Sensing his despair, the two owners and Ainge called Pierce to a meeting in Ainge's office at the team's practice facility in suburban Waltham last April to discuss the player's concerns. While he came away with a renewed belief that Grousbeck and Pagliuca were serious about providing him with veteran help, Pierce remained uncertain that Ainge could follow through. "I had mixed feelings about Danny," admits Pierce. "I didn't know if he could get us back to that [championship] level. What else am I supposed to think? I didn't know what he was trying to do, I didn't know the game plan."
It was apparent to Pierce that the Celtics were counting on rebuilding around Oden or Durant. "I saw the emergence of Al Jefferson and Tony Allen," says Pierce, "and I'm thinking, if they take either Oden or Durant, maybe it will be my time to go because they would have a great foundation." Whereas Pierce once feared being traded to a losing franchise—he vetoed an attempt by Boston in 2005 to move him to the Portland Trail Blazers for a draft pick the Celtics would have used on Wake Forest guard Chris Paul—he was now willing to start fresh almost anywhere: "I figured, How much worse could it get?"
ON MAY 22, the day of the lottery, Grousbeck, wearing a green-and-white pinstriped suit, anxiously approached Room 3A at NBA Entertainment studios in Secaucus, N.J. He would serve as the Celtics' representative for the lottery, which was to take place 90 minutes before the ESPN telecast revealing the results. Each of the teams' reps had to turn in his cellphone and other wireless devices after entering the room and were forbidden from communicating with the outside world.
Shortly after 7:30 p.m. balls numbered 1 through 14 were dropped into a tumbler at the front of the room. Grousbeck sat back in his chair, a list of 1,000 possible four-number combinations—-including the 199 assigned to Boston for having the NBA's second-worst record—upon his lap. When the balls 5, 9, 14 and 13 popped out for the No. 1 pick, Grousbeck didn't bother to review his list. Nor did he do so after 14, 4, 11 and 10 came up for pick No. 2. "I knew [our] numbers," he told reporters in the room. "A 1 or 2 had to show up or we weren't getting a pick, and they didn't show up."
As the telecast began, a brief camera shot of the gathering in Room 3A provided an unfortunate clue to Celtics president Rich Gotham. "I could tell by the way [Grousbeck] was sitting that we didn't get it," says Gotham, who was watching with Ainge and coach Doc Rivers in Ainge's office. "I could read the body language."
Boston ended up with the No. 5 pick, which meant the choice would be shopped. Perhaps the only person in Boston who was happy with this result was Pierce. Ainge would have more work to do.
AINGE AND MCHALE have been friends for more than 25 years. They first met when Ainge, the reigning Wooden Award winner from BYU, joined the Celtics in November 1981 (Ainge had played four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays' system before Auerbach bought out his baseball contract); McHale was in his second year in the NBA. They remained friends after Ainge was traded to the Sacramento Kings in '89. From there Ainge would play for the Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns, retire in '95 and work for TNT and serve as Suns coach before returning to Boston. McHale finished his career with the Celtics in '93, then became the Timberwolves' vice president of basketball operations two years later. "There are really no secrets between Kevin and I," Ainge says. "Kevin and I don't play games, we don't try to trick each other. We've known each other way too long to ever do that."
Ainge had been trying to pry Garnett from Minnesota since late in the 2005--06 season, when the Timberwolves were wrapping up a disappointing 33-win campaign that launched speculation of Garnett's exit. Ainge routinely worked Garnett's name into his conversations with McHale and stubbornly kept it up even after McHale said Garnett wasn't available. But the rapport between the two friends and team execs was of secondary importance; far more crucial to Garnett's future was McHale's failure to maintain a winning combination around the 6'11" All-Star. After eight successive playoff appearances ending in 2004, Minnesota slumped to 44, 33 and 32 wins over the next three seasons. The franchise became vulnerable to losing Garnett because he could opt out of his contract after the 2007--08 season, and owner Glen Taylor wasn't interested in extending Garnett's deal unless he accepted a cut in his $20 million annual salary.
As it became clear that the Timberwolves might, indeed, part with Garnett, Boston emerged as a possible destination because it had a lottery pick; center Theo Ratliff's large contract that had only one year left; and, most attractive of all, Jefferson, an emerging 22-year-old power forward with the rare low-post and rebounding skills that McHale coveted. A week before the June 28 draft, however, Garnett's agent, Andy Miller, vetoed a potential trade to the Celtics by publicly declaring that Garnett had no interest in either leaving the Twin Cities or in signing an extension with Boston. Over the next few days the Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers became the front-runners in the bidding for the Big Ticket.
Though Ainge was still trying to salvage a deal for Garnett up to the eve of the draft, he was also looking elsewhere. A proposed three-team trade that would have sent Suns forward Shawn Marion to Boston and Garnett to Phoenix crumbled quickly, and another rumored deal for Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets didn't have legs either. As draft day approached it appeared as if Ainge might have to use that No. 5 pick after all. He had targeted Chinese forward Yi Jianlian, whom Ainge rated as the player with the most upside in this draft, but the last thing the Celtics needed was another phenom who was two or three years away.