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Ainge eyes an offseason critical to Celtics' future

WALTHAM -- Preparing for a recent interview, Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge started asking all the questions. "Is this the hot seat?" he wondered, half-jokingly. "Are you going to be tough on me?"

When reminded the team would finish the season with its worst record (24-58) since the infamous 1996-97 campaign (15-67), Ainge acknowledged serious issues concerning the state of the franchise and its future were fair game. Then, Ainge quickly cautioned that his answers to tough questions would reflect his duty to protect players, coaches, and other members of the organization.

"You can ask me as tough a question as you want, but I can answer what I want," said Ainge. "I am very protective. I have an obligation to protect those that I employ and hire."

Sounding more like a man preparing to testify before Congress than an NBA executive being asked to assess yet another season that fell short of low expectations, Ainge carefully answered questions for almost an hour. When a team finishes with the second-worst record in the league, loses a franchise-record 18 straight games, watches its $90 million captain, Paul Pierce, miss 35 games, hears boos on a fairly regular basis after managing just 12 home wins, there is a lot of ground in need of protection.

"I don't ever expect a free pass," said Ainge. "I know when you don't win, you're under a microscope. I understand that. I don't care what the critics say. I'm not afraid of that. I care about the reality. I'm hired by the Celtics' brass to help us be a championship team. It hasn't gone as quickly, it hasn't gone as smoothly as we would have liked."

Still, Ainge praised coach Doc Rivers, expressed confidence Pierce would stay with the team long term, talked about the importance of player development and defense, discussed draft options, declared his openness to a trade that could bring a veteran All-Star to Boston, and delighted in the strides made by Al Jefferson. But the more Ainge spoke earlier this week, the more a sense of déjà vu descended.

As always, Ainge sees a promising future for the franchise and remains convinced the Celtics possess the talent to reach the playoffs. He anticipates significant progress next season, if players return in good condition and remain healthy. He looks beyond wins and losses to the jump made by Jefferson and the lessons learned about dealing with adversity. He did the same when last season ended with 33 wins. At some point, however, someone needs to be held accountable for the poor performances and poor records, regardless of injuries and youth. Ainge looks squarely at the players.

"I see what our coaching staff does to prepare our players," he said. "I'm very confident in their abilities and their preparation. I've been a player and I've been a coach. The difference between me and critics is they want to blame the coach when the children don't behave right . . . It is the players. It's the players' responsibility. So, I do think the buck stops with them. I do think it's their job to get the rebound when they're supposed to."

Whether out of a sense of obligation and a desire to protect those he hired or out of honesty, this was the first of many times Ainge voiced his support of Rivers. Ainge went out of his way to share his appreciation for the job done by Rivers this season, even though that may leave many fans scratching their heads. Reiterating his desire that Rivers remain with the franchise for many years, Ainge commented that the fact the Celtics' win total has declined each season Rivers has coached (45 his first season, 33 last season) should not define his ability. Again, something those outside the organization may find difficult to understand.

"I would like to see Doc here for 10 years," said Ainge. "I would love to build some continuity here and let him continue to carry the torch of the team. That's what I've wanted from the beginning. There's no difference now in my feeling that he's capable of doing that.

"I think Doc is an excellent basketball coach. I didn't say perfect and I didn't say I'd offer him a 10-year contract extension. I'm saying I hope I see Doc on the sidelines for 10 more years. I hope that it works out that way. I hope that he wants it. I hope that ownership wants him. I hope that means next year we go on and have the year that we're all hoping to have, that we can be injury-free and play and achieve what we think we can."

Ainge does not have talks scheduled with Rivers and his agent concerning a contract extension. Nor does Ainge have a time by which he would like a contract signed, though he does foresee it happening before the start of next season. Rivers does not want to enter next season without an extension in place.

"I'm not caught up on a timetable," said Ainge. "Doc will be our coach next year. There's no rush and no urgency in getting an extension whatsoever. I would like to get something done before the season starts. I would like to have that discussion [about signing an extension before next season]. I'm not one who thinks that's a big deal [going into a season in the last year of your contract]. Doc has the choice to sign a contract extension. We have the choice to offer a contract extension. It will be a negotiation."

Talk of a long-term extension naturally leads to Pierce, who signed a three-year extension worth almost $60 million last summer. In other words, the Celtics will pay Pierce about $76 million for the four years remaining on his contract. As a result, making the Celtics competitive in the East and thereby keeping Pierce happy in Boston are major priorities for Ainge. Above all, Pierce must return to health and regain his durability.

"The No. 1 priority [this offseason] by far is the development of our players," said Ainge. "It starts with Paul Pierce, his offseason conditioning and training program. If we don't have Paul Pierce in good shape and ready to play next October, no matter what we do we're in trouble."

Since he missed almost half the season because of a left foot stress reaction and left elbow soreness, Pierce will wait only two or three weeks before beginning his conditioning program. But just because Pierce arrives in top form for training camp doesn't mean he will stay healthy and happy for the duration of the season. Ainge knows Pierce has voiced his frustration with the Celtics' slow progress in the past. And Ainge figures he might hear more in the not-too-distant future, if the team struggles.

"Let's make it clear that players can't demand to be traded," said Ainge. "They can say whatever they want. In almost every one of those situations, the players have not played well enough. They're not carrying their load. I think it's very detrimental to let that creep into a player's mind that they think they can control something. They need to play.

"Paul signed a $90 million contract to play with the Boston Celtics. He made it clear to us he wanted to play out his career [here]. I know Paul wants to win as bad as anybody and I want Paul to win. [Co-owner] Wyc [Grousbeck] wants to win. Doc wants Paul to win. We will do all we can to help Paul have team success and Paul will do all he can to help us have team success. That's what the partnership is. That's why we signed him to a long-term contract. That's what we expect of Paul."

Pierce claimed there was no truth to speculation he would ask for a trade if the Celtics failed to land the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the May 22 draft lottery. He remains in wait-and-see mode. But when asked if he was committed to the Celtics, Pierce, like Ainge, chose his words carefully.

"I've been committed to this organization for nine years," said Pierce. "So, I think everybody knows that when I re-signed to an extension last year."

During the upcoming offseason, the Celtics will have the opportunity to sign Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen, and Sebastian Telfair to contract extensions, as they did with Kendrick Perkins last summer. If they don't come to terms by the end of October, the Celtics risk losing those players to restricted free agency. Obviously, given the strides Jefferson made this season and the growth expected next season, Ainge would like to sign the 22-year-old power forward to an extension.

"There's not an urgency," said Ainge. "I've got a feeling that's something we'll probably [deal with] throughout the summer with all of our guys that we have an option to extend. If they want security, then we can give them security. If they want their unrestricted, max-value contracts in the extension year, then that's not going to happen. We're prepared for any scenario. Either Al likes the contract that we offer or he doesn't. "

While Rivers and the current players are Ainge's top priorities for the offseason, the draft, free agency, and the prospect of veteran All-Stars such as Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, and Pau Gasol being available this summer will compete for his attention.

"Any time there's an All-Star veteran [available], you can believe that we will be having conversations with that team to some extent," said Ainge. "They may not hear what we have to say, but we will be trying to attempt to acquire one of those guys, if in fact we think the price is right. At the same time, I don't feel like I have to get one of those guys. Of course, we think those players are all good players."

When asked if he would consider trading a draft pick lower than the top two for a high-caliber veteran, Ainge added: "Of course, we've discussed all that. I'll keep our strategies more inside. We're open to any deals that people will present to us or that we want to present to them."

In the end, however, Ainge knows that what matters most is the team the Celtics present for next season. Ainge, Rivers, Pierce, and ownership understand the franchise cannot go through another year without a playoff berth, where the draft lottery generates the greatest interest. If they do, more than Pierce may be gone.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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