WALTHAM – Media day for the 2013-2014 Boston Celtics came and went Monday without much fanfare. While SportsCenter gave us live check-ins with the defending champion Miami Heat, the Celtics quietly gave us a lot of what we already knew.
We learned players were excited to work with new coach Brad Stevens, and Rajon Rondo would need some time to recover from knee surgery. There was a noticeable void of "spirit", for lack of a better word, without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the building, but we probably already knew that, too.
Outside of a visibly shaken Gerald Wallace, the players said all the right things Monday, affirming their commitment to winning and denying any possibility that the process could fail. Considering training camp starts Tuesday, it's hard to argue with the optimism. The team hasn't even held an official scrimmage yet. Celtics staffers set the clock to 18:18 with a score of 18 all to signify the team's quest for an 18th championship.
"I don't really pay attention to what the media said or what anybody said about me," Rondo said when asked about lowered expectations for the team.
Rondo's us-against-the-world sentiment was echoed by just about every player, but Wallace was a notable outlier. He spent his summer at home in Alabama, he said, processing the draft-day trade that sent him from the Brooklyn Nets to the Celtics. Understandably, Wallace said he wanted to spend time with his kids. Rather than work out with his new teammates, Wallace said he passed many hours playing cards with friends and family around the kitchen table. Coming to Boston wasn't an issue, he said, but the trade that sent him from a contender to a rebuilding team was a surprise.
"Being traded is a process nobody likes to go through," said Wallace."This trade kind of caught me off guard. You kind of sit back and look at yourself and wonder what happened.
"There's always a period where it's tough, especially coming from a playoff team where we were completing for a championship, and then coming here and starting the process all over again."
Admitting the team is starting over will not be easy for Celtics fans used to extended playoff runs. It's one thing to acknowledge Pierce and Garnett are gone; it's another to admit the team cannot possibly replace the production of two Hall-of-Fame-locks in one offseason, that it's bound to get a lot worse before it gets better. Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca was cautiously optimistic Monday about the future of the franchise.
"We'll see what happens," said Pagliuca. "Ten years ago, we were in much worse shape than we are now. It's hard. You have to be patient and you have to build young assets. I think we're way ahead of the first rebuild."
Pagliuca was referring to the current ownership group taking over the team a decade ago. Outside of Pierce and Antoine Walker, the Celtics were not exactly stocked with young talent. Pagliuca pointed to the nine first-round picks the Celtics hold in the next five years as reason to be optimistic. It was hard to find an endorsement in there for 2013-2014.
Ownership's message has been consistent. Last week on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich program, team president Rich Gotham admitted the team wasn't likely to win many games this season. He said he hoped the fan experience at TD Garden would keep the fans coming, even if the team struggled. Gotham stood just behind the media scrum Monday as Rondo spoke, nodding when his point guard stayed on message. If there's anyone who can handle himself with the media it's Rondo, though he veered off once, not offering a hard denial about the trade rumors that have surrounded him for years.
"Whatever the case may be, whenever that may happen, that's what will happen," said Rondo. "But until then, I'm a Celtic, and I'll play as hard as I can for this organization."
Ownership's message strikes at the core of what fandom really is. A week or so before my grandfather passed away last month, he asked me how the Celtics were shaping up. He'd been sick, but he read about the Pierce/Garnett trade and knew that my job was going to change significantly. Worried more about the enjoyment I got from covering the team more than the team's success directly, he asked if the Celtics would be any good this year. Too early to tell, I said, but it's probably going to be a little while. He was my biggest fan, and I knew he was going to read anyway.
But what about the fans paying for tickets, the fans choosing to watch Celtics games instead of Bruins games, the fans choosing to delve into the box score rather than read another article about yesterday's big Patriots win? Ownership seems resigned to letting the process play out, but that's a harder sell to the paying customers. Stevens will need time, and Rondo won't be back for a while. It's too early to pass judgment on these Celtics – camp hasn't even started yet – but it's not too early to ask what will happen if the team fails to match its recent success. How long until the fans stop coming?
"There's a couple spots open in the Eastern Conference to make a playoff push," said Jordan Crawford, bristling at the notion that anyone could pick against his team.
You have to admire the optimism, and you have to like the position Danny Ainge has put this team in for the future. You also have to acknowledge that it's not going to be easy or quick. Like with this year's Red Sox, a contending season would be a pleasant surprise. Celtics fans will enjoy the ride more if they temper their expectations.