ORLANDO — As the blockbuster trade sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets is hours from being official, christening the beginning of the Celtics’ rebuilding era, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge Wednesday watched his summer league squad tussle with the Houston Rockets, satisfied with his offseason work so far.
There are two standout rookies on the team, first-round pick Kelly Olynyk and second-round selection Colton Iverson, and an emerging player in former Missouri guard Phil Pressey, who will officially receive a training camp invitation following the summer league conclusion Friday.
It’s been a few weeks of recovery for the Celtics, who are trying to reduce their roster size, avoid any luxury taxes, and add youth to their roster despite the contracts of Gerald Wallace ($10.1 million owed next season), Kris Humphries ($12 million), and Keith Bogans ($5 million) coming over in the Brooklyn trade.
On the day that free agent contracts were official and the league-wide moratorium was lifted, the Celtics had nothing to announce for the first time in years. They are likely to be inactive in the free agent market, save for some minimum salary deals. Ainge maintains the Celtics need to shave players off the roster, condense salary, and put themselves in a better financial position, unlike those luxury tax years when they were competing for championships.
It’s a bizarre position for the Celtics. They are not making a peep in free agency, they are in complete restructuring mode, and Ainge said Wednesday he is not likely to use the team’s mini mid-level exception or bi-annual exception to sign a free agent who merely would be a stopgap. With the incumbent veterans such as Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and Courtney Lee along with Wallace, potentially Humphries (if his expiring deal is not moved), and Bogans, the Celtics have enough veterans.
Signing a couple of more won’t help their retooling plan if it means robbing playing time from a youngster.
“Right now we’ll have a full roster,” Ainge said. “So there’s some guys we’re still taking a look at but we got a lot of guys. We’ve been active but just in a different way. We’ve been trying to make more deals as opposed to just free agent signings because we haven’t had cap space and we have a lot of bodies and we have a lot of guys we like under contract.”
Ainge has fielded his share of calls on Rajon Rondo and there are teams such as the Detroit Pistons lurking, waiting for the Celtics to make him available. Ainge has maintained he is not trading Rondo. Rondo’s agent said his client is ready to cooperate and work with new coach Brad Stevens, and Rondo is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Yet Ainge said teams are not making ridiculous offers for Rondo, such as expiring contracts or low draft picks, trying to feast off a rebuilding team looking to dump salary.
“No people don’t do that, I think they know better than that,” he said, laughing. “It’s a normal summer that way, a lot of conversation, every team is trying to improve their team. Every team is trying to manage their payroll. You look at every team in the league and try to figure out what they may need, what they may want, what they can afford. So it’s tough. Making trades is challenging because there’s so many teams that have different goals and different payrolls.”
Ainge said there was no progress in talks for Brazilian center Vitor Faverani, who would require a buyout from his team in Spain. That would only garner the Celtics the rights to the 6-feet, 11-inch 250-pounder, and they would have to squeeze him into the salary structure somehow.
While Ainge said he is unlikely to stretch the budget at this point, he didn’t rule it out — as if Ainge leaving himself an out is a surprise.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “For the right person we’ll pay anything we can. We’ll pay the full mid-level, get under the tax and pay a full mid-level [$5.1 million] if we have to.”
Ainge said last week that the Celtics had no intention on tanking the season for a high draft pick and the players who showed up at Amway Center — Green, Lee, Bass, and Jared Sullinger — reiterated their desire to compete and were disturbed by the perception 2013-14 was a throwaway season.
Ainge again agreed.
“We have some good players and I’m very excited about these guys and how hard they’re playing and next year will be fun,” he said. “They don’t believe [they’ll be bad]. Who cares what other people think? You have to go out and play for each other. If it gives you a chip on your shoulder because of what people are saying then that’s fine. I don’t know who’s paying attention to what’s being said, I don’t know what’s being said, but time will tell.”