It’s been a transition year not only for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, and a slew of new players, but also for owner Wyc Grousbeck.
In mid-March, Grousbeck is generally watching his team prepare for a deep playoff run. This year, the Celtics are preparing for the draft lottery and what is expected to be an active offseason. June and July will be when they really build back toward respectability.
It’s been difficult for Grousbeck to watch consistent losses, focus on development more than victories, and cross his fingers for a high lottery pick rather than watch his skilled squad crush playoff opponents, as it did for most of the past six years.
“I think since 2007 we knew this year was coming,” said Grousbeck, whose team is 22-43 entering Friday night’s home 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. 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 the Celtics could no longer compete with the likes of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, Ainge traded Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that brought five 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 Jared Sullinger and 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 said. “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 average attendance at a little more than 18,000 per game, filling 96.7 percent of TD Garden. The fan base has been subjected to some painful moments this season, but Grousbeck is thrilled by the loyalty.
“We have all been spoiled by the great run of success 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 likely two of the top 20 picks, Celtics fans have been 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.”
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 toward being an all-time Celtic and a leader. I am always hopeful that a guy like that is going to stay around.”
The Celtics will have extensive salary cap space in the summer of 2015, but the organization hasn’t attracted a major free agent in his prime in more than 20 years. Grousbeck is confident that will change.
“In my opinion, Kevin Garnett chose to come here,” he said. “Not technically a free agent, but it was a choice to come to Boston and he could have not come, not signed the extension. And that led to a championship. Kevin and Doc [Rivers] coming here and saying such great things about Boston definitely helps our recruiting position.
“There’s money everywhere in the league now. The money is so big in the league that guys will get their money one way or another. The only difference is championship rings. I’ve got one on right now. When guys really want a ring, we think they’re going to look at us, look at Brad, look at our fans and our ownership support, and say this is a place they’ll consider.”
The transition from Rivers to Stevens has gone smoothly, with the rookie coach drawing rave reviews for his managing of a young roster.
“I love Brad, he’s so comfortable with himself, he knows who he is, he knows how he wants his team to play, he knows what kind of players he wants, he’s a natural leader even though he looks like a 25-year-old,” Grousbeck said. “There’s something magnetic about him. He’s going to be a great coach in this league for a long time to come.
“I said to someone the other day, ‘Doc, I really miss you and wish you didn’t leave, but this has really eased the pain, having Brad here.’ ”