As Celtics training camp approaches, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge appears at ease with the major overhaul to the roster over the summer.
In the coming weeks and months, the Celtics will have to find their locker room leader and spiritual leader because the incumbents — Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder — were traded to the Cavaliers. The Celtics’ brass essentially have no idea one week before camp who will assume these roles.
Kyrie Irving sought a trade from Cleveland because he wanted more locker room leadership and off-court responsibilities. He’ll get his opportunity. Gordon Hayward is no longer a standout player on an overshadowed team in Utah. He is a maximum-contract player on a team with aspirations of reaching the NBA Finals, so he will be relied upon to lead along with Irving.
But nothing at this point is certain, and Ainge is OK with that.
“So when we acquired Isaiah, nobody knew he was going to be this Isaiah,” Ainge said. “Going into it nobody knew he was going to be the player that he was last year. When we got Jae Crowder in the trade for [Rajon] Rondo, nobody knew who Jae Crowder was. They just knew he didn’t play very much in Dallas.
“You have to let these things transpire. It doesn’t do any good to talk about it or predict who they are going to be. You have to let them earn who they are going to be. Part of that is earning their teammates’ trust and their coach’s trust, like Isaiah and Jae did. That’s what’s sort of exciting; there’s a new and fresh energy from having some new faces around and there’s a lot of excitement and optimism and it’s fun to be around right now.”
The Celtics will enter training camp with potentially 11 new players, including four new starters — Irving, Hayward, Marcus Morris, and perhaps Jaylen Brown to join Al Horford. Ainge also added Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, and Shane Larkin, while taking Jayson Tatum and Semi Ojeleye in the draft.
“This isn’t any sort of plan like we wanted to make a whole bunch of changes — part of it is just managing payroll and getting guys to fit on the court, just building a team,” Ainge said. “It’s not about getting rid of somebody or bringing new faces in, but in the world we live in today you have a salary cap and a luxury tax and there are short contracts that are attached. When I played, I signed a six-year contract. Now, most contracts are four years [at the longest]. It’s just the nature of our business and it’s not ideal not to have continuity. But there are rewards for a freshness. What really matters is how well they play and as I said, time is our judge.”
Four years ago, majority owner Wyc Grousbeck promised “fireworks” in an interview with the Globe. It took Ainge years to orchestrate the Fourth of July. He acquired two All-Stars in the offseason (Irving, Hayward), traded away their most popular player (Thomas) and longest-tenured player (Avery Bradley), and then had enough confidence to trade down in the draft from No. 1 to No. 3 to select the skilled Tatum, who has drawn raves since his summer league performance.
“I’m excited, no question, as I said, you can feel it,” Ainge said. “You can feel the energy here at our practice facility, you can see it in guys that are trying out for the [G-League], guys that are going to play major roles on our team this year, young and old, you can just see the energy that exists around here and it’s good. It’s exciting. I’m excited to get the season started and see how it all works.”
There will be a large void at small forward with Crowder’s absence. Hayward will assume the starting role but Brown and Tatum could be depended on for major minutes. Brown will be 20 on opening night. Tatum doesn’t turn 20 until March.
“I think Terry [Rozier] and Marcus [Smart] are really ready to step up,” Ainge said. “And Jayson and Jaylen we can be a little bit more patient with, but they are going to play an important role.”
“We’ll see what minutes [Tatum] will earn. I’m not worried about how they will play when the lights go on. It will be unlikely that Jayson is Rookie of the Year because it will probably come from a team that starts their rookies and plays them 35 minutes per night.”
A NEW JOURNEY
Perry is ready for Knicks challenge
For Scott Perry, the chance to help resurrect the Knicks is a long-awaited opportunity. While analytic-centric general managers with just a fraction of the front office experience were getting GM jobs, Perry was waiting patiently for his chance.
And the New York position was rather unexpected as Perry began his offseason without a job after being part of the Magic’s front office shuffle. Eight days later, Perry was hired to be the vice president of basketball operations in Sacramento, where he purchased a home and helped the Kings orchestrate the signings of George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter.
Seven weeks later, after the Knicks removed Phil Jackson and named Steve Mills president of basketball operations, Perry was hired as general manager. So just like that, Perry is responsible for helping resurrect a once-proud organization mired with issues.
Carmelo Anthony remains a Knick, although it’s likely best for both sides that he move on. But with a no-trade clause and a $24 million salary, Anthony has been difficult to move and training camp is approaching.
Perry was able to add Michael Beasley, Ramon Sessions, and Jarrett Jack after Mills signed former Knick draft pick Tim Hardaway Jr. away from the Hawks with an offer sheet. So with an influx of young players but Anthony, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee still present, it’s definitely a transition year in New York.
Perry, 53, is grateful for the opportunity after 17 years in NBA front offices. “You never know when your opportunity will come, if it will ever come, quite frankly,” he said. “Fortunately it did come in the form of New York, a historical franchise like the Knicks. I feel well-prepared for the opportunity and the job. Thirty years in the business, 13 years as a college coach, 17 years in the NBA, and not having skipped any steps as it relates to this business. It’s an exciting time, an exciting opportunity, one that I worked very hard for over the years.”
The Knicks are the ultimate challenge for a general manager. They haven’t been to the playoffs in four seasons and have lost 50-plus games in each of the last three seasons.
Jackson signed Noah, traded for Derrick Rose, and added Lee to try to make a playoff push but that ended in abject failure. Noah has three years and $55 million left on his deal while Lee is owed roughly $37 million over the next three years.
“I would first say, look, all these jobs are tough in professional sports,” Perry said. “New York is one of the more legendary, iconic cities in the world, the spotlight is that much brighter on the job. That’s not lost on me, but I’m going to be who I am, apply my experiences, my personality, things I’ve heard over the years, and do my part in making this a successful team again.”
Perry had actually completed the move from Orlando to Sacramento when he got a call from the Knicks.
“It has been very tough logistically, to put it mildly,” said Perry, who worked for more than a decade as Joe Dumars’s assistant with the Pistons. “When you consider moving cross country twice within a 3½-4-month period, that’s very difficult. Living in and out of hotels, packing, unpacking, selling a home, purchasing a home in Sacramento that I never moved into and have to sell now. It’s been very challenging, but I always take a step back and say it’s very well worth it because I’ve been blessed to get this opportunity. That quickly erases that angst over moving twice.”
“I think all of us that signed up to be in this business knows it’s not a comfort business. It’s a business that offers new and exciting challenges pretty much every day. I think about everything else with me [that I’ve experienced], it’s make it that much more of an exciting and enjoyable journey. I’ve been fortunate to be in the game for 30 years. That’s a long time, that’s a long career. That’s not lost on me that a lot of people have not been afforded that amount of time. I want to have a number of years more because I enjoy my craft.”
STARS ON THE RISE
Their time has come to break out
Overshadowed by the major free agent signings this summer were some under-the-radar transactions or draft picks that will enhance their teams. Here’s a look at 10 potential breakout players who could boost their ratings by season’s end:
D’Angelo Russell, Nets — OK, we know he didn’t exactly leave the Lakers with a pristine reputation. Russell played his two years in Los Angeles as if he was already a star, an entitled player who thought he was better than he really was. But Brooklyn will offer him more responsibility, less of a spotlight, and more of a chance to display his skills. Russell is a combo guard who needs the ball in his hands. The Nets are looking for cornerstones and Russell could emerge as their best player. The numbers in LA did show he was productive when he focused.
Jabari Parker, Bucks — Only injuries have derailed Parker’s early career, but don’t bet against him coming back strong from two ACL surgeries in his left knee. Parker has enough all-around game to emerge as a major contributor for the Bucks — plus his game never relied on athleticism. Milwaukee desperately needs more complements to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker, if he stays healthy, could put up sizable numbers.
Aaron Gordon, Magic — He is eligible for a contract extension before the season begins, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Magic passed just to see if Gordon turns into the player he was projected to be when he was drafted fourth overall in 2014. Gordon has been working on his game steadily, but that has been overshadowed by Orlando’s poor record and constant roster changes. He has a silky jumper and remains one of the game’s more athletic players. This may be his year.
Kyle Kuzma, Lakers — Looking for that late-first-round or second-round pick that will make the all-rookie team? Stop with Kuzma, the former University of Utah standout who was one of the better players at the Las Vegas Summer League. He blended well with point guard Lonzo Ball; he’s 6 feet 9 inches and can shoot from the perimeter. In the Lakers’ system, he should get his share of playing time and should make an impact for a team looking for a resurgence.
Norman Powell, Raptors — The former UCLA product has shown flashes of potential and with Cory Joseph headed to Indiana, Powell should get more chances in the backcourt. Powell should help a Toronto team in need of offensive firepower and could be in for a standout season. Powell averaged nearly 12 points in nine postseason games for the Raptors last season.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Nuggets — Denver has waited for its former lottery pick and point guard of the future to emerge, and it’s about time he did. The Nuggets relied mostly on veteran Jameer Nelson to make plays at the point while Mudiay watched. This is an important season for Mudiay, who must prove he not only can distribute but can score. Remember, he scored 22 first-quarter points last season at TD Garden against the Celtics. The Nuggets want to see that player more often.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings — In 25 games after the All-Star break — after DeMarcus Cousins was traded to New Orleans — Stein averaged 12.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1 block, and 2.2 assists. It has taken time for Cauley-Stein to play at an NBA level, but he has the skills and now the opportunity to become a breakout defensive player with some offensive capabilities. Cauley-Stein is capable of making the all-defensive team and also becoming a solid scorer around the rim.
Tyler Ulis, Suns — Phoenix has been trying to do something with Eric Bledsoe. He’s talented but often injured and would be a better fit with a more successful team. Ulis had a sparkling rookie season, including that buzzer-beater against the Celtics, and is ready to take the next step. Partly because of Isaiah Thomas, the league has become a more welcoming place for smaller guards, and Ulis will be a contributor to the Suns this season.
Taurean Prince, Hawks — With Atlanta in total rebuilding mode, Prince is sure to get more playing time. He became a starter for the Hawks during his rookie season. Prince averaged 8.4 points and 3.5 rebounds after the All-Star break and is definitely one of the players the organization plans to develop. Prince is a strong defender with the ability to become a breakout offensive player because of his athleticism and long-range prowess.
Dante Exum, Jazz — Remember when he was the mystery man of the 2014 draft? The player tabbed to make a major impact for the Jazz? That has yet to occur, partly because of a missed season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and partly because of maddening inconsistency. Exum will have an opportunity to grab more playing time if he can outplay the offensively challenged Ricky Rubio.
This is a critical season for Exum, who could become a restricted free agent next summer if Utah passes on signing him to an extension.
One player still looking for work is former Jazz and Wizards guard Trey Burke. Burke worked out for the Bucks and was considered by the Knicks before the latter opted for veteran Jarrett Jack. These are critical times for free agents as teams try to fill out training camp rosters with the maximum 20 players. Boris Diaw is off the list as he signed to play with a French team after lingering on the market for months.
The Celtics have one contract situation to address before the beginning of the regular season — whether to agree to an extension with swingman Marcus Smart. The market may have been set with the Heat signing Josh Richardson to a four-year, $42 million extension this past week. Smart is entering his fourth NBA season and would be a restricted free agent next summer (similar to Kelly Olynyk this summer) if no agreement is reached. This is a crucial season for Smart, who will inherit more responsibility with the departure of Avery Bradley. Smart could play hardball and test the market next summer, but it has been a rough time for restricted free agents. Not one restricted free agent this summer changed teams, and there are still players such as Alex Len of Phoenix and JaMychal Green of Memphis who did not receive offer sheets and haven’t as yet agreed to deals with their current clubs. The Celtics will have to address contract extensions over the next few years with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and eventually Jayson Tatum. But locking up Smart to a long-term extension could eventually become a bargain considering his potential . . . The Players Association is seeking another member of the executive committee with the retirement of James Jones, who has joined the Suns’ front office. The NBPA committee could elect another member at its meeting at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles or decide not to replace Jones. A candidate for the committee could be Brown, who has shown the desire to become a player rep and to become active in the players’ union. The Celtics will have to find another player rep because their previous one, Olynyk, signed with the Heat. This could be an opportunity for Brown to assume his desired responsibility as a leader among his young brethren.