WALTHAM — At this time last season, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was busy negotiating the settlement with the Clippers for the rights to name Doc Rivers their coach and vice president of basketball operations.
A few days later, Ainge was flying back from Indianapolis, having just made Brad Stevens the Celtics’ new coach. Most of Ainge’s work last summer came off the court, with the restructuring of the front office and coaching staff.
Those matters are now settled, and the Celtics’ new draft picks were introduced Monday. Marcus Smart and James Young are part of the Celtics’ future, but Ainge also wants to foster the team’s return to respectability through trades and free agency.
The period that allows teams to contact free agents from other clubs and make offers began Monday at midnight. Players cannot officially sign contracts until July 8 while the league sets its salary cap, giving teams seven days to make a sales pitch before free agents can commit.
Ainge said he would be on the phone at midnight contacting players, attempting to use wisely the Celtics’ salary cap space. The Celtics only have about $6 million available to sign free agents but they do have Keith Bogans’s non-guaranteed $5.2 million and a $10.2 million trade exception from the Paul Pierce deal that needs to be used by July 14.
So a trade likely would be the Celtics’ best option to improve quickly. And while Ainge wouldn’t deny he’ll reach out to Carmelo Anthony, or others who may be acquired via a sign-and-trade, his sights are limited.
“So there’s a few different approaches and a few different ways we’ll go,” Ainge said. “Some of it will depend on information we gather in the next couple of days or during the moratorium. Some things we may be able to accomplish through trades or free agent signings will determine which way we head. We’re opportunistic right now and we’re looking for opportunities to speed the process up, but we just don’t want to do anything in a panic or a rush. We want to be patient and we want to make good deals.”
With Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass, and Joel Anthony (a combined $23.6 million) off the books next summer, the Celtics can be major free agent players, but for now Ainge will search for the right deal, hoping to use the trade exception and perhaps unload an expiring contract to bring back a potential cornerstone.
“The one glaring weakness that we don’t have is a rim protector,” he said. “We may or may not be able to acquire that. There are a lot of rim protectors that I don’t think can play. So it’s not just that simple. They’ve got to be better than the guys we have and we have a lot of respect for our guys.”
The list of free agent centers isn’t impressive. Chris Kaman. Spencer Hawes. Greg Stiemsma. Jermaine O’Neal. Ainge would be better suited to wait until next summer or coming up with a trade. One move he executed recently was tendering a qualifying offer to Avery Bradley, whose status could be considered uncertain with the Celtics drafting two guards.
Bradley held his first summer camp at UMass-Boston on Monday, seemingly unfazed by the draft. Bradley can receive offers from other clubs and the Celtics have the right to match any offer, which Ainge said they likely would do.
“I’ve been worried about getting better; I can’t worry about anything I can’t control,” Bradley said. “Obviously I want to be here and I let those guys know that. When the times comes, we’ll see if we can come to an agreement. I just worry about how hard I can play and whatever team I am on, and hopefully it’s the Celtics, and what I can bring to that team.”
The Celtics are not likely to be dramatically different next season given that lack of salary-cap space to attract a premium free agent and the team’s desire to rebuild in steps instead of using its money on a player who will wear out his welcome before his contract expires.
“We don’t want to do anything in a panic or in a rush to get there,” Ainge said. “There are free agents out there waiting to see what kind of team you’ll have and what opportunities are there.
“You can believe we’ll try to do anything we can to land the best players in the league whenever we can.”