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.”