The only theme Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and the team’s brass felt was fitting for this season was transition.
It’s a transition year for this organization, which watched its sellout streak end at 289 games Wednesday night. It’s a transition year for the players, many of whom won’t be here next year or even in February. And it’s a transition year for the new coach, who is having more one-on-one conferences with his players than a third-grade teacher.
Brad Stevens is having to explain his allocation of playing time to veterans who have played major minutes in other locales and feel as if they deserve certain roles because of their status. Before the Celtics’ 97-87 victory over the Utah Jazz, Gerald Wallace expressed confusion and disappointment at being sent to the bench after he averaged 5.5 points and four shot attempts in the first four games.
“It’s tough for me to adjust to everything. I’m trying to just figure out my role and do the best that I can in that role,” Wallace said before the game. “Once I figure that out, then hopefully I’ll be more comfortable in the situation. I’m just trying to make sense of everything. I’m trying to figure out what’s really going on and go from there.
“I don’t have a clue. I don’t know what’s going on. My thing is, when I’m on the court, I compete to win. And when I’m not, it’s just cheer my guys on and hopefully we’ll get a win tonight. I’m done talking [about roles]. Whatever they say, it’s their team. They can do whatever they want to do. I’m just going to come out and compete hard and try to win.”
Stevens met with Wallace early Wednesday to explain his case for inserting Jordan Crawford into the starting lineup to hopefully provide more of an offensive spark. And his reasoning looked rather shaky when the Celtics fell behind, 16-3. But eventually it worked out.
Wallace produced his best game of the season with 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists in 23 minutes. He looked more comfortable as the Celtics led for the final three quarters. After the game, Wallace was called into an auxiliary room next the locker room by Ainge and they talked for about 20 minutes.
It’s uncertain what was said, but Wallace appeared to embrace his role more graciously when he addressed the media afterward.
“I wouldn’t say not happy; I would just say kind of confused,” he said. “It’s the first time since I was traded to Portland [in February of 2011] that I actually came off the bench. It’s a new experience for me. Like I said, we’re still trying to figure it out as a team. It worked, so maybe it’s something that we can go with.”
There is a sense of confusion hovering over the organization. The perception outside the organization is that the Celtics are tanking for a high lottery pick in 2014. There is the reality inside that the Celtics are still trying to find their identity, trying to figure out if players such as Crawford, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Bass have long-term roles.
Players such as Wallace, who has three years and $30 million left on a contract that will be difficult to move, and Kris Humphries, in the final year of his deal at $12 million and who would be a valuable role player for a title-contending team, are left to wonder their purpose in Boston.
The Celtics aren’t contenting for a title. They are currently a bunch of assembled pieces trying to mesh behind a 37-year-old neophyte coach who is attempting to learn the idiosyncrasies of the NBA game on the fly.
So there is going to be chaos at times, and frustration at others. Humphries sat on the bench for the past three games. He played 5:42 of the first half Wednesday night, hit a jumper, and then did not play in the second half. Stevens keeps promising MarShon Brooks he is close to gaining minutes.
But what happens when Brooks does get an increased role? Somebody has to sit, meaning likely another conference with Stevens.
“That’s what I have always done,” Stevens said about meeting with players. “I’ve played every role [as a player]. I never played at this level, but I’ve played every role. I’ve sat and watched whole games. I’ve played a lot in whole games and I know the feeling in both of those and it’s important to communicate to those guys that aren’t playing as much. All those guys have to do is maintain a good mind-set and they’ll take advantage of their opportunities.
“Everyone knows what they do well and it’s about fitting that into our team. One of our biggest challenges is our evenness. We’re pretty even, 1 through 13.”
Wallace said after the game that perhaps he could adjust to a bench role and reduced minutes after 13 years in the league. Stevens is doing an admirable job with his communication in a difficult situation. Players such as Wallace and Humphries are beyond trying to prove themselves and want to play for contenders, having been thrown into this rebuilding situation because their salaries fit.
The best Stevens can do is be upfront about his plans, which at this point are fluid. Eleven players logged minutes Wednesday night, when nine-man rotations are customary. But these are not customary times in Boston.
The Celtics have to figure themselves out, and that means erratic rotations and unpredictable roles for the first few weeks. This process is necessarily and acceptable, as long as it is a means to an end.