TORONTO — The laughter remains. The Celtics’ locker room was loose Saturday night prior to the team’s matchup with the Toronto Raptors, as if it were a normal regular-season game.
It wasn’t. Organization upheaval and tremors are cracking the ground around each player, most of them unsure of their future with the team. Jameer Nelson, who looks as if he will be a permanent fixture on the inactive list until he negotiates a buyout, appears resigned that he’s played his last game for the Celtics. Evan Turner just signed a two-year contract and appears safe. Gerald Wallace knows he’s likely going to stay put only because of the size of his contract.
But the players were obviously affected by watching Jeff Green and Brandan Wright shuttled out of Indianapolis just moments before tip Friday night, leaving Celtics coach Brad Stevens to play counselor and organizational rep while basketball boss Danny Ainge is busy working the phones.
Wright was traded to Phoenix, and Green was told to go back to Boston and wait for a trade to the Grizzlies.
The direction of the organization is in question. Green was the team’s leading scorer, but he also had a $9.2 million option on his contract that he easily could have rejected and become an unrestricted free agent. So in return, the Celtics would much rather have another first-round pick and the available salary-cap space instead of making a long-term commitment.
Green was a polarizing figure in Boston, good enough to entice fans with his freakish athleticism, but not passionate enough to turn his talent into consistent performances. Even with the primary scoring responsibility being handed to him with the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, he still didn’t become that dependable option, so his days were numbered the moment Rajon Rondo was moved Dec. 18.
The Celtics are going to play consistently hard for Stevens on most nights, as they did Friday night in an overtime loss in Indiana and in the early going Saturday night against Toronto. The players in the lineup realize that playing time and roles aren’t promised to anyone.
As much as Stevens probably wanted to bench Green for his lack of energy to begin games, especially on the defensive side, he couldn’t. It would have damaged his trade value and there would have been no going back.
The question Celtics fans have to ask themselves is whether they can accept prospects and kids making mistakes as opposed to players who know better.
The rebuilding plan has taken a few steps back because Ainge could not pull off the blockbuster deal to net a superstar, leaving the veterans in the locker room to wonder when they’re next.
“I don’t know man, it’s tough,” impending free agent Brandon Bass said of the situation. “The best way to go about it is treat every day like it’s every day, like nothing’s going on and stay on top of your situation and wish the best for everybody else.”
Bass has seen it all since he’s been in Boston. He’s competed for titles, watched the Big Three get traded away or allowed to leave, and then watched Green get pulled from the lineup and told to go back to Boston.
“Man, I just try not to get too high or too low,” Bass said. “I feel like the more you are in this league, the more you experience and I’ve seen some things since I’ve been here and [Friday night] was definitely something. I’ve never seen that before. It’s another story I can share. It’s been different. There’s definitely been some highs but I think it’s a blessing to be a part of this. That fact your team is rebuilding, that says you’ve been around a while.”
At age 38, Stevens is turning into a life coach, attempting to convince his younger players that there is a purpose here, that Boston will keep some of its roster and stability is on the horizon, but he doesn’t know quite when.
“We prepare to win every day,” he said. “That’s what we try to do. That’s what we have to do whether you’re playing guys that are 20 years old or whether you’re playing 12 veterans. The emphasis and the day-to-day preparation has to be the same.
“We’re in a position right now where we’d be behind [in the lottery] if the season ended today, but the focus is on playing the best and winning the next game. That’s what we do every single time.”
When asked what he says to players who may think they’re the next to be traded, Stevens said, “I think it’s easy to speculate and we’ve all seen that but I think that there’s a lot that occurs throughout the course of a season. There’s a lot that these guys have to deal with.
“The way our guys played [Friday night] was pretty remarkable considering when I walked [in] to do the pregame speech, I didn’t know, let alone who was going to start, who was going to be available.”
There’s only so much Stevens can say because everything is so fluid.
While he keeps in close contact with Ainge, his responsibility is to coach whomever is wearing green. The answers are limited. The plan has many unknown parts. The only certainty is change.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe.