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Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has been much maligned for the 2011 trade-deadline deal that sent center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, and not without reason. In a way, the trade signaled Boston’s fall from championship contention to the second tier in the Eastern Conference pecking order, behind Miami, and succeeded in upsetting the Celtics’ big guns, as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo all publicly expressed their dismay at losing Perkins as a teammate. Now, as Jeff Green, the main piece the Celtics received in the trade, is in the early stages of his first full season in green, it’s hard to disagree that the Thunder came out on the winning end: with Perkins manning the middle, OKC has become the team to beat in the West, while the Celtics still find themselves looking up at the Heat, and at serious risk of not winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since the pre-Big Three days.
But the criticism of Ainge is not entirely justified.
First of all, it’s worth remembering just why Ainge made the trade to begin with: due to salary-cap limitations, Boston couldn’t afford to offer Perkins, who was scheduled to become a free agent after the season, the kind of money he thought he deserved, essentially forcing the front office to make a choice between him and Glen Davis, whose contract was also set to expire. In hindsight, and especially after Davis’s brutal playoff performance that year (he averaged just 4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 39.1% in Boston’s nine postseason games), it became clear that Perkins was the more valuable player, but that wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time of the trade.
From where the Celtics stood then, they had depth at center, where both Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal were expected to recover from injuries that turned out to be much more serious than was previously thought. Soon after the deadline, the Celtics added another big man in Troy Murphy, who also ended up being largely unproductive, leaving Nenad Krstić, the other newcomer from Oklahoma City, to carry the load. Although he scored four more points per game than Perkins the rest of the way, his rebounding and blocking numbers, and his overall value as a lockdown defender, were an obvious downgrade.
But trading Perkins was the only way of getting something in return instead of letting him walk for free after the season, and Ainge has to be commended for looking ahead; after all, Boston also got a first-round draft pick in the trade, specifically the 22nd selection in last June’s draft, which they used on Syracuse center Fab Melo. As for Davis, the sign-and-trade that sent him to Orlando in exchange for Brandon Bass in the offseason was undeniably a good move by Ainge.
More than any other, the biggest factor in Green’s lack of production has been bad luck, as he was found to have an aortic aneurysm just a week before the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, forcing him to undergo surgery and miss the entire year, and leaving the Celtics without their sixth man. This year, after a promising preseason, Green has struggled early in the regular season, averaging just 8.2 points through the first 11 games, with a high of 16 in last Wednesday’s win over the Jazz. But he has had good stretches and is shooting a respectable 44% from the floor, and his rebounding and assists numbers will probably improve as the season progresses and he regains his form.
Green, who was drafted by the Celtics in 2007 before being shipped to the then-Seattle SuperSonics in the Ray Allen trade the same day, was something of a question mark when he arrived in Boston, and his up-and-down play has done little to shed any light on the issue of what exactly his role will be going forward. It seems clear now that, barring a breakout within the next two years, he isn’t going to fill Pierce’s shoes when the captain retires, likely after the 2013-14 season. The good news for the Celtics is that he probably won’t have to, as Rondo continues to improve, cementing his place as a top-three point guard, something Pierce never had in his first nine seasons, when he largely had to carry the team on his shoulders.
With the Thunder looking like a contender for what would be the franchise’s second championship and the Celtics struggling to keep up with the best teams in the East, it’s as clear as it ever was that OKC came out on top in the deal. Still, keeping Perkins around in a last-ditch effort to be competitive in the 2011 playoffs probably wouldn’t have been the solution either: Shaq’s injury left the C’s too thin down low, an area where they might have had a chance of beating the Heat had they been healthy, and Perkins would have left as a free agent anyway. Ainge made a difficult decision and, although it didn’t turn out the way we would have hoped, he can’t be faulted for trying to plan for the future.