The Boston Celtics mercifully closed the books on their 2013-14 season on Wednesday night with a listless 118-102 loss to the playoff-bound Washington Wizards. At one point in the first half -- with Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless sitting out -- Brad Stevens sent out Chris Babb, Avery Bradley, Chris Johnson, Brandon Bass and Joel Anthony.
The loss dropped the Celtics to 25-57, their lowest win total since the 2006-07 season, when they scratched together just 24 victories. We all know they flipped the script just one year later, winning it all after acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in offseason trades, but such a drastic turnaround won’t happen this time around.
“I think the Fourth of July, we’ll have some fireworks,” Ainge said when asked if this offseason would be an eventful one. “I don’t know; we’re hopeful. I have some ideas and some plans that I’d like to do but there’s just no guarantee that we can do it. We need to find good trading partners. We always are trying to make fireworks every summer. We try to do something that’s unique and special and we will definitely try this summer.”
The work begins immediately for Ainge, who has already been preparing for June’s NBA Draft. The Celtics will have about $15 million in salary coming off the books heading into the offseason, but the most efficient way for them to add long-term talent will be using their multiple draft picks.
Boston has the highest chance at landing the fifth pick in next month’s lottery and also has Brooklyn’s first-rounder at their disposal in a draft that has lost some of it’s luster, thanks in part to executives like Ainge downplaying the class publicly. On Wednesday night, Ainge left open the possibility of either dealing for more picks or even trading some of their current ones away.
“I could see that possibly happening, acquiring more assets,” Ainge said. “I could see giving up our assets, our young assets and some draft picks for players as well and everywhere in between.”
Ainge will have the contract of Brandon Bass ($6.95 million) to use as a trade sweetener because it expires after next season. Rajon Rondo ($13 million in 2014-15) is Boston’s only other expiring contract of note and I remain of the belief that Ainge will hang onto the mercurial point guard rather than trade him. It’s telling that Rondo has been mentioned in rumors for several seasons, yet never been moved.
In perhaps another veiled attempt to increase Rondo’s value heading into this summer, Ainge predicted big things for the 28-year-old next season.
“I think that Rajon will have the best year of his career next year. I think he’s sort of in a phase of his life where he’s matured, he’s just smarter, and the game has slowed for him,” he said.
“I think he’ll be really healthy and fresher with a summer of strength [work]. You sort of bypass the mental anguish from him coming back from the knee surgery and the ACL and that’s been sort of the pattern of guys in the past. The first few, 30, 20 games whatever are an adjustment period so I’m confident he’ll have the best year of his career.”
Rondo played in a career-low 30 games this season after tearing his ACL last January. He was sidelined by shin and hamstring injuries in the season’s final week and didn’t play in back-to-back situations upon his initial return.
Whether it was his ongoing recovery, or the absence of longtime teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Rondo had the lowest TS% (46.1) of his career and a 44.0 eFG%, the lowest mark since his rookie season. He inched closer to 30% as a three-point shooter (28.9%), but was just a 40.3% shooter overall.
Deciding Rondo’s future has to be the first step on Ainge’s checklist because it will shape how the organization attacks both the draft and free agency.
“Listen, there’s no one person that’s more important than the whole organization,” Ainge said when asked if he would hasten the team’s rebuilding project with Rondo only under contract for another year. “We need to be good because we all want to be good. I want my coach to stay, I want Jeff Green to want to be here, I want free agents that are out there looking at us play to want to play here. I want fans to want to come to the game, everybody wants to win, but not just for one player, not just for one person. We all want to win and that’s what we are trying to accomplish.”
The Celtics began this season just a few months removed from the end of the Pierce-Garnett-Doc Rivers era, and the haze from the emotional departures never fully cleared. They were without a true leader or superstar in the first half of the season with Rondo sidelined and featured a disjointed roster.
There were flashes from Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk and Pressey, but Stevens’ infamous postgame “#EveryGameIsAnAdventure” back in December proved to be a mantra for the entire season.
“It was a long season, I guess not that long, but it was a tough, tough year and I saw a lot of positive things from individuals,” Ainge reflected. “I thought our team gave good effort most nights, I think consistency was our biggest challenge and I don’t think the team was a great fit, great mix, but individually I think what I saw in almost every player. I just feel like we didn’t have the size inside to protect the rim, I thought that was a big factor that cost us a lot of games and we didn’t finish a lot of games down the stretch.”
After trading Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets, Ainge was left with a disorganized roster and future flexibility. Not doing much after the Brooklyn trade made it seem as though Ainge had been looking past this season all along, but he wouldn’t admit as much. Even if it sounded very much like that was the case.
“I think that we started the season very concerned with the personnel,” Ainge said. “I thought Vitor gave us some size at times; his injury hurt us some there. He was a rookie and playing inconsistent, but showing some signs of being a presence inside. I think all the way up to the trade deadline we looked at opportunities to make our team better, but we wouldn’t sacrifice draft picks to make us better for just this year, but we looked for opportunities to make out team better in the long-term.”
Assuming Rondo remains, the core of this team will likely also contain Jared Sullinger, Olynyk and whomever the Celtics take with their top pick two months from now. The Kevin Love rumors will be persistent and Sullinger (as well as the high pick) would undoubtedly have to be part of any deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but I’ve never been a believer in either the likelihood of such a deal or just how much better the Celtics would be with a Rondo-Love tandem.
Whether he remains in Boston or is the centerpiece of a trade, Sullinger has a lot of room to grow. In just his second season, with major back surgery coming in between the two, Sullinger averaged 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in fewer than 28 minutes per game.
“I think that Jared is still very young and I don’t think he understands, yet, how good he is,” Ainge said. “He’s heard it. He’s heard it from a lot of people: his father, from his agent to his coaches how good he can be, but until he believes how good he can be and really puts in the time, and I really do believe that Jared will this summer and is going to be in better shape next year.”
Regardless of what it looks like in six months, Brad Stevens will be the one coaching the roster Ainge puts together. Stevens gave himself an “incomplete” for the season, but in reality he did about as well he could have with the hand he was dealt.
In six years at Butler, Stevens won 77.2% of his games and was on the losing end just 49 times. The Celtics lost their 49th game on March 28, and then proceeded to lose eight more times.
“Brad did a great job this year. He’s a special person and a great coach and the players see it,” Ainge said. “The players see his work ethic, they see his integrity and they see his intelligence, so I think he’s earned the respect of the team in a really difficult situation this year and I know he’s going to get better. He’ll be better next year and he’ll be better the next year. He’s a sponge, and he’s very intelligent with a great work ethic and I couldn’t be happier.”
The two biggest remaining question marks for the Celtics are the futures of Jeff Green and Avery Bradley. Green is due $9.2 million in each of the next two seasons, with 2015-16 coming as a player option, while Bradley is a restricted free agent this summer.
Bradley hasn’t shown that he can remain on the floor and his offense has yet to progress significantly. There are two schools of thought on what that means for the Celtics -- he’s either easy to let go or valuable on a discounted deal given his lowered value.
Green was forced into the role of a No. 1 option, something he’s not, often this season. His contract isn’t as bad as it once looked, which gives Ainge multiple options -- keep him and move him into a more customary and effective supportive role, or move him for future assets.
“[Green] became more a focal point of the offense and he had his ups and downs with that, but I think his game is complete and I think Jeff is improving as a player,” Ainge said. “I think he still has a lot of growth still left in his game and I think he’s going to have a better year next year than he had this year.”
Without a Garnett and Allen out there to acquire, Ainge has his work cut out for him. If he thought this season was long, wait until the offseason begins.