Celtics aim to develop talent, not tank for more
Celtics' measured rebuilding plan (cont.)
WALTHAM, Mass. -- For six years the question was whether the Celtics would win the championship. Now Danny Ainge finds himself overseeing a far less promising environment. All of the big names who played for or coached the championship team of 2007-08 are now in Los Angeles or Miami or Brooklyn or (in the case of Rajon Rondo) on indefinite leave. Instead of trying to win, should they now be trying to lose?
"As I walk around town, more than anything else there are those that say, 'Hey, don't win too many games,"' said Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations. "There are so many fans that want us to play for the draft."
Ainge's measured response is that they should be more careful what they wish for.
"That's harder than people recognize," said Ainge of losing as a strategy. "It's a really easy thing to conceptualize, and an easy thing to talk about and philosophize about. But it's a hard thing to live through -- for fans, for coaches, for owners, for sponsors, for our TV partners."
It was the pain of losing that forced his coach of nine years, Doc Rivers, to relocate, with great irony, to the Clippers.
"Right," said Ainge. "It's a really hard thing to do."
Without ever mentioning the name of the consensus No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, Ainge made it clear that he does not believe the Kansas freshman carries the value of Kevin Durant, with whom he is often compared.
"If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story," said Ainge. "I don't see that player out there."
All of the Celtics' old, experienced hope had been traded away as they opened training camp Monday with the unlikely -- but not impossible, according to Ainge -- goal of reaching the playoffs. The mood was nothing like years past. One longtime Boston journalist said it was the first time in 36 years he was covering a Celtics team that didn't include a future Hall-of-Famer. The uniforms were familiar, but many of the faces and names were not.
"I could see our team playing better than what some people think," said Ainge. "But I could also see us having some struggles because we don't really have that star. With the exception of Rondo, of course; but we don't know when he'll be back."
Rondo, recovering from ACL surgery on his right knee last February, said Monday he was unable to predict his return. When he does come back, will he be confident and comfortable enough to instantly regain his All-Star form? It would be unfair to expect so much so soon.
"There [are] just so many questions to be answered with our personnel," Ainge said. "It's sort of exciting to go into a year and not really know what to expect."
The Celtics' rookie coach Brad Stevens, a 36-year old hired away from Butler University in his native Indiana, was not at the top of Ainge's list of variables for this season of transition. "I don't think that's going to prevent us from being a good team, or that he's all of a sudden going to turn us into a great team," said Ainge of Stevens' inexperience. "His biggest thing will be how many adjustments do we make? Because he'll know our opponents and their tendencies and he'll know what we do and he'll put in the work. His question will be, 'Do we want to change our defense tonight, and can my players pick up this difference and can we make this adjustment?' Those will be the types of things. Is he outsmarting himself by making the change or keeping it really simple because the players might not be able to make that adjustment?
"I don't have any question [about] his preparation or his intelligence. But experience, sure. I think his staff will be able to help him through all that."
He wished he could have straightened out the roster for Stevens. The Celtics have five big men who deserve to play, said Ainge, but there won't be enough minutes for all of them. Shooting guard remains a mystery. There is no point guard to start in Rondo's absence. And the best Celtics players to start the season, Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green, are both small forwards.
"I've experienced that," Ainge said of his four seasons as coach of the Suns, "where you win a game, but [there]'s not as much joy as you would like it to be because there's three or four guys who are not happy with their roles. In a lot of ways you're managing corporations, because how you play them and how many minutes they play and what roles they play have a great deal of effect on their career earnings. That's going to be a tough deal for Brad this year, the logjams at the different positions."
And yet Ainge likes this roster more than the one he inherited when Boston hired him in 2003, or the one he handed over to Rivers as new coach of the Celtics one year later. The current goal, which surely could change based on the events of this season, is to renew the strategy that led to the 2007 trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett: To develop the team's current young talent and to draft well without necessarily earning a high choice in the lottery. Al Jefferson, who was the key player in the trade for Garnett, had come to the Celtics as a No. 15 pick three years earlier.
"Rondo is a player that has value in our league, and there are teams that like him; there [are] questions about his injury," said Ainge. "People like Jeff Green: He has great character, he has a decent contract for the kind of player that he can be. Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk -- all these guys have value. So that's the good news. But you still need some breaks along the way. You still need to draft well and develop your players, and those players have to be wanted commodities around the league."
The model for all rebuilding teams is Oklahoma City, but Ainge doesn't see how the Celtics could duplicate a plan that began around Durant as the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. "It might have been different if Greg Oden had been there and they drafted Greg Oden -- they might not be who they are today," said Ainge. The franchise endured four straight losing seasons, including a year of hell while leaving Seattle, to be followed by what Ainge called "almost a new free year" when the team was greeted in Oklahoma City by fans and sponsors who didn't care that the 2008-09 Thunder were going to lose 59 games.
"In Boston or in Phoenix or in other cities, people aren't going to pay attention," said Ainge. "And I don't think people understand. It's unrealistic to think that there's only one way to win and that's by losing to get better."
The other side of the dilemma is that the fans in Boston may be impatient after taking so much pride in the teams of Rivers, who is the league's ultimate insider. When asked about the natural comparisons between Rivers and Stevens, Ainge responded with a message of perspective.
"Listen, Doc did a great job for us and I'll always be grateful for what he's done," said Ainge. "But because we struggled in the first few years of Doc's tenure -- struggled mightily -- I think people sort of get it, and understand that it's not always the coach. Now Doc's going to a team that's going to win 65 games. They won  games last year with injuries; Chris Paul missed  games. They won 17 in a row, and [now] their team is better. It's upgraded significantly, in my opinion.
"Our team is not made for 65 wins this year, and I know that before we even play a game. I think that Brad is so unique and different, and I think people are smart enough to understand that there were a lot of people on Doc's case and on my case -- [and] they should have been questioning things that were happening early on. Ultimately, it really is a players' league, in that if you don't have really good players, you can have Jerry West and Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson all on the same coaching staff and you still might not win."
Rivers told friends over the summer that he didn't want to rebuild. Ainge signaled that he would spend this year reinforcing his view that a coach shouldn't be judged solely by the record of his team -- or that the comparative records of Rivers and Stevens shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on the new coach in Boston.
"Through the whole thing," said Ainge of their nine years together, "Doc was a stabilizing force. He was a leader of the team through thick and thin. He was no better the year that KG showed up and we won the championship than he was the year before when we lost  games in a row. He was no better a coach then. He just had the opportunity. Doc's not going to be any better coach this year than he was last year when we were 41-40, but he'll win 25 more games -- at least -- this upcoming year because he's driving a faster car."
From that perspective, the worst thing Ainge could have done would have been to hire Stevens to a six-year contract and then dump all of his players of potential in exchange for draft picks that may never pan out. If the current team cannot win and there is a market for his players, it may reach the point when he is moving them. But that time had not yet come.
"Those guys are all trying to win," Ainge said of Wallace and Green and Rondo. "They don't want to go out there and play for a draft pick. Brad Stevens in his first year as coach -- he's going to give a big pep talk about coming together as a team. How do you fake that? There's not one thing fake about Brad Stevens. I think that's why he'll be able to sell it."
The practice gym was lined with the old banners and filled with new players. It was a strange opening day to launch a new unpredictable era.
"If all of a sudden Rondo's out for the year and a couple other key guys, and maybe goals change over the course of the year," said Ainge, and then he stopped the dark thoughts there. "But starting the season out," he carried on brightly, "we're starting out full blazes. And see what we can do."