NEW YORK — Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been with the team during this four-day trip, sitting in on shootarounds and practices, and sitting behind the bench for Thursday’s preseason game against the Nets.
For Ainge, the countdown to the season opener on Oct. 26 has begun, and his most pressing order of business until then will be finalizing the 15-man roster. Sixteen of the 20 Celtics in training camp have guaranteed contracts this season, so one of them will have to go.
“My job is going to be very difficult,” Ainge said. “Sometimes when you get in these situations they work themselves out, but that certainly hasn’t been the case yet. The only clarity is that they’re all NBA players.”
The Celtics faced a similar roster crunch last year, but it was always believed that Perry Jones III would be released. This season, the scenario is more cloudy.
Third-year wing James Young and second-year guard R.J. Hunter have long appeared to be in a battle for the final roster spot. But Ainge cautioned that the field has not necessarily been narrowed to just those two players.
Rookie Demetrius Jackson, a second-round pick from Notre Dame, has a guaranteed $1.45 million deal this season. Veteran wing Gerald Green, meanwhile, was signed for the minimum of $1.4 million, with the Celtics guaranteeing about $980,000.
Ideally, Ainge said, the Celtics would complete a trade rather than simply waive a player, and he said the Celtics have “been in conversations” about a possible deal. Of course, the return in such a deal would hardly be sizable, and other NBA teams are aware the Celtics will have to release a player soon.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been part of ongoing discussions with Ainge about the construction of this year’s roster. The two will have a more focused talk when it is time to pare the group, but for now Stevens sees why it will be a challenging exercise for Ainge.
“I think the one thing that’s been very clear is there’s nothing really clear with regard to that right now, as far as finalizing our 15 people on the roster,” Stevens said. “They’ve all really, really improved, really made great strides. It’s going to be a tough call to ultimately not have a couple of these guys on our roster full-time.”
Young, Hunter, Jackson, and Green have all had bright moments during the preseason, but none in such a way that would make Ainge’s choice obvious.
In four games, Young is averaging 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds and shooting 38.5 percent from the field, while Hunter is averaging 3.5 points and 1.8 assists and shooting 30.8 percent. Both have struggled defensively at times.
“I’m not thinking about it at all,” Young said of the battle to make the final roster. “That’s just only going to put more pressure on me. I’m not really thinking about any of that. We’ve got great guys on the team, so I’m just going out there and playing basketball.”
“I think me being in this position makes me appreciate it all the more,” Hunter said. “I’m just having fun. I haven’t had to worry about [making the team] since they brought it up in the summer. I’m just continuing to help the team now.”
Jackson had 9 points in 15 minutes in a win against the Hornets last Saturday, but has played a total of just 7 minutes otherwise. Green missed the first two preseason games with a strained hip flexor but has showed his scoring ability over the last two, averaging 11.5 points.
Even though Green appears in a good position to make the final roster, he said he is not taking anything for granted. He said he wants to show that he deserves a spot.
“I feel like that’s why I’ve been trying to step on the court, because I feel like I haven’t really done anything to feel like I’ve proved myself,” he said. “I’m not trying to prove myself in the NBA; I feel like I’ve already done that. But I just want to prove myself to this team, to this organization.”
Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, who was once in an uncertain roster position as the last pick of the 2011 draft, said the players trying to make this year’s team should not stray from what got them to this point.
“Just be yourself, because if you just try to be something that you think they want and then get cut, you’re going to be mad at yourself,” Thomas said. “So just do what got you here and be a hell of a teammate and outwork everybody, the things you can control. You can’t control if the ball goes in the basket; you control how hard you play, how good of a teammate you are, and the work you put in.”