Celtics optimistic, but far from a finished product
He didn't actually come out and say so in such black-and-white terms. But he came close enough Saturday night prior to an exhibition against New York in an interview with Insider at the Mohegan Sun casino, saying, "We have three proven quality NBA players in Paul Pierce, Wally and Delonte West."
Entering his fourth year at the helm of the league's most storied franchise, Ainge made it clear he's satisfied with what he has but is nonetheless prepared to keep the team in the same state of flux that it has been in throughout his tenure.
"When I feel like our roster is set and we're ready to win an NBA championship, where we have stabilized pieces for three or four years to come, we won't make trades," Ainge said. "But until then we're going to continue to tweak our roster until we feel we're at that stage, and we're not there yet."
Where they are, in fact, is a significant step behind where the Celtics thought they'd be by now.
One year ago they were the defending Atlantic Division leaders coming off a 45-win season and a trip to the playoffs, but they were one of the NBA's biggest disappointments in the 2005-06 campaign when they dropped to 33 wins, the midseason trade of Ricky Davis for Szczerbiak having failed to turn their season around.
If there's another midseason shakeup in store, don't be surprised.
Ainge's tenure has been marked by a multitude of deals. His first year included the deals sending Antoine Walker to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz and Tony Battie to Cleveland for Ricky Davis; his second season was marked by the reacquisition of Walker; his third was highlighted by the Davis-Szczerbiak deal; and this past summer he acquired point guards Sebastian Telfair and rookie Rajon Rondo on draft night.
His cell phone is still ringing, and Ainge is still listening.
"Right now it's just making proposals and listening to proposals. I've been proactive for four years, but one thing I learned from Red [Auerbach] is sometimes the best trades are ones you don't make. So it's activity in seeing what's out there and what's available, but not necessarily trying to move people. I want to see them develop and see them play.
"That doesn't mean that I wouldn't if the right deal comes along, but I'm not looking to trade anybody on my roster right now."
The current Celtics are heavy on youth and depth, perhaps to a fault in the youth category, and to the point in the depth category that there may be too much duplication. The point guard position provides an example.
Rondo, 20, has been electrifying in the preseason, making a push to steal the starter's job from Telfair, 21, while last year's starting playmaker, West, 23, has been relegated to a new role coming off the bench as a shooting guard.
"The fact that we got two quick point guards wasn't in the plans, but Rondo started sliding so far, we thought he was way too good to get that deep in the draft [21st], so we couldn't pass that up," said Ainge, who surrendered a 2007 first-round pick to Phoenix and took on Brian Grant's expiring contract to acquire him.
As always, Pierce will be a constant in the lineup, and the trade rumors that swirled around him a year ago should die down now that he has signed an extension through 2010-11.
Is he happy with what the Celtics have?
"My level of satisfaction?" Pierce answered with a slight laugh when Insider posed that question. "It's hard to say right now, man. It's a trial period for a lot of these guys, still trying to figure out what our rotation is going to be. So I'll give you a better reading after these last three [preseason] games."
His backups, Gerald Green and Tony Allen, are among Ainge's best young trade chips if he's sincere in his declaration that he will not move West. For now, the forward positions are manned by Szczerbiak, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson, rookie Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine. Theo Ratliff and probably Michael Olowokandi will serve as backup to Kendrick Perkins, the 22-year-old who, like the 21-year-old Jefferson, either will have a breakout season or might soon find himself wearing another uniform.
"Right now we're rebuilding, but one trade or one player stepping up could really turn things around," Pierce told Insider. "You see what happened with Detroit, how one trade really turned them into contenders, so anything's possible."
Boston missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons last spring, turning up the heat on both Ainge and coach Doc Rivers to find a way to right this ship. Rivers' routine of commuting to Orlando to spend time with his family has not always sat well with ownership, and his emphasis on offense over defense has led many (including me) to write off the Celtics' chances of improvement as negligible at best, at least for the upcoming season, Rivers' third.
Boston will be one of the teams making a discernable change to small ball, at times using Pierce at the power forward spot in a lightning-quick lineup led by Telfair and/or Rondo. West will be asked to shoot more than he did as a point guard, while Szczerbiak will be watched closely to see whether his game can fit into a higher-octane offense.
Curiously, Ainge said his team's greatest deficiency is outside shooting from the big man spots (what about Wally?), and as of now he is not too concerned with having to import a rebounder or defensive specialist -- so long as Perkins and/or Jefferson can make the leap from intriguing prospect to dependable contributor.
After exploring the possibility of acquiring Allen Iverson over the summer, Ainge now pronounces himself satisfied with his training camp roster for the first time during his four seasons, but he knows the heat will be on both Rivers and him to prove that last year's disappointment was an aberration rather than the start of a trend.
"I always feel internal pressure to succeed and have a fear of failing; in any job I've ever taken I'm motivated by my own fear, but I feel ownership, management, coaching, we're all on the same page. We know where we are as a franchise, we know what we're trying to accomplish," says Ainge.
"If anything, I get pressure from ownership to be patient with some of the young guys. Every time I bring a deal to ownership they'll say I'm not sure I want to get rid of our young guys for that, that just give me another sign that they're really sticking to their guns. But I still listen to phone calls, and I still make proposals and run it by ownership.
"Our first phase of our plan to retool the Celtics was to acquire talent and accumulate talent, and I think we're doing that. We got players that people like, we like them, we're just kind of seeing where that all fits. Our young players and our veterans are capable of winning, and we expect to be in any game at any place at any time during the season.
"I feel our talent is such that we can beat anybody, anywhere."
If not, rest assured Ainge will change things. Just don't expect him to move Pierce, Szczerbiak or West.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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