trades for big-name players. Again, that's their prerogative. Teams have their own interests. It's hard finding trade partners.

BSJ: Does that strategy as a whole make sense to you? I mean, you are playing a team two times if they are not in your conference or 3-4 times if they are in your conference. For you, would that ever be a consideration in a trade?

Ainge: Obviously, if they are tiebreakers, sure. You have to look for the best trades. I mean, I think it's a consideration for everybody when you are making deals. They know who they are dealing up to and they know where their team is, and what they are trying to build. Both Boston and Cleveland were very aware of who our trading partners were. We know Cleveland is our greatest competition in the East right now and we know we are giving them some good players, some good options. We felt like we are getting a great one.

BSJ: You have stayed patient with a lot of your stash of draft picks over the last few years. However, after seeing all the player movement this summer, was there extra incentive to make a move now since you aren't sure when a guy like Kyrie would become available again? Also how important was it to align the primes of guys like Hayward and Horford with other top talent so you can start a potential championship window as soon as possible as opposed to waiting on young guys to mature?

Ainge: I think I feel an obligation to those guys. They could have played for most any team in the NBA and they chose us. I feel a responsibility to try to help them to have an opportunity to win. The window of opportunity for Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and Aron Baynes — those guys want to win. Sometimes speeding up that process, if it's the right deal. I wouldn't do it for a guy that is going to help us be better right now that is 33. But with someone like Kyrie, he's good for us now and for quite awhile, so that's good.

BSJ: Marcus Smart looks completely different in camp with his weight loss. Was the weight issue something that just came up last year or was it an issue that you guys had been talking about with him for a couple of years now?

Ainge: No. I mean, every one of our players, we talk about their conditioning and training. Some guys struggle with it a little more than others. Marcus has all the resources to get him in as good of shape as he can be, but it's not as easy for some as it is for others. Marcus, to his credit, really paid the price this summer and got himself into terrific shape. I think it's going to pay off for him.

BSJ: Marcus is up for a rookie extension prior to opening night. It seems like in past years you guys haven't signed many rookie extensions recently, partially based on your desire to maintain cap flexibility. Since you won't have cap room this summer, does that change how you guys might broach a deal with Marcus?

Ainge: I would just say we're aware of that. I won't talk about negotiations that we have with any players or agents. We're aware of the situation.

BSJ: Terry Rozier had a big postseason last year and the window seems to be open for him for a bigger role this year. What does he have to do to build upon that?

Ainge: I really like Terry. This is a really good opportunity for Terry right now. I think he's up for it. He's biting at the bit for an opportunity to play. We'll see.

BSJ: Al Horford was telling me one reason that he felt like he played so well in the postseason last year was that he felt fresher after playing power forward for a good chunk of last season. How much will that be a consideration in how you guys elect to start games in the regular season this year?

Ainge: Of course. We take all of that into consideration. We have Aron Baynes, Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis that can play some center. I don't know how many minutes Amir Johnson played last year, about 18 or 20 per game, not all with Al on that the court. He started with him. Al won't play exclusively at the 5, but he'll play a lot of 5 like he did most of the year last year, too. He played a lot of minutes at 5.