In late March of 2013 before a game in New Orleans, a spokesman for the Miami Heat unexpectedly called together the media to issue a rare statement on behalf of team president Pat Riley.
He cleared his throat and declared the following was from Riley:
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up and manage his own team. He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing, and I know that because I coached against him.”
It was such an unusual moment, one team president audaciously cussing out another for the record, that it was at first considered some sort of joke. No, Riley meant it. It was retaliation for something Ainge said in a radio interview that day about LeBron James complaining about officiating.
“I stand by what I said. That’s all. I don’t care about Pat Riley. He can say whatever he wants. I don’t want to mess up his Armani suits and all that hair goop.”
Ainge and Riley have disliked each other for more than 30 years, dating back to three bitter NBA Finals in the 1980s when Ainge’s Celtics fought against Riley’s Lakers. Later they coached against each other. Now they clash as executives, both enjoying the type of stability and success that elevates their sniping and scheming against each other to the highest stakes.
Now they compete again, this time over Gordon Hayward as he prepares to make his free-agent journey. Hayward is scheduled to meet with Riley and the Heat on Saturday, the first day of free agency, and then Sunday it will be Ainge and his group’s turn.
Both feel like they have a legitimate shot at Hayward, who is in his prime and coming off an All-Star season. Because of his experience level and the aspects of the salary cap, Hayward may not look to sign a five-year contract in Utah and might prefer a three-year deal so he can re-enter the market in time to maximize his earnings long term.
If he goes that route, it makes the Miami or Boston option even more appealing because it nearly eliminates Utah’s monetary advantage. For either, landing Hayward would be a transitional moment as they attempt to construct a team to beat James. It helps both set up the next transaction. With Hayward in the fold, they would both potentially be in position to chase another star via a trade.
This is right in the wheelhouse of Ainge and Riley, who pride themselves on being able to sell their savvy and intelligence in franchise-building to free agents, and who don’t mind getting into a brawl, negatively recruiting against the other.
These men have rings and scars at each other’s expense. In the 1980s, Ainge did whine about plenty of calls during those series against the Lakers, when Riley was on the sideline always in Armani and with plenty of hair product. But the past decade has featured a couple of management classics.
In 2012, Riley lifted free agent Ray Allen away from Ainge in a coup signing with bad blood still lingering. Allen spurned a higher offer from Ainge to go to Miami, Riley closing the deal with a sales pitch at an Italian restaurant in downtown Miami.
In 2014, Ainge helped the Cavs clear cap space by executing a trade in which he helped Cleveland move several contracts. The Cavs used the space to sign James away from Riley’s Heat.
Their styles are quite different. Riley acts like a Godfather, selling his years of experience and the infrastructure he has built for the past 20 years. He famously brought a bag of rings and placed them on a table in front of James to close the deal in 2010. Ainge has the might of the Celtics decades of history and a personal history of team building through shrewd transactions. To showcase Boston’s deep sports love, he brought Tom Brady to pitch Kevin Durant in the Hamptons last summer.
Neither are exactly beloved by their peers. After signing James and Chris Bosh to contracts in 2010, the league’s general managers gave more Executive of the Year votes to the Bulls’ front office after they’d signed Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson.
Two weeks ago, 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo took a playful but telling swipe at Ainge after trading for the No. 1 pick in a deal with Boston.
“It’s never easy negotiating with Boston because they’re smart guys,” Colangelo said. “I’m talking about [assistant GM] Mike Zarren, not Danny Ainge by the way.”
Just like last year, it’s possible both Ainge and Riley will come up empty in going after Hayward if he re-signs in Utah. Then they might move on to other free agents, possibly Blake Griffin. Then, of course, it will be something else. But there’s no mistaking that over the next few days, it’s going to be a heavyweight championship bout.