Following the Celtics' season-ending blowout loss to the Pacers Saturday night, executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge waited to congratulate Indiana coach Rick Carlisle. The encounter was far from awkward as the always-forward-looking Ainge did not dwell on the sting of defeat. The former Boston teammates exchanged a few complimentary words, then went their separate ways. While Carlisle and the Pacers headed to Detroit for a second-round matchup with the Pistons, Ainge shifted his focus to the draft and free agency.
Ainge likes the direction the Celtics are headed, even though a first-round upset likely remembered for a pair of ejections, one suspension, and frustratingly inconsistent play marred strides they made during the regular season. With Boston holding picks No. 18, 50, and 53 (from Sacramento) in next month's draft, Ainge is excited about next season. Between now and training camp, he must figure out how to improve the team while maintaining a balanced mix of young talent and veterans. To that end, Ainge must make critical cost-benefit analyses of free agents Antoine Walker and Gary Payton.
Now, the real work begins as Ainge continues building what he hopes will one day be a championship-caliber team. The Celtics are better now than they were when last season ended. But judging from offensive struggles and inexcusable losses of composure, they have a long way to go. Not long after his team was bounced from the playoffs, Ainge talked about his favorite subject, the Celtics' future.
Q: Do you consider re-signing Walker and Payton priorities?
A: ''I don't know. First of all, it's their choice. It's going to be tough because those discussions really can't start until July." But you must have an idea of what might happen. After all, Antoine has certainly indicated he would like to remain in Boston.
"I would say that the priorities are to decide what they and we want to do."
Q: So, if your evaluation deems Walker and Payton a good fit for the future of the franchise and the money works for both sides, you can see re-signing them?
A: "Yeah, I think what we're going to do with our free agents [is] a process [where we have to see what happens] to prepare ourselves for them not wanting to come back or them getting an offer from somewhere else that we won't want to match. So, we have to prepare ourselves for all scenarios. That's what I'll be doing in the next little while."
Q: What precisely happens next?
A: "That's a tough question. Where do we go? Well, it's a tough way to end the season, of course. I hope that the players feel the same thing that I feel and I know [Coach] Doc [Rivers] feels and I'm sure they do. But it really doesn't change anything, if we would have won by 20 or lost by 20 [Saturday night]. It doesn't change the yearlong and day-to-day evaluations that we make on what we need to in the future."
Q: What do you do in the next couple days?
A: "I'll spend a lot of time with Doc. We will meet with the players and just set some parameters of what we expect of them in the offseason. In some of the cases, we'll set up [workout] programs for their offseason calendars. Some of the players are free agents and can do what they want. We'll continue to prepare for the draft and prepare for free agency and have those discussions [about free agents] when necessary.
"For the draft and free agency, I will evaluate and look at players with Doc, which I've been doing. I haven't been doing that because he's been coaching. I'll look at players with [owner] Wyc [Grousbeck] and [general manager] Chris [Wallace] and [director of basketball operations] Leo [Papile] and [chief financial officer Bill] Reissfelder. We'll place value on players [available through free agency and the draft], what we think players are worth to our franchise."
Q: How do you do that? Do you have a formula?
A: "It's just a process, what do we think we can get, what kind of production, what kind of value, where do we anticipate free agency going. We have to have 10 or 15 scenarios because there's all sorts of things that throw you off. You might go after a guy you want, but it might be too expensive. He might be a lot higher price tag than what we thought. So, you've got to stay prepared. It's just like drafting. You've got to prepare for the best available at [pick No.] 18. But we don't get to pick our choice. And the same thing with free agency. When you don't have mid-level exception money and that type of thing, you don't just get your choices. You've got to pick and choose the one [that fits best financially and otherwise]. We're in a situation where our cap management is such that we want to get the best players for the best value."
Q: What type of player has value for the Celtics now? In other words, what skills, qualities are you looking to acquire?
A: "I think two things. We are very stagnant on offense. We need more movement of the ball. I think we need better passers, better shooters. And we need a better low-post, inside presence. We need our inside guys to get better at what they do. We need better spacing. But I think that we need to play together more. Right now, we have some really terrific individual scorers. But we need to become better as the team scoring the ball."
Q: Do you look for so-called character guys? Veterans who can bring toughness, passion, composure, etc.?
A: "Yeah, but I will say this. I like the character of our team. I mean there are guys that I think the character is good, but through free agency and through the draft we don't want to bring in any bad character guys. So, character is always is an issue for me when I bring in players."
Q: And what about player who could improve team chemistry?
A: "It's hard to say we're going to bring in chemistry. We need to bring in talent. We need to bring in quality. We're still at a stage where we're more than just chemistry away from winning a championship."
Q: What stage have the Celtics reached when it comes to the process of building a championship team?
A: "Well, right now, we're in the top 16 in the league and not the top eight. I think the next step is to get in the top 8. I think this [year] has been a big step forward. Our competitiveness and our ability to do a lot more than we did last year [shows that]. I think this is a big step forward for us, especially with so many young guys."
Q: So, you still feel the Celtics are on the right track, making the kind of progress you expected?
A: "I feel the same as I did before [Game 7]. I feel like this was a bad game. I thought we had a chance to win this game. At the same time, I knew we had a chance to lose. The biggest thing that we don't do is execute in the halfcourt. You can pinpoint so many other things, but I think our halfcourt offensive execution is the biggest part. I thought both teams got emotional at times and that's not a good thing for championship-caliber teams and we need to get better at [staying composed]. But I think the thing that cost us the series was our inability to score at crucial times in the halfcourt."
Q: Still, the team is progressing as you hoped and expected? It's on schedule?
A: "I really don't [have a schedule] because you can't predict a schedule. You can't put a time frame on it. Everybody says you've got a three-year plan, a five-year plan. That's a bunch of garbage. It depends. We got pretty lucky with Al [Jefferson] in the draft and Delonte [West]. I think those guys are good. Marcus [Banks] really made strides the second half of the season and I thought his confidence and his professionalism was coming along. I thought Paul [Pierce] had one of his best years of his whole career. So, I'm really encouraged by a lot of things that I see with our guys. But I don't know the time frame. Hopefully, I'll know by October if we were able to accomplish some of the things that we wanted to."