PAUL PIERCE slowly walked into the Celtics' locker room after another loss last March, head down, wondering how his career had taken such a wrong turn. The 29-year-old small forward was the lone All-Star on a roster of novices, five of whom were young enough to be in college; he was 10 pounds too heavy; and, worst of all, he feared that he would never accomplish anything of lasting value in the NBA, at least with Boston. "I had pretty strong thoughts that I wouldn't even be here this year," Pierce says now. "I was wondering what the plan was, and I was wondering if I was in the plan."
A new ownership group, which had taken control in September 2002, hired former Celtics guard Danny Ainge as executive director of basketball operations the following May, and over the next four years Ainge shrewdly drafted Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes and Rajon Rondo without benefit of a lottery pick—only to undermine that strategy with questionable trades for Raef LaFrentz, Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak and Sebastian Telfair. As Pierce was maturing into one of the NBA's finest all-around players (with career averages of 23.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.66 steals), his supporting cast was growing progressively younger and becoming less supportive with each passing year.
The Celtics' 24--58 record last season was their worst in 10 years and included a franchise-record 18-game losing streak while a demoralized Pierce watched from the bench with a left foot injury. "We're going through 10, 11, 12 games in a row lost, 13," recalls Pierce, who missed the first 16 of those losses. "I was thinking, This team really has a future?"
Yet Ainge was not discouraged. Despite taking heat in Boston for his regular overhauls of the team, he felt he had accumulated enough assets to pull off a blockbuster trade. But even Ainge didn't imagine last March that he would swing two significant deals that have dramatically revived the championship hopes of a franchise that had won only three playoff series since Larry Bird's retirement in 1992.
By acquiring shooting guard Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics and power forward Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves without relinquishing Pierce—forming an unparalleled trio of still-in-its prime NBA talent, with a cumulative 21 All-Star appearances and career scoring average of 65.6 points—Ainge made the Celtics relevant again.
AS BOTH A Boston player and executive, Ainge has not been afraid of the risks involved in acting boldly. Back in 1988, when he was one of the Celtics' backcourt starters, he was seated at a table with Bird, forward Kevin McHale and team president Red Auerbach during the organization's Christmas party. At the time Boston was reportedly considering trades that would have sent Bird and McHale to the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. "Look at these two guys," Ainge told Auerbach, over the surrounding conversations of other players and their families. "Larry's got casts on his feet [from surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels], Kevin's got a screw in his foot [to repair a stress fracture]—you've got to trade these guys." Everyone laughed at Ainge's typical audacity, but he wasn't joking. "I would have traded Larry Bird," he insists today.
Fifteen years later Ainge sits in Auerbach's old chair. He was hired to set the franchise on a fresh course in search of Banner 17, as new managing partner Wyc Grousbeck referred to the NBA championship that had eluded the Celtics since they won 16 titles in a 30-year span through 1985--86. Within five months Ainge had completed his first major deal, sending All-Star forward Antoine Walker to Dallas for a package that included LaFrentz and thrusting leadership of the team upon Pierce.
But postseason appearances in 2004 and '05—plus an Atlantic Division title in '05, when Walker was reacquired for the stretch run—did not change the fact that Ainge was learning on the job. Many of Ainge's trades seemed to be attempts at rectifying earlier misjudgments. As he invested more and more in young players who were long-term projects, Boston slumped from 45 wins in 2004--05 to 33 to 24, missing the playoffs the last two years.
And yet, as the horrendous 2006--07 season wound down, Celtics fans were nonetheless enticed by hopes of landing one of the top two prospects in the draft, Ohio State center Greg Oden or Texas forward Kevin Durant, though Boston would enter the lottery with less than a 40% chance of winning one of the first two picks. Pierce was certain that either teenager would need years to mature into a player capable of turning the Celtics into an NBA champion, and that Pierce would be long gone by then. But the team's TV ratings in Boston increased during the 18-game losing streak, with fans perversely celebrating each loss as improving Boston's chances of landing Oden or Durant.
THE CELTICS' lead owners, investment bankers Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, are longtime eastern Massachusetts residents and fans of the team their group bought five years ago for $360 million. Along with Ainge, they continually offered encouragement to Pierce, telling him that they shared his passion for winning in spite of the results. "I could see that Paul's spirit was kind of lost," says Ainge. "He wasn't the player that he could be, and I understood it."