It’s been a transition year not only for first-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and a slew of new players and even the veterans, as well as it has been a methodical conversion from era for co-owner Wyc Grousbeck.
In mid-March, Grousbeck is generally watching his team prepare for a deep playoff run. This year, they are preparing for what is expected to be an active offseason and draft lottery. June and July will indeed be the real Celtics season, the period when they officially build back toward respectability.
It’s been difficult for the competitive Grousbeck to watch consistent losses, focus on development more than victories, cross his fingers for a favorable lottery pick rather than watch his skilled squad crush playoff opponents as they did the past six years.
“I think since 2007, we knew this year was coming,” said Grousbeck, whose team is 22-42 entering Friday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. “We didn’t know when it would be, probably thought it would be before 2014. The fact that Brad is here and Danny is at the top of his game makes it easier for me as CEO to get through this year because I think we have the pieces in place for our next run as a contender. If we have our coach, our GM, a bunch of young kids and a bunch of draft picks, so I feel like we’re better off.
“First of all, we had a longer run than I thought with the Big Three (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen) and I think we’re a little bit better off this year in looking forward than we could have. But, I have to be honest, it’s been a tough year.”
Sensing his Big Three could no longer compete with the likes of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, Ainge traded Pierce and Garnett on draft pick to the Brooklyn Nets for four players and three first-round picks. The Celtics have nine first-round picks over the next five years and are consistently playing four first- or second-year players, including forward Jared Sullinger and rookie Kelly Olynyk.
“Our first shot at ownership starting in 2003, we had never experienced success, we had to build it up from the bottom,” Grousbeck told the Globe. “But now we’re spoiled. We’ve had three or four true championship-contending teams. We’re totally spoiled. I’m spoiled. Our fans are spoiled. And now we’re not in that position. I will say the fan support has been extraordinary. The attendance, the enthusiasm and the support for this project has been better than I thought it would be. They’ve been great.”
The Celtics are 12th in the NBA in attendance, averaging just over 18,000 per game, filling 96.7 percent of TD Garden on a nightly basis. The fan base has been subjected to some painful moments this season but Grousbeck is thrilled with the loyalty.
“We have all been spoiled by the great run of success for that all Boston teams have had and I’m really appreciative of the fans for hanging in there with us and for finding things to cheer about,” he said. “Playing hard for a new coach, watching rookies develop, welcome back Paul and KG. We’re finding things to cheer about this year that aren’t necessarily wins. And that shows the devotion of the Boston fan.”
With two of likely the top 20 picks in this year’s potentially fruitful draft, Celtics faithful has been early anticipating the June 26 draft as well as free agency. Grousbeck is no different.
“I’ve got confidence that with all these picks and these young guys and our willingness to spend money, that we can get there,” he said. “We’re a patient group. We will take a multiyear plan if that’s what it takes.
“But I think this June there could be some fireworks. I think this June we’ve got so many pieces to this puzzle that we might be able to shake loose a real piece or two for this team going forward. So I’m hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”
Of course, the only holdover from the 2008 championship team is point guard Rajon Rondo, whose contract expires after the 2014-15 season and has been the subject of trade rumors the past two years. Grousbeck did not hide his admiration for the four-time All-Star.
“He’s loved right here, from my seat on the court,” Grousbeck said. “I love the guy. I love his championship ring when he was the young kid. I love his growth. It reminds me of Paul Pierce. Growing from the moments in his younger days and making progress towards being an all-time Celtic and a leader. I am always hopeful that a guy like that is going to stay around.”