MIAMI — Danny Ainge is not crushed by every Celtics loss because he expected his team to struggle with a pared-down roster filled with youngsters and journeymen.
The fact the Celtics entered Tuesday night’s 93-86 loss to the Miami Heat tied with the Utah Jazz for the NBA’s fourth-worst record, yet were 3½ games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, is mind-boggling to Ainge, a testament to the slew of injuries in the East.
The Celtics have dropped 15 of their last 17 games, and are underdogs on most nights with their patchwork lineup, which recently added Rajon Rondo. Ainge, as the president of basketball operations has maintained all season, is more focused on long-term success and the health of the franchise than eking out wins for a short-lived playoff run.
His approach is understandable; the Celtics are building for the future with a keen eye on the present. Players such as Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless have been impressed with how operations have run so smoothly under first-year coach Brad Stevens that they want to continue to be part of the transition.
Ainge played coy, but he was complimentary when asked about Humphries.
“First of all, I don’t really listen to words, I watch and see, and Kris has shown it by everything he’s done from the time he’s been here,” Ainge said. “From starting in September-October he’s a great pro, goes about his job, and he’s played well and he’s played hard and he’s played hurt. He’s sacrificed for his teammates and that has a lot more meaning to me than what someone says.
“There’s so many factors that come into play with all of that, so Kris Humphries is a player I’ve tried to acquire in the past. And he’s even better than I thought, so yeah, what else do you need to know? Do you need to have specific answers? That’s all I can give you. I am a fan.”
Despite Humphries’s surprise contributions, the development of Jared Sullinger, and the recent improvement of Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics are still losing at an alarming rate, blowing games in the fourth quarter, and dropping games to teams such as the Lakers and Magic.
“The losing is not as hard to take as what I don’t like to see happen is the losing of one’s spirit and passion for the game,” Ainge said when asked about the constant defeats. “And the game is easy to play when you’re winning and you don’t even have to put forth your best effort every night because your team is so talented. But when the losing causes people to lose their spirit, that’s really hard. That’s a tough thing to take. Some of the best players, that’s happened to. But so far I like watching our team play. I enjoy it. I enjoy the competitive fire they have, I like that fact there’s some that have maintained the spirit of winning and they prepare to win and continue to prepare to get better.”
Rondo has played as expected after missing nearly one year following anterior cruciate ligament surgery. He entered Tuesday night’s game averaging 7 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds in two games under a minutes restriction that increased against Miami (although he went 0 for 8).
“I think Rajon has played well and responded well,” Ainge said. “We’ve just fizzled down the stretch of games but I think some of that is just the newness. Rondo is not only coming back after not playing for a year but he’s also coming back to guys he hasn’t played with before and he’s also, we really don’t have that go-to player that is obvious. It’s sort of different every night. And we’ve got some guys who have made some big shots and winning shots for us, but just not every night is the same.”
The decisions facing Ainge will increase exponentially over the next few months. Should he deal Rondo? What to do with the rest of the roster? Is moving Gerald Wallace’s contract even possible? What players will be the best fit from the well-regarded NBA draft.
Ainge has spent the past several months scouting players such as Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, and Julius Randle, players who could impact the future of the Celtics. Ainge has stacked the organization with as many as 17 draft picks over the next five years; 10 could be first-round picks.
The next step is to determine how to replenish the roster. The Celtics could decide to build through the draft, free agency, or both, but those Kevin Garnett- or Ray Allen-type deals are extremely rare. All-Star players who can help win championships are not readily available. Those standout players who are — such as Carmelo Anthony or Pau Gasol — most likely aren’t helping their current team win.
Ainge didn’t offer brimming optimism about discovering the next franchise-changing player.
“We have a lot of options and a lot of assets to maneuver within the draft itself. Yes, the draft is exciting, but I’m not really thinking that much about the draft and yet every day I’m watching all the players that are in the draft, so I guess indirectly I am,” he said.
“We’ve done some good things and not-so good things and learned from some of our mistakes. There’s always risks when you’re making deals and most deals benefit both teams based on needs and short-term and long-term objectives, but it’s not easy to find partners that sort of fill those. I respect all the teams in the league and there’s only a certain amount of really good players in the league.
“There’s only a certain amount of difference-makers.”