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Vision quest

With NBA Draft upcoming, it's a good time to bring Danny Ainge's long-term plan for the Celtics into focus

When the talk turns to The Vision, Danny Ainge rolls his eyes and punctuates the air with quotation marks.

"I laugh every time I hear 'The Vision,' like we have some sort of secret hidden plan,'' said the Celtics executive director of basketball operations.

The alleged master plan for the next Celtics championship has taken on a life of its own, though it retains an illusory, ghostlike quality.

Whether or not you believe it exists in some comprehensive form, whether or not you saw it in the maneuvers of the past season, there is no question that The Vision hangs over and haunts the Ainge Era.

"I have a vision of how the Celtics should play basketball,'' said Ainge. "And I have a vision of what kind of players are needed to play that style of basketball. Beyond that, what can you say? Can you say this player fits that vision and this player doesn't fit that vision?

"The whole vision thing, I mean, everybody has a vision. Jim O'Brien has a vision. Doc Rivers has a vision. Larry Bird has a vision. Danny Ainge has a vision. But we all will struggle to find the perfect system, the perfect players to fill that vision.''

The questions remain: What exactly is the vision Ainge has for the Celtics? And what has he done to achieve it? For now, The Vision exists as something better deciphered than defined, a collection of early chess moves in a marathon game.

It would be easier to accept the existence of The Vision if the Celtics could point to a Dwyane Wade or Josh Howard. It would be easier to see The Vision at work if Ainge indicated that he had more than Paul Pierce as the core of the future. As it stands, albeit at the one-year mark, The Vision lacks the deliberateness of Joe Dumars rebuilding the Pistons and Donnie Walsh restructuring the Pacers. Ainge has been proactive, but that only prompted further questioning of The Vision -- as in too much, too soon?

Ainge said he will approach Thursday night's draft realizing that the Celtics stand many moves away from another NBA title.

"I'm drafting the best players available because I don't feel we're in a position where we're one thing away from being a championship-caliber team," said Ainge. "We need more talent. We need more character. We need more toughness. We need more leadership."

Sitting at his introductory press conference beside Red Auerbach last May, Ainge first mentioned The Vision. He talked about the importance of up-tempo play, easy baskets, and athleticism. It sounded promising. Perhaps, though, people were temporarily intoxicated by swirls of cigar smoke as Auerbach offered his imprimatur simply by showing up. Perhaps to some, a living link to the last Celtics championship -- one who played on the team -- fulfilled the prerequisite for No. 17. Perhaps Ainge was simply buying time and hope by trumpeting The Vision.

The perils of youth
In one year, The Vision has made the Celtics roster unrecognizable from the one that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2002. Antoine Walker, Eric Williams, O'Brien -- all gone, along with 11 others who predated the Ainge Era. In one year, The Vision has brought Boston the dunking of Ricky Davis, the development of Jiri Welsch, and the discontent of Pierce. What exactly the Celtics have in 2003 first-round picks Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins and key trade acquisition Raef LaFrentz remains uncertain.

"I have a vision of what kind of players I want," said Ainge. "And I have a vision of what it takes to win. I don't have a vision of who those players are. Or actually, I do, but I can't get them. I can't go get Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, and so forth.

"I get the 15th-best player in the draft this year, and the 24th-best player and the 25th. So I have to do the best I can with that. And I don't get to go after the top free agents."

Naturally, Ainge cannot reveal whom he wants to select in the draft, but he will talk about acquiring players who possess a complete game and winning character traits. At this stage of the rebuilding, Ainge believes player character should trump style of play. At the same time, building with youth means such characteristics may take time to develop. Immaturity, both physical and emotional, is a small short-term price to pay for proverbial long-term upside. But the catch is always that player development remains as uncertain as ever.

This past season, Ainge saw what can happen when youth and talent lack toughness.

"You need balance," said Ainge. "You need players that can occupy their man and can defend their position, players that can play through adversity. That's a big issue that we have on our team, playing through adversity. We have bad body language too often. And we're emotionally very unstable as a team."

But Ainge likes "the age and athleticism" of the current roster, and that makes him "less likely to do things" as far as trades are concerned. The average age on the season-ending roster for 2002-03 was 28.7, with Kedrick Brown (22) the youngest player and Mark Bryant (38) the oldest. At the end of the 2003-04 season, the Celtics' average age stood at 26.2, with Perkins (19) the youngest and two-week team member Dana Barros (37) the oldest.

Although Ainge said, "I really don't want to trade any players of our nucleus," he declined to specify that nucleus for fear of offending individuals. He cites a similar reason for not revealing specific details of The Vision, knowing that behind every personnel move under consideration lies the implication of personal criticism. Still, Ainge has a funny way of showing support for his youth-driven makeover.

"I believe that we have more younger, talented players than we have had in the past, more marketable players," said Ainge. "As I was on the phone with teams last year at this time, I wasn't getting a lot of interest in any of our players. That's not the case this year.

"But we haven't been able to see anything yet. We don't know anything. The only thing we've done is gotten younger and more athletic. We've got more chips to play with."

Elusive "nucleus"
Beyond Pierce, it remains anyone's guess whom Ainge would include in the nucleus. The 2003-04 season was so dysfunctional (Ainge's word) that the Celtics never established a core with chemistry. A better way to consider the question may be to ask, "Which players does Ainge want to see develop and play together under Rivers?"

Ainge said he wants to watch what happens with Welsch with a season worth of experience and how LaFrentz plays after right knee surgery and nine months of rehabilitation. Ainge believes the influence of Rivers on Banks and Davis will be substantial.

So an educated guess is that the nucleus includes Pierce, Welsch, LaFrentz, Banks, and Davis. But Ainge noted that, in addition to Pierce, teams have expressed "a lot of interest" in Banks and Welsch, and calls have come for Davis.

By design, Ainge collected a more marketable group of players that gave him "more chips." He acknowledges that the Celtics are far from a finished product. That indicates that he will continue changing personnel, dramatically if the right trade presents itself.

No one is immune from inclusion in a deal, not even Pierce. For Ainge, it's not important what a player has done for the Celtics lately, but what he can do in the future, even if that means three, four, five years from now. Just ask Chucky Atkins, whom the Celtics left unprotected for today's expansion draft after the veteran point guard helped push the team into the playoffs. Or perhaps ask Robert Swift, a 7-foot high schooler the Celtics may select with one of their three first-round picks.

There's no one way to win
The Vision does not necessarily include the acquisition of superstars. Ainge cited Detroit as the obvious example of a championship team built with "second-tier stars," albeit the first of its kind in decades.

"First of all, we need to play basketball more as a team," said Ainge. "We can't rely on one or two players to win games for us. I think that's the plan I have to go forward, trying to win [the Detroit] way. I hope that we can create a team of 8-10 really good players that can overcome a superstar."

It would be a bonus, he said, "if some player that we draft or some player that we are able to acquire on the free agent market is better than what people think he is or really develops into a great player."

A certain amount of flexibility in playing style is essential to The Vision.

"I don't think that there's one way that you have to play to win," said Ainge. "I do believe that you need to be able to take advantage of what you create with your defense. If you get a long rebound, you need to fast-break. If you get steals, you have to be able to turn them into points. Halfcourt offense, halfcourt defense, and the fast break -- I believe you can't be really good without being able to do any one of those."

Ainge indeed wants an emphasis on fast-break basketball, but like The Vision in general, he believes that aspect has been greatly exaggerated.

"Up-tempo is important, but up-tempo is blown out of proportion," said Ainge. "I don't have visions of being the Denver Nuggets of the 1980s. Again, I have the vision of being able to, like our Celtics teams in the past, move the ball up the court with the pass. We were not a speed demon team. But we passed the ball and moved it. If there was a steal, it was a long pass up the court and we attacked. I believe in attacking the basket and attacking the other team before they can set up.

"But you have to have the personnel. You have to have players that can make the right decisions."

Vision or no vision, the same could be said for the Celtics executive director of basketball operations. 

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