Danny Ainge, who helped bring two NBA titles to Boston as a player and another as the team’s basketball boss, stepped down from the Celtics front office just hours after they were eliminated from the postseason, and coach Brad Stevens is giving up his job on the bench to replace him.
Stevens will lead the search for his successor, the Celtics said in a news conference Wednesday. He leaves as the fourth-winningest coach in franchise history, but one who failed to hang a championship banner from the rafters.
“Hiring a new coach will give us a great opportunity to hire somebody that will be … a new, fresh voice with a new, fresh perspective,” Stevens said. “They don’t have to fill Doc Rivers’ shoes, like I did. And they don’t have to fill Danny Ainge’s shoes, like I do. They just have to figure out a way to be better than the last guy.”
Ainge’s future remains unclear, although Chris Mannix of SportsIllustrated.com reports Ainge could potentially wind up with the Utah Jazz in a front office capacity. Ainge starred at BYU as a player and is “best friends” with Jazz owner Ryan Smith, per Henry Abbott.
Per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, the Celtics could look to hire Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd and former Atlanta Hawks Lloyd Pierce for their coaching vacancy once the moves are finalized. Additionally, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reports LA Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups could also be in the mix for the Celtics’ opening.
Stevens, who left Butler in 2013 after leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back trips to the NCAA championship game, ends his only NBA coaching job with a 354-282 record that included three trips to the conference finals in the previous four years.
This year’s team flirted with a top-four seed in the East before losing 10 of its last 15 games and falling into the play-in round. The moves came about 12 hours after the Celtics lost to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
“One person’s leaving, and we have one job opening. It’s a very important job opening — head coach of the Boston Celtics,” owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “It’s following Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Brad Stevens, Doc Rivers. It’s following an illustrious group. And we’re getting started today.”
Ainge, 62, won championships with the Celtics as a player in 1984 and ’86 and took over as the president of basketball operations in 2003. He was voted the league’s top executive in 2008, when Boston won its 17th championship — an NBA record that has since been matched by the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Danny has meant so much to Celtics pride, the reinvigoration of the franchise,” team owner Steve Pagliuca said. “The great news is we have continuity, with Brad, who has been side-by-side (with him) the last eight years.
Ainge said that after having a heart attack two years ago, “I started thinking about what I was doing with my life.”
“You’re surrounded by your six children in the hospital and they say, ‘Hey, you need to stop doing this,’” he said. “I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t have any plans. Right now my goal is to get Brad up to speed on the draft … put the Celtics in the best place they can be. I’ll make the decision on the future somewhere in the future.”
Celtics staff were informed Wednesday morning of the moves, which were first reported by ESPN and The Athletic.
Stevens took the Celtics to the playoffs the last seven seasons and is the fourth-winningest coach in team history, behind Auerbach, Heinsohn and Rivers.
“I’m grateful to ownership and to Danny for trusting me with this opportunity,” Stevens said. “I’m excited to tackle this new role, starting with a wide ranging and comprehensive search for our next head coach. I love the Celtics, and know the great honor and responsibility that comes with this job. I will give it everything I have to help us be in position to consistently compete for championships.”
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Ainge had been pondering a move out of the front office for several months and was looking for a replacement for his role. Stevens was the franchise’s choice for that opening and now Boston must find a new coach.
The Celtics were eliminated in Game 5 of the first round by the Brooklyn Nets, a markedly different playoff showing after Boston reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2020. Boston struggled with injuries this season, needed to win a State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament game just to get into the playoffs and fell well short of the expectation of contending for a championship.
“I’m excited for Brad. I feel like he was born for this: Indiana kid, basketball junkie, smart, lives the game, has many resources and has a great staff,” Ainge said. “This is a great day for the Celtics. I think actually this is a big step forward.”
After reaching the conference finals last year, losing to Miami in the NBA bubble, the Celtics struggled with injuries and COVID-19 this season to fall to seventh in the East. They beat Washington in the play-in game but could only manage one win against the Nets and former Celtic Kyrie Irving.
Stevens became coach of the Celtics on July 3, 2013, amassing a 354-282 mark in his eight seasons at the helm and leading Boston to a trio of Eastern Conference finals berths (2017, ’18, ’20). He finished .500 or better in six of his eight seasons, including a 55-27 mark in 2017-18 that was his best.
When Stevens began his coaching tenure, the Celtics were heading into a rebuild after several years of contending for an NBA title. The trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had led Boston to great heights, but Garnett and Pierce were dealt to Brooklyn nine days after Stevens was hired.
From there, Stevens suffered through a 25-57 debut campaign, but better times were ahead. Boston improved to 40-42 and made the playoffs thanks to the play of midseason acquisition Isaiah Thomas. From there, Boston would go on to make the Eastern Conference finals the next season and begin a fresh run of contending.
Ainge was named the Celtics president of basketball operations on May 9, 2003 and oversaw several changes to the team. He spearheaded the moves in the summer of 2007 that brought Garnett and Allen to Boston. That gave then-star Pierce two other All-Stars to play alongside and that “Big Three” led Boston to an NBA title in 2007-08 and a Finals berth in 2009-10 (where the Celtics lost in Game 7 to the rival Los Angeles Lakers).
There have also been several other key moves by Ainge in his tenure, which started with the hiring of Stevens, then just a 37-year-old college coach at Butler, in 2013. That was followed by the trade of Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, which netted the Celtics three first-round picks and the right to swap picks with the Nets this season.
That led to the drafting of All-Stars Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Jayson Tatum in 2017, who have become the cornerstones for the Celtics’ future. Ainge was active in the free agent and trade markets, landing Kyrie Irving in a blockbuster 2017 trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also signed free agent Gordon Hayward that summer and, in the summer of 2018, added Al Horford in free agency.
But even with the addition of those established stars, Ainge has not been able to build another championship team.
And for what had long been the NBA’s most-decorated franchise, that’s the only standard that matters.
“We are going to win banner 18 or die trying,” Grousbeck said. “That’s the way Brad feels about it. That’s the way I feel about it. and all of us … believe Brad is the person to lead us on the basketball side as we go after that lofty goal.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.