There may be no bigger compliment to an organization's sustained success than the frequent poaching of its players or staff.
After spending a decade with the Boston Celtics, including the past three seasons as assistant general manager, Ryan McDonough is headed to Phoenix after the Suns named him as their new GM on Tuesday.
The 33-year-old McDonough represents another branch of a regenerating Celtics front-office tree. Once rooted in the on-court experience of championship-winning alumni, this tree is sprouting again with smart, young minds that are reshaping how teams across the league approach basketball operations.
The tree originally featured Celtics legends like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge, all of whom moved quickly in their post-playing days from the coaching ranks to front-office jobs. (Ainge and Bird were executives of the year in recent seasons.)
But the branches extending across the league now have virtually no on-court experience, just forward-thinking basketball minds that are finding new ways to evaluate talent.
Before McDonough, it was former Celtics senior vice president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, whom the Rockets snagged for their general manager position starting in the 2006-07 season. Last year, Philadelphia eyed Boston assistant general manager Mike Zarren. A finalist for the 76ers' then-vacant GM gig, Zarren, a key influence in the team's decision to pursue Kevin Garnett before the 2007-08 championship season, withdrew himself from consideration.
Overflowing with future draft picks, including six first-round picks over the next three years, the Suns plucked one of the league's best young talent evaluators. In his decade with the Celtics, McDonough set himself apart with a keen eye for available talent, particularly college and international players in the draft.
McDonough is most notably credited with pushing the Celtics to acquire the pick they used to select Rajon Rondo during the 2006 draft. Coincidentally, it came from his new home in Phoenix.
The loss of McDonough will fly quietly under the radar with most Celtics fans, most of whom would be hard-pressed to pick him out of a lineup. While many of the Celtics' brass have courtside seats at the Garden, McDonough and Zarren blended quietly into the scenery.
McDonough often plopped down at the end of an auxiliary media section beyond the baseline and could have easily been mistaken for one of the network sports anchors who typically sat alongside him. Maybe it's the journalism in his blood. After all, his father was legendary Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough and he studied the fourth estate (and mass communications) at the University of North Carolina.
If the Celtics had to pick a year for McDonough and his encyclopedic knowledge of the draft to move on, this might be it. Boston has only one pick -- No. 16 -- in this year's draft. What's more, the Celtics have 14 of 15 players from last season under contract for the 2013-14 campaign, which could limit the number of offseason moves (though there remains the potential for a larger overhaul).
Even still, it's a loss for Boston. Ainge has often gushed about his assistants and how much he valued their input. It ought to leave him leaning heavier on his son Austin, who shuffled into the role of director of player personnel last season, and Zarren.
It's not just front-office types that have been coveted by Boston's competition. Coach Doc Rivers seems to be rumored every time a high-profile job opens -- including reports of interest from the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers.
In recent seasons, Rivers' top assistants have been targeted. After a trip to the NBA Finals during the 2009-10 campaign, defensive coordinator Tom Thibodeau landed a head-coaching job with the Chicago Bulls, winning Coach of the Year in his first season. Lawrence Frank took Thibodeau's spot in Boston and lasted a year before the Detroit Pistons gave him the keys to their coaching car. Eventually, current defensive guru Mike Longabardi will almost assuredly feel the pull from other teams.
After being fired as coach of the Washington Wizards during the 2011-12 season, Flip Saunders joined Boston as an adviser during its run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Last week, after a year as an analyst for ESPN, Saunders was named the president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel predates the Rivers administration but began his career as film coordinator for the Celtics during the Rick Pitino tenure then served as an assistant under Jim O'Brien. Chris Wallace, while not exactly revered for how his time in Boston ended, still presides over the Grizzlies, thriving in large part because of the smart basketball minds the team has put around him.
The Celtics have done an excellent job bringing in -- and nurturing -- some of the league's smartest minds. It's aided their success as a franchise, and now others clearly want a taste of that.