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You Will Never Guess Which NBA General Manager Was So Close To Making Several Big Deadline Trades

A mysterious, unknown NBA general manager, sitting in front of a Celtics backdrop and speaking into a Celtics-branded microphone.
Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty

It’s Danny Ainge, of course. The Celtics are one of this season’s more disappointing teams, something Ainge acknowledged Friday in a video conference with Boston media. Stuck a couple games below .500 and firmly knotted up with the big mass of also-rans clutching at the bottom rungs of the Eastern Conference playoff ladder, the Celtics had the assets and the opportunities to make a splash at the league’s Thursday trade deadline. In what has become an annual tradition, they mostly did not.

In what has also become an annual tradition, basketball fans are being treated to the day-after story of how tantalizingly close the Celtics came to spending some of their stockpile of future assets and making a landscape-altering trade. In 2015 it was Ainge supposedly trying his damnedest to swap picks and move up the draft board but being thwarted by the crazed Charlotte Hornets; in 2016 it was Ainge being priced out in his pursuit of an established veteran, despite the Celtics dangling the draft’s third overall pick; in January 2017 it was an unreasonable “ransom” that ended his pursuit of Carmelo Anthony; later that same year it was Ainge narrowly losing the chase for Paul George, and then just as narrowly losing the chase for Kristaps Porzingis. In 2018 it was an inability to get a deal done with Chicago for the services of Jimmy Butler. It’s not that Danny Ainge never successfully completes a big trade—he swapped Isaiah Thomas and some draft capital for Kyrie Irving, after all—so much as it is that any time Danny Ainge does not make a trade, the whole world must know that he almost did. No general manager in any professional league anywhere has his near misses so thoroughly chronicled.

Which brings us to Thursday. The Celtics scored a bargain when they swapped a pair of future second-round draft picks for guard Evan Fournier, part of Orlando’s talent dump. They did, uhh, something when they flipped useful big man Daniel Theis for extremely not-useful big man Moe Wagner. But they missed out on the real prizes of the deadline, when Magic All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic was dealt for draft picks to the Chicago Bulls, and then when Magic swingman Aaron Gordon was dealt for cheap to the Denver Nuggets. Either of those players would’ve shored up significant vulnerabilities for the underperforming Celtics. Gordon, who brought back a protected pick and a couple of role players, seems to have been well within reach. Why didn’t the Celtics act more aggressively? Why mostly stand pat?

According to league sources, in addition to their well-documented courtship of Aaron Gordon, the Celtics were a finalist for Magic All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, including multiple first-round picks as part of their package. Orlando ultimately sent Vucevic to the Bulls in exchange for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks.

The Celtics also offered a first-round pick and a young player to Orlando in exchange for Gordon, sources said, and they were prepared to add to that haul, but the Magic accepted Denver’s offer, which included Gary Harris Jr., R.J. Hampton and a first-round pick, before Boston had a chance.

Boston Globe

Oooooooooooh, so close! Well, better luck next year.