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As Long Season Ends, Danny Ainge Provides Insight Into Celtics' Offseason

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.

Pacers Show New Wrinkle With Evan Turner At Point Guard

It didn’t take long for the Indiana Pacers to add a wrinkle to their offense with Evan Turner now in the fold.

With George Hill (shoulder) sidelined this weekend, Frank Vogel used Turner at point guard against the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz.

The Pacers don’t rely on Hill to run the point in a traditional way, but handing the ball to Turner on consecutive nights in close games down the stretch was certainly a gutsy call by Vogel.

“Turner gave us a big lift the whole game, but particularly down the stretch,” Vogel said after Indiana beat Boston 102-97 on Saturday night. “He handled some point guard duties, which he hadn’t done for us yet. We hadn’t talked about it yet. He stepped up.”

Turner hadn’t logged a minute at point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers this season, but Vogel noted that Turner had experience handling the ball at Ohio State.

“Evan is as versatile as it comes,” Paul George said. “He filled right in and did a great job of playing point guard.”

Turner had 17 points, three rebounds and two assists without a turnover on 8-for-14 shooting against the Celtics. With the Pacers struggling to pull away, Vogel let Turner bring up the ball in the fourth quarter. He was on the floor for the full 12 minutes and was the de facto point guard for close to eight minutes.

“At that time it would have been the normal spot to take him back out, but he was the hottest guy out there,” Vogel said of when he slid Turner over to the point. “We know he has great versatility, as do Lance [Stephenson] and Paul. Any of those three guys can handle, so that’s a lineup we knew we’d use at some point.”

Turner scored ten points on 5-for-8 shooting in the final frame.

“I felt fine. Coach was pretty much telling me to run along on certain things,” Turner said when asked if he was comfortable in the role.

“David West was setting screens. He’s great coaching himself. I think I got to look at the film a little bit and see what I can do when things break down, but other than that it’s just coming down and playing basketball.”

C.J. Watson started in place of Hill in both games, but it was Turner that handled the ball in the final moments. In a narrow 94-91 win over the Jazz, Turner played most of his fourth-quarter minutes (6:04) without Watson on the floor. He had four points and two rebounds without a turnover.

After the Boston game I asked Vogel whether the bigger lineup had a future when Hill is healthy.

“Probably not, but I could see us at certain times, if Evan has it going. Sometimes if a guy is hot you’ve got to keep him out there,” Vogel said. “But I don’t see us having a steady diet of playing him over George [Hill].”

Paul George, who has played alongside Hill for the last three seasons, says Turner works as the ball handler because he isn’t asked to do a lot. He’s been with the team for less than two weeks and hasn’t mastered the entire playbook.

“We weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary,” George said in-between the wins. “We ran pick-and-roll plays and Evan is a great creator and decision-maker at the ball-handing position. Whether he’s on the wing or at point guard, he’s comfortable there and we’re comfortable with him there. I think it was a great coaching change.”

Turner performed well in the new role with his new team, but admitted Saturday night that he was shocked by Vogel’s decision.

“I thought Paul was coming in for me,” he said. “He put up [one finger] and I was like OK, I’ll take a one-minute break. And then he was like ‘No, you’re running the one.’ I was like OK, cool. I guess, ‘Good job coach, there will be a little something extra in your mailbox.’”

A Year After Back Surgery, Jared Sullinger Isnít Yet Satisfied

Jared Sullinger’s first year in the NBA wasn’t an easy one.

Expected to be a lottery pick coming out of Ohio State, he dropped after several teams reportedly flagged him over concerns about back issues. The Boston Celtics happily took him with the 21st overall pick and prepared to reap the benefits of a skilled, NBA-ready power forward.

Sullinger looked good as a rookie, averaging 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in fewer than 20 minutes on a team headed for the postseason. On Jan. 22, 2013 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the closest thing to a hometown team for the Columbus native, Sullinger registered 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes.

Back spasms forced him out of a win over the Sacramento Kings after just four minutes just one week later. The Celtics announced two days later that Sullinger had undergone season-ending back surgery.

“We knew this could happen. We knew it a month before the draft that this could happen and at some point it probably would happen,” then-coach Doc Rivers said at the time.

"We were hoping it would be a summer thing, rather than the middle of the season, but it happened now. He was playing great and the good news is we know he can play. We know he'll be a very good player and, in the long run, this will make him healthier."

The Celtics hope the surgery will remain a long-term fix for back issues that some teams considered chronic heading into the 2012 NBA Draft. One front office was told by their medical staff to avoid Sullinger altogether because of issues they felt might never go away.

A little more than a year since going under the knife, Sullinger is headed to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. While he acknowledges having doubts about his basketball future, Sullinger remained strong during his lengthy rehabilitation.

“At the time, there’s always doubt,” Sullinger said. “When I’m sitting there on my bed, sitting on my couch and watching movies because I’m not able to travel with the team. It’s definitely tough, but at the same time I think mentally I was strong enough to understand that I would be back.”

Sullinger’s absence in the second half of last season was compounded by the fact that the Celtics had also lost Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL. Shorthanded, Boston was eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks.

“When you are sitting down on the bed and you really don’t do nothing, can’t workout, can’t do absolutely nothing, can’t live a normal lifestyle it’s pretty tough,” Sullinger admitted.

“Especially with your team going into the playoffs and you know there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Losing 37 games during your rookie season isn’t something anyone plans for, but Sullinger appears to be much better for having had surgery. He is averaging 13.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in 27.4 minutes for the rebuilding Celtics this season.

“Am I as good as new? Yeah, I mean it shows out there that I’m doing fine,” the forward said. “I can do everything I did when it hurt. I was basically playing on one leg [last season], I wouldn’t say I can jump higher but I can move better.”

Sullinger has started 38 of his 51 games this season, while also dealing with hand, wrist and ankle issues. His per 36 numbers (17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds) would make him a borderline All-Star in the Eastern Conference.

“I have a lot of work to do,” he added. “I don’t want to be satisfied and I never will be satisfied. I’ve got a lot more work to do.”

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