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Developing situation

Ainge's youth movement is the Celtics' top priority

Danny Ainge says the Celtics’ defensive play must get better next season.
Danny Ainge says the Celtics’ defensive play must get better next season. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

WALTHAM -- When Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers awoke yesterday morning for the first day of the Celtics' offseason, the free pass granted them this year and last had expired.

The talk about youth and development and potential can only pacify a fan base for so long. The Celtics appear headed in the right direction, but an 11th-place finish with a 33-49 record in a weak Eastern Conference, and a lottery pick in a year where 40 wins meant a playoff spot do not exactly scream ''team of tomorrow."

But from the ownership to Ainge to Rivers to the players, the Celtics insist they are close, ''a player or two away." Just how close and just who those players are depends on what happens this summer.

For the sake of the future, it was important to find ''the kids" minutes this season and Ainge considers the continued development of players, young and old, his No. 1 priority this summer. He also has decisions to make when it comes to the draft, free agency, and the contracts of players and assistant coaches. Ainge plans to approach each offseason decision with patience and pragmatism.

''If I believe that the house has to be built by the end of next season, then I'll make a mistake," said Ainge. ''If I feel like there's a window [of opportunity] that's closing on the goals that I'd like to accomplish and I panic and trade Joe Johnson for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk, I'm not doing my job."

Taking a not-so-subtle shot at the Celtics' not-so-distant past, when general manager Chris Wallace made that deal at the trading deadline in 2002 and helped the team reach the Eastern Conference finals, Ainge emphasized his point about the importance of long-range perspective in an interview conducted in his office Wednesday morning.

''We just focus on whether we're getting better, and not necessarily who our competition is," said Ainge. ''If our players continue to develop and become what they can become, then we're going to be a comfortable playoff team for years to come. I don't know if we'll be a comfortable playoff team next year. Until those guys reach their potential instead of just having potential, it's not going to happen. You have to do some things to make it happen.

''But my focus is not on wins and losses right now. It still is not. We haven't got there. We haven't gotten to the point of Detroit and Phoenix and Dallas and San Antonio. When we are, then I can worry more about each day and each win and loss. I want to focus on the continued progress of our coaches and players moving in the right direction. I measure success by what I see happening. There are objective measurements, but winning can mask a lot of weakness. What we don't want is a continued succession of mediocrity."

The Celtics' weaknesses were obvious. When Ainge outlined individual summer workout plans for each player, defense topped the list nearly every time. For example, Ainge wants Al Jefferson to focus on defensive lateral movement and be able to defend the perimeter better. Ainge said the same assignment could be handed to Raef LaFrentz. Ainge needs Gerald Green to be able to defend his position and Delonte West to keep point guards in front of him.

But Ainge offered few definitive answers about the future, even though he faces several important deadlines in the coming months. He is operating under the assumption that Rivers will return. He has not heard Rivers so much as hint that he might leave. But Rivers might be working with a slightly modified staff next fall.

With the exception of Tony Brown, contracts for the assistant coaches expire shortly after the June draft. It seems unlikely the coaching staff will come back as currently constituted. When asked about the prospects of Dave Wohl, Jim Brewer, Paul Pressey, and Armond Hill returning next season, Ainge commented generally about coaches ''looking for opportunities to move up the ladder" and ''not all [being] satisfied . . . being in certain roles."

''There's a lot of questions there," said Ainge. ''I'm not sure where we're headed with that, where Doc's headed, and where each of the individual coaches is headed."

By July 1, Ainge must decide if he will exercise the second-year contract options for Ryan Gomes and Orien Greene. Given the contributions made by Gomes as a starter and the generally encouraging steps taken by Greene, it would seem an easy call. ''We're really happy with those guys," Ainge said, although he wants to ''wait and see" what happens with the draft and trades before committing to Gomes and Greene. The free agency negotiation period also begins July 1. Ainge said it is ''unlikely, but not impossible" the Celtics' lone free agent, Michael Olowokandi, will be back.

The decisions with deadlines before the start of next season are somewhat easier for Ainge. By Oct. 31, the Celtics must decide if they will exercise the fourth-year options on Tony Allen, Jefferson, and West.

''With Tony, we obviously need to wait and see what's going on with his legal issues this summer," said Ainge. ''We're optimistic on all that. Delonte and Al, those are absolute no-brainers."

If only all the decisions Ainge had to make concerning personnel were that easy. But beginning with the draft, they are clearly not. Ainge has company when it comes to his uncertainty about how to rank the talent in this year's draft. He remains confident the Celtics will pick up value with their lottery pick, whether they exercise it or trade it.

''The reason people say that is because there's no clear-cut No. 1 player," said Ainge. ''If you were to poll 30 NBA teams, you would probably come up with six or seven different names as to who the No. 1 pick was. It's like most drafts, but just not as top-heavy. One, two, three aren't as dynamic as they usually are. I think you could have 10 or 15 guys or maybe more that could be eventual starters in this league. I don't necessarily think it's a bad draft."

After the draft, Ainge will turn his attention to free agency, though the Celtics are limited. Boston has the midlevel exception (approximately $5 million) and so-called million-dollar exception ($1.75 million) at its disposal, as well as a trade exception to use in a possible deal. Some of the players entering free agency this summer include: Al Harrington, Jason Terry, Nazr Mohammed, Nene, Mike James, Bonzi Wells, Bobby Jackson, David Wesley, Nick Van Exel, Milt Palacio, and Peja Stojakovic. The Celtics would like a veteran who could provide scoring off the bench, preferably a point guard.

''We have our eyes on some, but it's not that simple," said Ainge. ''Typically, the guys that you really want are going to be overpriced and end up somewhere else. They're not really guys where we want to get involved in the chase. But there's trade possibilities that we'll explore. It depends on what we accomplish in the draft. That will determine what we try to do in the free agent market."

As with all things Celtics related, the operative phrase is ''wait and see." But next season, Ainge better have something to show for his efforts this summer.

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