ORLANDO — On the opening night of free agency, the Celtics reached out to more than two dozen players, getting caught up in the open-market frenzy, expressing their admiration for players, many of whom they realized they never would sign.
A week later, the Celtics are eerily quiet. They only have signed their own restricted free agent, Avery Bradley, on the second day of signings. An NBA source said they are backing off their pursuit of free agent Kris Humphries.
However, a league source said Monday that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is attempting to gather assets to acquire Kevin Love, convinced he can devise a package that would entice Minnesota Timberwolves president Flip Saunders to move the three-time All-Star, who will be a free agent next season.
Ainge admitted that things have been quiet so far, and of course was reluctant to discuss anything dealing with free agency.
“You never know what to expect,” he said Monday as the Celtics dropped their summer league contest to the Pacers. “When you have conversations, I have a great deal of respect in the league and what they’re all trying to accomplish. I don’t know what’s going to shake out when it’s all said and done.”
When asked if he was pleased with the current state of the team, he said, “There’s a lot more to do. It’s a long summer.”
According to two NBA sources, Ainge has been dogged in his pursuit of Love, and several agents believe he has the creativity to put together an attractive package.
The Celtics are essentially out of salary cap space, but they do have a $10.2 million trade exception from the Paul Pierce deal they have to use by Saturday. They also have potentially talented rookie James Young to offer in a deal. While Young was ruled out of summer league with a neck injury, there was speculation the Celtics are keeping him on ice in case of a potential deal.
Saunders wasn’t in Minnesota for the Kevin Garnett trade. He was coaching the Pistons then, but he does not want a repeat of that lopsided deal from seven years ago. Of the five players acquired in the trade, four — Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, and Theo Ratliff — made little or no impact with the Timberwolves.
The centerpiece of the deal, Al Jefferson, played well for the Timberwolves, but couldn’t lead them to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the two first-round picks sent to Minnesota eventually became Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington. So you can understand why Saunders isn’t anxious to acquire younger players and picks. He is demanding established veterans.
So Ainge likely would have to use the team’s slew of first-round picks and that trade exception to acquire a quality veteran from a team looking to clear cap space to sign one of the premium free agents — LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng — and deal him to the Timberwolves.
And then there is discussion that the Celtics are interested in defensive menace Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. That could be a simpler deal that likely would entail the Pacers signing the restricted free agent and moving him to the Celtics for likely Bradley, another player, and potentially a first-round pick.
That’s if the Pacers don’t believe they can sign Stephenson, and he’s already rejected a five-year, $44 million deal. Stephenson is a mercurial player who is one of the better on-ball defenders in the league, plays with a sense of insecurity because he was a second-round pick, and is improving greatly.
He would make a major impact in the Celtics’ backcourt; just imagine a Stephenson-Rajon Rondo combination, which perhaps would be one of the more irritating in NBA history. Those are illusions right now. The Celtics haven’t made a move yet, and would Larry Bird actually trade his second-most talented player to the Celtics, despite his relationship with Ainge?
That’s why Ainge has to amass enough talent to satisfy other savvy general managers and that’s why the Celtics have been making so much noise around the league with their inactivity.
Majority owner Wyc Grousbeck promised “fireworks” during the summer, but the Celtics didn’t have enough salary cap space or quality players to make a standard deal. So Ainge and his staff, including salary cap whiz Michael Zarren, are still working to foster the team’s rebuilding plan by acquiring an All-Star-caliber player.
The free agent decisions of James, Bosh, and Anthony also will begin to settle matters and give the Celtics a better idea of what they can acquire.
So prepare yourself for an intriguing next few weeks, because Ainge has the league believing he’s up to something, and that’s probably correct.