ORLANDO — As much as they possibly can, with a new image, a new plan, and a slew of fresh faces, the Celtics are dusting themselves off from their tumultuous past month and moving forward at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
There is life after Doc Rivers. The coach would stroll into the Amway Center practice facility, slap hands with coaches and team executives, catch a few quarters of the Celtics’ rookies and free agents trying to make an impression, and then return to the golf course.
On Sunday, new coach Brad Stevens intently watched Boston’s 95-88 loss to the Orlando Magic with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, attempting to soak in the NBA culture as quickly as possible. It was his fourth day on the job.
Of course, the composed Stevens can’t appear overwhelmed by the experience. He has to continue the perception that the new regime is operating flawlessly so far, that the Celtics in no way are working on the fly despite the hurried nature of Stevens’s hire, preceded by the organization’s biggest trade in six years, sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.
The Celtics brass has to establish a feeling of normalcy. It must let its influential rookies and younger players know the plan is not tanking or going away from their strategy to improve as quickly as possible just because of the chaotic past month or the lack of immediate pressure to win.
Stevens wants to become the organization’s stabilizing force, even though he hasn’t yet begun looking for a permanent residence in Boston. He wants players such as Kelly Olynyk, Colton Iverson, and Jared Sullinger to know that development is critical and winning remains paramount.
Sullinger was his normal nonchalant self when asked about the upheaval, realizing from the past few weeks that no one on the roster is indispensable.
“I’m having fun with it, this is life in the NBA,” he said. “Whether I’m here or somewhere else, you never know. You’ve just got to embrace and understand that it’s a business, and once you understand that it’s a business instead of a college, you understand what you’re playing for.”
Sullinger, like Stevens and Ainge, is not conceding this season. While the Celtics will be dramatically different and lack the experience and talent from last season, the 25-point performance of Olynyk Sunday offered hope that the Celtics will be interesting to watch.
“When you have Celtic pride you really don’t have time to rebuild,” Sullinger said. “You’ve got to play hard, you’ve got to play smart, and with the veterans that we have, like Gerald Wallace coming from Brooklyn and you got Jeff [Green], and everybody counts us out but we’ve still got [Rajon] Rondo and he won a championship in ’08 and he knows what it takes. That rebuild word, we really don’t like it.
“At the same time, we want to play. We’re tired of everybody talking about how we’re going to tank. We just want to play and shut everybody up.”
Jay Larranaga was named summer league coach because he was one of the few coaches from Rivers’s staff who didn’t follow him to Los Angeles.
He was briefly a candidate for the head coaching job in Boston before Ainge made the stunning hire of Stevens.
So, Larranaga has been placed in the bizarre position of trying to teach the Celtics’ way though he has been in the organization just one year.
“Interesting,” Larranaga said when asked about the events of the past few weeks. “Everything is new for me and I’m just happy to be able to say that I work for the Boston Celtics. I think Coach Stevens talked about it in his press conference, he said he’s process-focused and that’s what we all are. We’re working on, ‘What can I do today to get better?’ ”
Stevens, sporting a gray Celtics polo shirt and matching gray shoes, said his next few weeks will be comparable to when his wife Tracy was preparing for the bar exam several years ago.
“I’m really as enthralled about the learning as I am about necessarily getting there,” he said. “I’m not as worried about when will I get there, but I’m really enjoying just the talk, really enjoying the learning, and really enjoying the transition. I think that’s the way I’ve got to do it. I’m going to study as hard as I can. I saw my wife study for the bar for two months like it was going out of style; my stuff’s a lot more interesting than that. It will probably be a similar summer to what she had.”
Stevens promised to know the strengths and weaknesses of every player by training camp, and this week in Orlando will be much more about breaking down video than dining with his new NBA cohorts.
When Rivers, the face of the organization, wavered for six weeks about whether he wanted to coach this season, the Celtics brand and psyche took a major hit. Stevens desperately needs to restore that confidence but simultaneously stress to his players that the process of rebuilding the brand is a methodical one in which steps can’t be skipped.
It’s a tedious and challenging process, but Stevens appears fully capable of guiding the team — at least in the early stages of his tenure.