Danny Ainge is taking a cautious approach with the early success of the Celtics or perceived early success, a first-place Atlantic Division standing despite a 10-14 record.
The Celtics host the New York Knicks on Friday at TD Garden as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference nearly 30 percent into the season. In a season that was supposed to be highlighted by the development of the team’s younger core, Rajon Rondo’s return from major knee surgery, and the education of first-year coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics find themselves legitimately in the playoff race.
While the season is still young, Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, continues to assess whether the Celtics are better than expected or capitalizing on a conference ravaged by injuries and slow starts.
“I don’t really care about the record or what other teams are doing this time of year,” Ainge said Thursday. “It’s way too early to be worrying about where we stand and the day-to-day of the standings. I’m concerned about just getting better, developing our players and trying to get some chemistry.”
What Ainge perhaps didn’t anticipate was the ascension of Jordan Crawford as a point guard, Jared Sullinger’s comeback after back surgery, the consistency of Brandon Bass, the surge of Jeff Green, and the improved shooting of Avery Bradley. All of the core players have taken a step forward under Stevens.
“Jordan has played well, as have all of our guys,” Ainge said. “Everybody based on their roles, I think Courtney [Lee] and Brandon and Jeff, Vitor [Faverani] and Sullinger, Avery, you go right down the list and everybody is showing improvement, and I’m excited about that.
“We’re not the tallest team, so we have to work extra hard to rebound the ball. We have our weaknesses, but I think our team is improving and helping each other.”
Ainge said several times as he constructed the roster that he was unsure how this team would fare given the uncertainties. Rondo would miss the early part of the season. Sullinger was coming off surgery. Green experienced an uneven first season back from aorta surgery. Crawford was shoddy as a bench scorer and Bradley was exposed by the Knicks’ Raymond Felton in the playoffs.
“I envisioned competing for a championship [eventually] and I don’t think this team is quite there, but it doesn’t really matter,” Ainge said. “I’m looking at improvement and progress. That’s really what is important, and not what I envision. There’s never been a doubt to me that the players on our roster are good players and can play at some level in the NBA.”
Ainge said perhaps the Celtics’ surprising start is a byproduct of other Eastern Conference teams.
“It’s not only a matter of expecting how you see your team forming. But in terms of the record and what place we are in the division, those all have factors to do with everybody else in the league,” he said. “I’m not really worried about records or things I can’t control, there are things I am seeing in our wins and I’m very pleased with our coaching staff and with our players.”
If the Celtics reach the playoffs, their own first-round pick will be no higher than 15th, meaning they would fall out of the lottery and likely would miss out on a chance to draft franchise player. Ainge said he hasn’t thought about the Celtics making a playoff push.
“I don’t know, because there’s too many variables, it’s just not that simple,” he said about the postseason. “Making the playoffs is not a goal. I need to explain that a little bit. If there’s a bunch of teams that are just injured and playing and you finish five, six, or seven games under .500 and you made the playoffs just because of that, that might not be such a great thing. I’m only concerned about how our players are playing, and if it so happens we make the playoffs and we earn our way and our guys are getting better, then I’m thrilled.
“We’re not excited about being 10-14. That doesn’t bring excitement to anybody, but progress does.”