This may be the year Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been waiting for. It’s been three years of rebuilding, two playoff appearances (and two first-round eliminations), a slew of acquired draft picks, and one major free agent signing (Al Horford).
Ainge didn’t land Kevin Durant, but he has put his team in a position to compete for a spot in the NBA Finals, and Ainge has increased his expectations.
The Celtics are no longer upstarts. They have been picked by many to win the Atlantic Division and grab the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. And they have the attention of other East contenders, such as the Cavaliers, Raptors, and Pacers.
Ainge’s patience may be waning, though. He expects success, and quite honestly, the Celtics should expect success from themselves.
“We expect our team to be better, we expect each of the players to be better,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of guys who are not yet in their prime that are moving in that direction. So I do expect it to be better. We want to be better at the end of the year than we are at the beginning of the year, however good we are at the beginning of the year. We want to be able to compete against the best teams.”
Ainge has worked arduously to put a formidable product together, and he places the onus squarely on those he has hired and signed.
“It’s no different for me, but different for them, and time will tell how they deal with those expectations,” Ainge said. “We’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody. I think the team has earned a great deal of respect around the league the way they played last year, the last couple of years, so that’s a good thing. That’s progress. That’s where we want to be. We want our expectations to be higher, and learning to live up to those expectations is part of growing.”
The Celtics made a serious bid for Durant, even bringing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to the Hamptons for the meeting with the former MVP. Boston’s bid fell short, but the Celtics did lure Horford, their first major free agent signing in three decades.
“It’s like every year, you always wish you could do more,” Ainge said of the team’s summer. “I felt that way as a player, a coach, a GM. It’s what keeps you working, trying to do more and trying to get better. No different than the players. I don’t really care about what the perceptions are. We’re just trying to get better as an organization and I think we have a good team that is trying to improve.
“We have good ownership, good coaching staff, and good management, and we’re all working together and trying to better our team. And everybody seems to be on the same page on when to pull the trigger on a deal and when not to. It was a pretty good summer.”
The rebuilding plan consisted of compiling draft picks and salary cap space to make a run at Durant and Horford. The Celtics still own Brooklyn’s first-round pick in 2018 —
Ainge promised the Celtics would continue to be aggressive in acquiring players, but the right trade is never easy and usually complicated.
“There are opportunities, but weighing risk and opportunity is challenging in this business. So we’ll be in that position for a little while. We have a lot of assets,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of good, young players and we like all of our young players. So it’s an exciting time to be a Celtic.
“We do have higher expectations this year, higher than we’ve had in the past. We’re building toward a championship, so we need to take another step. There’s a lot of formulas to success, a lot of formulas to win. But we do know that talent wins, chemistry wins. Health wins, and we’re trying to do the best we can in all categories.”
Shaq shares on several subjects
Shaquille O’Neal recently touched on a variety of subjects while discussing his illustrious career.
On whether he regrets leaving the Magic for the Lakers in free agency in 1996: “Everything is predicated on winning, so if we would have won that first Finals against Houston [in 1995], it definitely would have been different, but the outcome probably would have been similar because I would have stayed with Penny [Hardaway] and he would have had less stress on his body, which would have prolonged his career and we would have had two or three [titles], easily.”
On what changed his once contentious relationship with fellow Hall of Famer Yao Ming:
“I got in trouble one day for messing with Yao. Because I was the type of player, I was going to embarrass you, talking about you, do what I’ve got to do to get you off your game. So my father called me and said you need to take a private jet home now, after [his Lakers] played Houston. I had a pretty good game against Yao and [my father] made me fly home. My father and my mother ran my fan club and my father said, ‘You need to show Yao a little more respect.’ I got into an argument [with him] and I said, ‘Why? I don’t do that.’ And he showed me letters that Yao used to write me when he was a youngster. Christmas cards. Birthday cards. My father said the guy looked up to you. Most of the guys that I was killing, I looked up to them. He said Yao looked up to you so show him a little more respect, and our relationship changed after that.”
On the extinction of the traditional NBA center and his part in that decline:
“I’m the reason why [the center] is done. [I] used to brutalize all the big guys inside, so all the big guys that are sitting at their house watching it probably realized they couldn’t play like that. But they saw other big guys doing other stuff. If you look at a guy like Dirk Nowitzki at 6 foot 11 inches, most guys are not going to be 6-11, but that’s what they’re probably practicing right now.”
SUPPORT NOT FLAGGING
Curry respects means of activism
This offseason, North Carolina native Stephen Curry watched the NBA take the 2017 All-Star Game away from his hometown of Charlotte because of the the HB2 law, and then followed riots in Charlotte after the police killing of African-American Keith Scott last month.
“About Charlotte, it’s another experience and opportunity for people to use their voice,” Curry said during the Warriors’ media day last week. “The first night in Charlotte it turned that way, and that’s tough to see, especially growing up in that city. I know that’s not what we’re about, who we are, and you never want to be in that negative spotlight. But as it went forward, everything was very constructive and productive.
“So obviously praying for the Keith Scott family, the officer’s family, the people that are going through some very tough situations right now. But also just for the city — the city understands they can use their voice and they should do that. But violence is never going to solve anything.”
Curry was asked about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked controversy and athlete awareness about social injustice by kneeling during the pregame national anthem. Curry is a powerful voice among professional athletes, one of the top basketball players in the world and a popular spokesperson.
“I respect everybody’s voice, everybody’s platform. And the opportunity to and right to protest what they feel in their heart is something they want to change,” Curry said. “So I respect what Colin is doing, I respect the message that he’s fighting for. And I hope all the spotlight is on that particular message and the things that we can do to make changes that are blatantly obvious that need change.
“I plan on standing [for the national anthem]. But like I said, the way that everybody can affect the minds of the people around them and the awareness of what’s going on without having — without in that moment, with the national anthem in the moment kneeling,” Curry said. “I guess I respect Colin because he took a bold step in that regard, to start — to continue the conversation and make it more pointed. But I do plan on standing.
“I don’t have a relationship with [Kaepernick]. I met him once when I went to a game about three years ago. But like most people in the country now, they’d like to sit down and talk to him, to kind of understand his thought process in more detail, how he got to the decision of, you know, how he was going to go about his protest, and understanding more fully. And the ideas that he may have, based on who he’s talked to, based on the situations that he’s been in to help affect change. Because I’m sure he does have fantastic ways of taking advantage of the moment, for sure.”
It seems the consensus among NBA players is they admire Kaepernick for his actions, but likely will choose their own methods of protest, if they decide to protest at all.
“What Colin is doing, it’s amazing, because he’s backing up what he’s representing,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “He’s not just going out there seeking the spotlight or doing it for attention. He’s really trying to make a change. And it’s very honorable. There are a lot of guys out there that might just do it — a lot of people are doing it, but Colin is out there trying to really make a change. Using the platform to better our society. And there’s a lot of honor in that.”
Thompson played for Team USA at the Rio Olympics, where he proudly stood for the national anthem.
“This is a great country, but obviously there’s a lot of things going on right now that are really disheartening, and Colin is trying to make a change, so it’s really inspirational not only to us athletes but to the younger generation and the older generation, as well,” said Thompson.
“When you’re standing for your flag, I think that means a lot, as well. I’m all about a peaceful protest, I’m all about affirmative action, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it. I enjoy standing for the flag because I know there’s a lot of opportunity in this country, especially basketball players around the world, and going to Brazil this summer was eye-opening and it was a great experience.”
Durant should be a perfect fit
Stephen Curry believes Kevin Durant’s transition to the Warriors will be mostly seamless because of the team’s selfless philosophy.
“He’s a well-rounded player. He does score at a high rate and do it all sorts of different ways. But in the offense, where we are as a team, even before Kevin Durant, we had a flow and rhythm to it,” Curry said. “There’s not a lot of one-on-one kind of stuff. So thinking about how he’ll transition into it, he can do all of that at a very high level.
“He can pass. He can move out the ball. I think he understands — he has a very high basketball IQ when it comes to where he needs to be on the floor, and how he can work off other guys.
“And he wants to play the game the right way. I heard that come from his mouth. So that fits in right to our identity. But there’s still obviously a transition when you have so much talent you’ve got to figure out how to blend it all. But everybody has to be at a hundred percent of themselves. There’s no sacrifice, there’s no changing your style or anything. It’s just when it comes to the full picture of our team, you’ve got to take a minute to flow.”
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Been Asked all summer if it was bitter sweet winning #thenbafinals because I am from #thebay and coaching for the @cavs ... I will always be from THE BAY but there was nothing bitter sweet about becoming #nbachamps in my home town. #wemadehistory #cavsnation #townbizzness #hardworkisundefeated #bayraised #theland #allin216
With his contract extension, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue was able to make some adjustments to his coaching staff, naming former Hawks and Bucks head coach Larry Drew as an associate coach and promoting former NBA sharpshooter (and LeBron James’s buddy) Damon Jones to an assistant coaching position. Former Celtic James Posey remains as an assistant and ex-Celtic Vitaly Potapenko is Cleveland’s assistant director of player development. Assistant coach Phil Handy also returns. Handy gave a motivational speech after Cleveland’s Game 2 blowout loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers won four of the next five games . . . Former Northeastern standout Quincy Ford is at Jazz training camp, having signed a three-year, partially guaranteed contract before summer league. Ford averaged 16.4 points and seven rebounds last season for the Huskies . . . Former Boston College standout Olivier Hanlan was traded by the Jazz to the Spurs in the Boris Diaw deal, but he never made it to training camp with San Antonio. He signed with French club Le Mans Sarthe after playing last year in Lithuania. Hanlan’s rights are still owned by the Spurs . . . The Cavaliers began their workouts without J.R. Smith, a key player in their title run, because of a contract dispute. Smith is an unrestricted free agent. The Rockets have yet to agree to a deal with forward Donatas Motiejunas, who could play a key role for Houston since it dealt Michael Beasley and allowed Terrence Jones to sign with the Pelicans. Motiejunas is a restricted free agent. Other veterans still looking for work include Josh Smith, Kevin Martin, Norris Cole, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman, Tayshaun Prince, and Kirk Hinrich . . . Bulls sharpshooter Doug McDermott gave his No. 3 to new teammate Dwyane Wade and will wear No. 11. Lakers guard Marcelo Huertas gave up his No. 9 to Luol Deng, who signed a $72 million deal in the offseason.
The Big Ticket
Kevin Garnett announced his retirement Sept. 23 after 21 years in the NBA. Garnett, who was a nine-time first-team All-Defensive player, had a major impact on two franchises and established himself as as one of the most well-rounded players in the game. Here’s how he filled up the stat sheet:
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.