WALTHAM — Danny Ainge isn’t pulling any punches about his efforts to go after some big-time unrestricted free agents this summer. But he’s also be very, very realistic about his chances.
There is a good pool of free agents available this offseason around the league. And many of those free agents are big men, one of the pressing needs of the Celtics as they look to build for 2015-16. And on top of that, the Celtics will have a great deal of cap space to work with, even after offering Jae Crowder a qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent.
But the unprecedented rise in the cap in the next two years, growing by as much as $20 million, has a down side, namely 29 other teams with the same expanded flexibility.
“I think free agency is hard,” Ainge said Thursday. “I think it’s unlikely but possible. So we’re going to go after any and everybody that we think is a significant player to upgrade our talent roster. And when I say upgrade our talent, you’ve got to be pretty good to upgrade our talent because we have good players. So, we’re going after all the top names on the list and see what happens.”
Names like LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan are all scheduled to hit the market.
“I don’t think any of us can predict that. That’s good talk radio stuff but I think ultimately every player is different, unique,” Ainge said. “Some players look at the Celtics organization and tradition, and think it’s something special. Some don’t. Some prefer hot weather to cold weather but most players prefer good contracts and good opportunities to play and hopefully to win, in that order first in most players. We have to prove to people that we have the opportunities for them to be paid, to play, to reach their full potential and to win. I think Boston will be a good destination for some.
“I think there’s risk in the draft and there’s risk in free agency and there’s risk in trades and any sort of deals that you make. I just think you have to do your best in trying to find the right fit and that’s hard. If you’re in this business long enough, you’re going to make mistakes. We all do. And I think you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. It’s a challenge to do your homework and make sure that these guys are not just good players, because we know a lot of players are good players. But sometimes it’s just not the right fit. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle, finding those guys that fit with the coach, with the system, with the other players on the team.
“I don’t ever feel like we can afford a mistake. But sometimes you miss and you have to take the shot. Sometimes you turn the ball over when you try to make the right pass. I think it’s the same thing. I don’t look at any play that we make in the organization like we can afford to take this risk. I’m shooting to make all of them.”
In addition to Crowder, Ainge will have some decisions to make on his own roster, including whether to make a run at Brandon Bass and Jonas Jerebko, both of whom become unrestricted free agents.
“Rather than going individual by individual, I would just say we like all of them, and to some degree,” Ainge said. “Some of it’s just going to be dependent on [financial] numbers and roster spots and draft and trades and everything else. So, you just can’t emphatically say anything about anybody other than I can emphatically say that we definitely qualify Jae Crowder, which I think is pretty obvious. Other than that, the unrestricted free agents, it’s uncertain. But we do like each one of them and would welcome any one of them back at the right price and in the right role.”
Ainge said he does not anticipate any significant offseason surgeries on players currently under contract for next season. Crowder sprained his left ACL in the Game 4 loss to the Cavaliers but is expected to fully recover without any procedure.
Ainge was also asked if he wanted to clarify his comments about making playoffs, telling the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett that his goal was not to make the playoffs but build a championship caliber team, something Ainge said the Celtics are a long way from.
“That’s just Bulpett stirring the pot I think,” Ainge joked. “We started the season out with high expectations. I didn’t believe we were a championship contender at the beginning of the year but certainly thought we were a little bit better than how we played early on. Then when we made the trades early in the season, I think our expectations were a little bit less. We were going to play our young guys and focus on them. There was probably more attention on the draft to me at that time. But I never intervened with the players or coaches or gave them any direction one way or another, other than to go out and win and create culture of winning.
“I think the playoff experience helps us because Cleveland is a team that we’re going to have to deal with for years to come. I think it gives our guys some confidence. I think they feel like they’re not maybe as far away as the world thinks. I think that they feel more confident today after playing four straight games against them than they might have been before the series. I think that it’s also a reality check of how good that those guys are for us, organizationally. Following a game plan and playing against the best team in the East is great experience because the playoffs are a different level of intensity. First quarters are like fourth quarters of regular season games. I think it’s important for our guys to see how hard it is to win.”
Ainge also addressed some other subjects on Thursday, including the ugly public breakup between Rajon Rondo and Rick Carlisle, both of whom he knows very well.
“I am very surprised, yeah. I really don’t know what happened, other than media reports so I probably shouldn’t comment any further on that. I like both individuals and I’m very surprised it didn’t work out better,” Ainge said.
On Isaiah Thomas, who Ainge said he would like to see remain as a sixth man: “When we acquired Isaiah, I knew he would make us better. Ultimately, we acquired Isaiah and we were fine with that. It’s that simple. The decisions that we made weren’t always to try to be the very best we could be this year when we were making the decisions. We didn’t know we’d be better even before we got Isaiah. But then when we got Isaiah, we knew that was the missing piece that we needed, an offensive scorer, a fireplug off the bench that can create offense. We were pretty sure that was going to make us better and ultimately, we chose to do that.”
On development of Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart: “I was encouraged by their development. I think the injuries to both of them, the ankle injuries, were very severe and I think it knocked a little bit out of both of them. So barring those injuries, I think overall their development is coming along as expected.
“Kelly has shown his versatility. I think he really improved defensively. I think Marcus has really picked up. He’s a great instinctive defender but I think he picked up the schemes and became an outstanding defender, got even better than he was immediately. Offensively, I think he’s come a long way, too. He’s getting more and more confident in shooting and he’s unafraid of the moments. I think everybody can see the bigger the moment, the more he lights up, and I think that’s an encouraging part for both of them.”
Danny Ainge speaks Thursday at the team practice facility in Waltham. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
WALTHAM — The Celtics surprised a lot of people by finishing the season with a six-game winning streak, ending up with the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But the work to improve on that encouraging ending doesn’t stop with a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Far from it.
Now, according to the team’s president of basketball operations, the hard work really begins. How does he and his staff go about improving upon a 40-42 mark through the NBA draft and added space under the salary cap?
“I feel like we need to have a busy summer and we will have a busy summer,” Danny Ainge said Thursday. “Hopefully, we can get some things accomplished that we need to. I think we need to upgrade our talent level on our team and at the same time, I’m very excited about a lot of the individuals that we have.
“Actually, all of the individuals I thought played the best basketball of their careers in a lot of cases. So, I’m excited about the players that we have. At the same time, I feel like we’re not at the same level as a team like Cleveland, and we found that out.”
Ainge confirmed one of his moves already on Thursday when he announced he will extend a qualifying offer to Jae Crowder. By extending a qualifying offer to Crowder, the Celtics would make him a restricted free agent.
The key to the summer will likely be how Ainge and his staff handle the extra spending space afforded by the expansion of the NBA salary cap. The Celtics currently have $40.4 million committed to salaries for 2015-16. The current cap number of $63 million is expected to grow to about $66 million next season but could explode to $87 million in 2017. The reason: A brand new nine-year, $24 billion TV deal.
But while the Celtics will have more money to spend, so too will the other 29 teams, creating tremendous cap competition this summer.
“Yeah, that’s a factor,” Ainge admitted. “I think that’s a factor for every team going forward and trying to figure that out and use the cap wisely. We’ll be responsible in how we utilize the cap.”
The pool of potential free agents is impressive. LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap. All are big men and all could fill a void for the Celtics.
“It all depends,” Ainge said. “It just depends on who’s available, who you can get. We need to use it wisely. We haven’t haven’t ever had cap space I don’t think in the history of the Celtics, for sure, since I’ve been here. We need to use that space wisely. We can’t just spend it because we have it.
“We don’t know any of that yet. We’re not allowed to talk about free agency until July. So, we don’t know any of those. There’s speculation. We’re anticipating that that could be the case, that some people might opt for shorter term deals but we don’t know that. Every player is unique and different.”
Kelly Olynyk gets entangled with Kevin Love in Game 4 Sunday afternoon. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
WALTHAM — Danny Ainge knows a little something about intense playoff basketball and the contact that is associated with it.
On Thursday, as he was wrapping up the past season with reporters at the team’s practice facility, Ainge had a degree of sympathy for Kevin Love, knocked out of the playoffs with season-ending surgery on his dislocated left shoulder.
After the game, Love called the play by Kelly Olynyk that resulted in his arm being dislocated from the socket a “bush league” play, adding that it was clearly intentional.
“I think that’s a little bit over the top,” Ainge said. “It’s understandable. The heat of the battle. I feel bad for Kevin Love because he’s waited a long time to get where their team is right now and now he doesn’t get a chance to play. I certainly don’t think Kelly did it on purpose.”
“I don’t even think that that play would’ve been reviewed more than a foul had Kevin not gotten hurt. But because Kevin did get hurt, the league does evaluate those situations and I understand a little bit why they did it. There was a lot of pressure on Cleveland. They were losing J.R. Smith in the first couple of games in the next round and they have Kevin out for the playoffs now so I’m sure there was a lot of frustration in Cleveland. They wanted some justice and they scrutinized it and felt like Kelly gave it a little too much at the very end of that arm tangling. When someone gets hurt, you’re just under a little more scrutiny but I thought it was just a foul of two guys going for a loose ball.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens and team president Danny Ainge aren’t going anywhere. That much we know. Everyone else on the roster is up for debate. Certainly, nobody is untradeable, so let’s attempt to project how these C’s players fit into Ainge’s puzzle this coming summer with a game of ‘to keep or not to keep.’
Through all the upheaval, Bass was the rock of the 2014-15 Boston Celtics. Built like a Chevy truck, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound big man appeared in all 82 games for the second straight season. (He’s missed just eight games since arriving in Boston four years ago.) Splitting his time between starting and reserve roles, Bass produced the best per-minute numbers of his career this past summer while averaging the fewest minutes of his Celtics tenure (23.5). He remains one of the league’s elite midrange shooters and double-handed dunked his way to a decent percentage around the rim, but concerns about him linger.
He’s neither an exceptional rebounder nor rim protector defensively — an issue that killed the Celtics against the Cavaliers — and does not fit Stevens’ floor-stretching mold offensively. There wasn’t much of a trade market for an undersized power forward who brings few of the skills required for such players in today’s NBA at $6.9 million, and his disappearance in the playoffs may have sealed his fate at any rate.
Verdict: Not to keep.
AVERY BRADLEY (signed through 2017-18 for $8.3 million per season)
Playing the most minutes of his career, Bradley took a slight step back from a stellar offensive season in 2013-14, when he shot 40 percent from 3-point range. Still one of the league’s best marksmen from midrange, his 3-point percentage dipped to 35 percent this year. Not a playmaker by any stretch, Bradley was asked to shoulder a less-than-ideal offensive load in the absence of capable scorers, and his efficiency would benefit from improved offensive talent easing the defensive pressure around him.
As for his own defense, Bradley returned to bulldog form, hounding Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving throughout the first round. Irving averaged 25.1 points per 100 possessions on 38 percent shooting opposite Bradley in the series and 41.2 points per 100 possessions on 58 percent shooting with him on the bench. That brand of on-ball defense, particularly when paired with Marcus Smart’s similar skill set, is invaluable.
JAE CROWDER (restricted free agent)
If Game 4 taught us anything, it’s that the Cavaliers viewed Crowder as the C’s toughest player, asking Kendrick Perkins to level him when Kelly Olynyk really drew their ire. (Crowder’s relentlessness also elicited a cheap shot from J.R. Smith that could cost Cleveland its second-round series.) Regardless, he loomed large for the Celtics both on the court — where he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds, two assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes in Boston — and in the locker room, where he’s a respected voice on a team in need of them. Stevens values versatility, and Crowder proved productive playing the 3 in bigger lineups and the 4 in smaller ones. Throw in the defensive effort he demonstrated in slowing LeBron James‘ inevitable impact, and he should be Ainge’s top priority on the current roster come July.
GIGI DATOME (restricted free agent)
Gigi is the new Gino, in more ways than one. Somewhat of a mascot for the C’s piecemeal operation during this year’s playoff run, Datome averaged 5.2 points while shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range in 10.7 minutes over 18 games during the regular season. When all else failed, Stevens turned to Datome, and more often than not the 27-year-old Italian found himself at the center of another fourth-quarter comeback. Yet, he was relegated to little more than garbage time in the playoffs (hence, Gino). By no means is Datome an essential employee going forward, but he’s a willing (albeit mildly effective) defender, a pro’s pro and easily the best long-range shooter on a team in desperate need of them.
JONAS JEREBKO (unrestricted free agent)
How the Celtics scored both Datome and Jerebko for Tayshaun Prince‘s expiring contract from a team in no need of veteran assistance remains a mystery, but alas both became rotation players during a playoff run. The Swedish Larry Bird, or whatever you want to call him, Jerebko was the more invaluable of the two, remarkably recording 36-minute averages of 14.1 points (40.6 3P%), 9.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.3 steals. Following an impressive rookie campaign, Jerebko lost favor in Detroit due to an Achilles injury that cost him his sophomore season, but his skill and athleticism at 6-foot-10 — to say nothing of his energetic effort — offered Stevens another intriguing weapon on his quest to mix and match lineups.
KELLY OLYNYK (signed through 2016-17 for $2.6 million per season)
Dislocating Kevin Love‘s shoulder was not Olynyk’s finest moment. The incident was a harsh reminder of his stumbling clumsiness on the defensive end. But the Celtics are intrigued by his offensive potential, considering few 7-footers not named Dirk Nowitzki have proven so effective from 3-point land. Granted, Olynyk doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Nowitzki, but the Canadian could blossom into a unique talent with steady improvement on the defensive and rebounding fronts. He fits the Stevens system, and two years is too early to give up on him, unless another team is enticed by that potential in trade talks.
PHIL PRESSEY (non-guaranteed minimum contract)
A serviceable backup to the backup point guard, Pressey has been a good soldier during his two-year stint since signing as an undrafted free agent, forever prepared to contribute when his No. 26 is called. But beyond an energetic boost and an eye for assists, Pressey’s size and inability to shoot from distance make him expendable whenever the Celtics require the final few roster spots to make an upgrade.
Verdict: Not to keep.
MARCUS SMART (signed through 2017-18 for $3.85 million per season)
It was a rocky rookie season for the sixth overall pick, but by the end he was the most vital 2014 NBA draft pick left standing (with the possible exception of Houston backup center Clint Capela). His most productive stretch came during a Rookie of the Month campaign in February, when he averaged 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 rebounds as the starting point guard for a team that enjoyed its first winning month in two seasons. But production was not Smart’s strongest suit. His bruising defense came as advertised, and if his offensive game ever catches up he’ll be a hell of a player. He showed signs of evolution on that end, shooting 40.9 percent from 3 over a two-month period midway through the season and exploding to the basket twice as often after the All-Star break. An ankle injury derailed him early, and maturity issues arose late, but all in all Smart enjoyed an impressive rookie year.
JARED SULLINGER (signed through 2015-16 for $2.3 million next season)
Sullinger was the most productive member of the Celtics in their Game 4 loss to the Cavs, collecting 21 points and 11 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench, and yet he was routinely torched defensively. His production — impressive 36-minute averages of 17.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists — was at odds with the team’s success this season, as the Celtics were outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and outscored opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions without him in 2014-15. He is an exceptional rebounder for his size, but by no means a rim protector, and among NBA regulars who attempted three 3-pointers per game only a recovering Derrick Rose shot worse than Sullinger’s 28.3 percent. The C’s spent last summer dangling Sullinger in a deal for Kevin Love, and they may accept less in return this offseason, but how much will teams be willing to offer in return for a 280-pound 23-year-old with a history of back and foot injuries who Ainge has publicly criticized for lack of conditioning?
Verdict: Not to keep.
ISAIAH THOMAS (signed through 2017-18 for $6.6 million per season)
Neutralized once Cleveland turned its focus to stopping him in Game 3, Thomas is best suited as a third or fourth option on a contending team, but his regular-season impact as a 5-foot-9 sixth man is no less impressive. Appearing in 21 games for the Celtics, he averaged 26.4 points and 7.5 assists per 36 minutes, submitting the most impressive stretch of his four-year career. That production at less than $7 million per season is more than enough value to make up for any defensive liability due to his lack of size. It would be interesting to see how Thomas adjusts as other impact players eat into his high usage rate, but as currently constituted his ball dominance meshes well with a team lacking creative offensive forces.
EVAN TURNER (signed through 2015-16 for $3.4 million next season)
If you suggested Turner would serve as the de facto starting point guard for Boston’s playoff run, the collective basketball braintrust would have suffered an aneurysm. But Stevens tapped into the strengths that made Turner successful both in college and during his second season in Philadelphia, making him more facilitator than scorer. The list of players with 750 points, 400 assists and 400 rebounds this season: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron, Tyreke Evans and Turner. Granted, he doesn’t belong in the same conversation as those guys, and the C’s were actually better both offensively and defensively with Turner on the bench, but at $3.4 million in 2015-16 he could eventually be a bargain off the bench.
The highest-paid member of the Celtics this season, Wallace scored 35 points all year — a total that was eclipsed by individual players in a single game on 111 occasions in 2014-15. Uncle Gerald was a glorified coach this past winter, the sage veteran whose seen it all in his 14 seasons, offering words of wisdom to younger teammates from his perch on the end of the C’s bench. As a player, though, he remains arguably the league’s most overpaid, but he finally has value to the Celtics in the form of an expiring contract.
Verdict: Not to keep.
JAMES YOUNG (signed through 2017-18 for $2.1 million per season)
On media day, Young scoffed at the idea of playing in the D-League, and yet the rookie played almost twice as many minutes for the Red Claws as he did for the Celtics this season. Billed as an elite shooter with defensive issues, he was instead a subpar shooter with defensive issues in limited NBA action. The good news? He’s still just 19 years old, and he shot 44 percent on a ridiculous nine 3-pointers per game in Maine. It’s way too early to deem Young a bust after just 31 appearances, but he’s definitely not not one.
TYLER ZELLER (signed through 2015-16 for $2.6 million next season)
As a throw-in to a deal for an expiring trade exception, a 7-footer who averaged 17.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per 36 minutes isn’t so bad, especially when said dude is still on his rookie contract. Zeller was a solid finisher both around the rim and from mid-range, particularly as a pick-and-roll partner, and defensively he showed enough improvement as a rim protector to suggest he could continue progressing in that regard. If the Celtics land a true starting center, Zeller’s energy seems equally suited for a reserve role, and his production against the backup bigs of the world could look even more impressive.
Obviously, everybody’s keeper status depends on the pending free agents accepting reasonable salaries and the players under contract not fetching a more impressive return on the trade market. If, for example, Bass is willing to accept a considerable pay cut for a more limited role, he might be worth bringing back. And if Datome commands anything more than a minimum contract, well then arrivederci. Likewise, if anyone, including Smart or Thomas, helps land a superstar, then pack their bags. Still, a core of Bradley, Smart, Thomas, Turner, Crowder, Jerebko, Olynyk and Zeller was good enough to make the playoffs this year, and any upgrades elsewhere on the roster should help them take another step forward in 2015-16.
Kelly Olynyk gets entangled with Kevin Love in Game 4 Sunday afternoon. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The NBA didn’t waste much time handing out their discipline from Sunday’s Game 4 altercations between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
Rod Thorn, the league’s president of basketball operations, announced that Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk was suspended one game without pay at the start of the 2015-16 season for his “arm bar” that resulted in a dislocated left shoulder for Cavs star big man Kevin Love.
The Cavaliers announced Monday that Love would miss the entire second round series with a dislocated left shoulder from the incident.
Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith has been suspended two games without pay for his violent arm swing that resulted in flush contact with Jae Crowder’s jaw. Crowder was stunned and momentarily knocked out. As Crowder fell to the ground, his left knee buckled and bent underneath him, resulting a sprained MCL, as the Celtics announced on Monday. Smith will serve his suspension in Games 1 and 2 of the 2015 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals when the Cavaliers host the winner of the Chicago Bulls vs. Milwaukee Bucks series.
That incident resulted in Crowder leaving the game and not returning. Smith was assessed with a “Flagrant 2″ foul and immediately ejected with 10:24 left in the third quarter.
Additionally, Cavaliers center Kendrick Perkins‘s second quarter “Flagrant 1″ foul on a screen set on Crowder has been upgraded to a “Flagrant 2″ and he has been fined $15,000.
Smith’s incident, during which he swung his arm and made contact with the head of Celtics forward Jae Crowder, resulted in a Flagrant Foul 2 and his ejection at the 10:24 mark of the third quarter of the game.