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Don’t make this a project

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 24, 2010

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The sting from the Game 7 loss to the Lakers is still making Danny Ainge’s teeth rattle. It’s difficult to shake the thought of what might have been and look forward to a draft that won’t produce any superstars in green for perhaps years.

But he has to. The Celtics president has to shift his thinking from the final six minutes last Thursday at Staples Center to the next two or three years. The draft is tonight, but Ainge has yet to address the media about prospects. His disenchantment with the entire process is a little harsh.

While “excitement’’ is not a word that usually accompanies the 19th pick, the Celtics don’t need an exciting player. They haven’t reached two NBA Finals in three seasons because of excitement.

They need a system player, a younger guy who can allow Kevin Garnett to rest his right knee, who can rise for a vicious dunk on a feed from Rajon Rondo, and who can run the floor on the break.

The Celtics need to land a keeper with this pick, and Ainge has to shift his attention from what could have been to what can be with some younger blood. The fourth quarter of Game 7 was a glaring and painful example of why the Celtics need to get younger.

While the Lakers shuttled in Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown — all late first-round picks — throughout Game 7, the Celtics were relegated to playing their short bench of Tony Allen and Nate Robinson with no big men off the bench to provide support.

Kendrick Perkins was in street clothes with torn knee ligaments, and Shelden Williams and Brian Scalabrine weren’t enough. Ainge had tried filling in holes with spare parts in the offseason. But Rasheed Wallace reported to camp in subpar condition and never really worked himself into prime shape, evidenced by his asking out of Game 7 because of exhaustion.

Williams is a good team player but not a contributing piece on a championship-caliber squad. Instead of lamenting the reasons his team faltered down the stretch, Ainge has to shift his attention to taking two solid players with the 19th and 52d picks or trading up into the 30s to get another potential cornerstone.

Glen Davis was a throw-in in the Ray Allen trade but could soak up minutes if Wallace retires. So there is value after the lottery, and this may be the most critical draft of the Ainge tenure if he hopes to revamp the Celtics for another run.

This is not a star-studded draft beyond the first seven or eight picks. As usual, it is littered with players who left school early or are going to be selected strictly off potential. The biggest example is 3-point, 3-rebound center Daniel Orton of Kentucky; the Celtics don’t need potential.

They spent enough time waiting on Perkins and Al Jefferson (before he was traded to Minnesota) and don’t need a project. Projects in the NBA generally don’t work out, and the Celtics learned from the Patrick O’Bryant experience that you can’t teach passion.

So it’s up to Ainge and the brass to pick a winner. A strong choice would be Damion James of Texas, a four-year college player who improved each season.

The Celtics need maturity, a player who won’t come here requiring a babysitter. While NBA teams fully realize that many players will take years to develop, teams such as the Spurs have avoided projects and scored with more experienced players such as George Hill or proven commodities like DeJuan Blair.

The Spurs are in a similar situation as the Celtics, where they want to capitalize on the final years of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Because the Celtics made a title run despite a slew of injuries and a short bench, Ainge is likely to think they can win the East again with better support.

That’s what makes this draft critical. Because the Celtics are well over the salary cap, signing free agents beyond the midlevel exception ($5.6 million per season) is unrealistic. Rondo’s contract extension kicks in next season in addition to $21 million owed to Garnett and perhaps $21 million due to Pierce if he does not exercise his termination option.

And if Pierce decides to opt out, he most likely will agree to a long-term extension that will offer some cap relief but not enough to chase a premium free agent. Ainge knew this scenario would emerge when he decided to trade for Allen and acquire Garnett and then sign KG to an extension, so he might as well give his aging stars some help through the draft.

Ainge should be excited. If he drafts correctly, the transition from the Big Three to Rondo & Co. won’t be as bumpy as many expect. While it’s understandable to dwell on that fourth quarter, it more progressive to ensure that it doesn’t happen again next season. That should be Ainge’s focus.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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