Ranking the Ainge trades: Game-changers featuring the Jayson Tatum heist (No. 10-6)

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Danny Ainge has made 60 trades since being hired as the president of basketball operations for the Celtics in May 2003. With no basketball on the horizon until July, BSJ contributor Ryan Bernardoni and I teamed up for an enjoyable, albeit challenging endeavor: Ranking the Ainge trades from worst to best overall.

To accomplish this task, Ryan created a formula that allowed us to grade the deal based on a variety of factors (importance, quality) while also evaluating the deal at the time a trade was made and in hindsight (years later). Some deals will get the benefit of hindsight more than others in this exercise but we did our best to account for those issues. The end result is the following ranking from 60-1 with an analysis/explanation of each deal. 

You can check out the previous sections of the countdown here

Misfires (60-51)

Forgettable deals (50-29)

Debating the Perk trade (No. 28)

Above-average deals (27-16)

Smart business (15-11) 

Today, we start to break down some of his game-changers as we begin the top-10 countdown.

10. A 2015 protected second round pick (did not convey) to the Cavs for a 2016 protected first round pick (No. 28 Skal Labissiere), Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton in a three-team trade (July 2014)

Boston’s front office was clearly in asset accumulation mode at this stage of the team rebuild in the summer of 2014. They were left with a prime opportunity to absorb unwanted salaries thanks to a $10.4 million trade exception created by the Pierce/Garnett trade one summer earlier with the Nets that was set to expire in July 2015.

The Celtics were able to absorb the salaries of Zeller ($1.75 million) and Thornton ($8.5 million) into this trade exception while adding a top-10 protected first-round pick from the Cavs as a sweetener for taking on the hefty Thornton deal. The transaction paved the way for LeBron James signing with the Cavs but as has been the case during his Celtics tenure, Ainge was happy to help facilitate the arrival of a star addition elsewhere as long as the C’s were paid off handsomely for the help.

Thornton and Zeller were role players in Boston over the 2014-15 season before a surprise trade at the trade deadline in February 2015 sent Thornton packing for Phoenix. Incredibly, the Celtics used the return from this deal (Thornton and the protected Cavs first-round pick for 2016) to land Isaiah Thomas in that deal, a move that set the stage for the franchise’s turnaround over the next two seasons. We will dive into that one in greater depth as we hit the top-5 but this was a perfect example of the Celtics front office finding a way to maximize assets and trade opportunities. They waited until the buzzer to use the trade exception (just two days before it expired) after having it for a year, likely turning down other trade possibilities in the process before maximizing a return.

9. Jeff Green to the Grizzlies for a 2019 protected first round pick, Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers in a three-team trade (January 2015)

Jeff Green was in the midst of a career year as the No. 1 option for a lackluster Celtics squad, which made this trade the perfect opportunity for Danny Ainge to sell high on him. Luckily for Boston, by the time they were starting to give up on him as a building block for the future (he had 1.5 years left on deal), there were still a few teams around the league that bought into his empty numbers and the fact that he could be starting caliber asset on a contender. The Grizzlies happily gave up a first-round pick down the line for a prime Green addition but the C’s did well to secure an asset down the line from Memphis when the team’s playoff core would be over the hill. At the time of the trade, Prince was not an asset but was a solid overpaid veteran that clearly wouldn’t disrupt the locker room so the C’s happily took him in before dealing him for younger talent (Jerebko).

Rivers was taken as part of the deal so the C’s were willing to take his money off the Grizzlies’ hands in order to help structure the deal and potentially gain another asset. They managed to find a landing spot for him in LA immediately after his dad came to the rescue with a second-round pick as part of the offer.

Dumping Green when his value probably wasn’t going to get any higher holds value to this day as the Celtics remain on the likely arrival of a mid first-round pick from the Grizzlies in 2020. It can be debated whether the C’s held onto this pick for too long (its stock has dropped considerably in the last year after the breakout play of Ja Morant) but that ‘mistake’ can largely be blamed on bad lottery luck (Memphis rising to No. 2 during the last lottery) than anything the C’s did wrong. They got the best return possible for a player they didn’t want to build with in Green and managed to leverage a couple of other picks/useful players out of the deal in spinoff deals in the coming weeks. In a season full of wheeling and dealing, this was some of Ainge’s finest work.

8. The draft rights to Troy Bell (No. 16) and Dahntay Jones (No. 20) to the Grizzlies for the draft rights to Marcus Banks (No. 13) and Kendrick Perkins (No. 27) (June 2003)

Ryan Bernardoni: This is about as straight-forward a draft pick trade as you’ll ever see. It was made on draft night and all four picks were for the same draft, so there were no future unknowns to consider. You see trades like this in the NFL draft all the time; they’re comparatively rare in the NBA.

I maintain a Draft Pick Value Chart like the ones used by NFL teams specifically for this type of situation. By that measure, the Celtics gave up 2,040 points of “value” for 1,945 in return. That difference of 95 points is equivalent to the 55th or 56th pick. Most trade-ups cost more than that, so the Celtics did a fine job in putting this swap together.

The reason that this trade ranks so highly is obviously not based on that, though. Dahntay Jones and Marcus Banks both had solid NBA careers as journeyman back-ups. Troy Bell was a college legend in Boston but made no impact in the NBA. Kendrick Perkins started on a title winner, may have won a second if not for a brutally bad timed injury in 2010, and was eventually moved via a trade that’s still paying dividends today.

The proper valuation of picks on draft night made the trade a solid one, but the player evaluation of one doughy high school center from Texas made it a top-10 move of Ainge’s Boston tenure.

7. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick (Markelle Fultz) to the Sixers for the No. 3 overall pick (Jayson Tatum) and a future first-round pick (2019 -- No. 14 Romeo Langford) (June 2017)