LAS VEGAS — Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge on Wednesday was asked whether there are still players his team is interested in as it combs the free agent market with two available roster spots.
Ainge said there are certain players he is watching, and that the Las Vegas summer league has provided opportunities for that. Then he briefly shifted the focus to a player he already knows quite well.
“Our priority remains the same,” Ainge said. “Our priority is still Marcus [Smart] in free agency, and that’s where we are.”
Ainge turned away a pair of follow-up questions about Smart, who is a restricted free agent. But his public pronouncement is yet another indicator that whenever this process ends, Smart will ultimately remain a Celtic.
Smart has met with several teams here this week, but the hard truth is that there are very few teams with the salary-cap space available to sign him to the contract he is seeking, and around the league there is also a general belief that it would be fruitless anyway, with the Celtics all but certain to match any offer Smart receives.
Smart attended Celtics forward Jaylen Brown’s bowling event here on Tuesday night. Forward Guerschon Yabusele was there, too, and said Smart was in good spirits when they spoke, but that their conversations had nothing to do with basketball.
Sources close to Smart have said that the guard has been frustrated by the Celtics front office’s lack of contact with him during this free agency period, but league sources have said the Celtics are simply waiting for Smart to test the market on his own. It appears increasingly likely that Smart will ultimately accept a $6 million qualifying offer from the Celtics, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer.
If the Celtics sign Smart to a multiyear deal that pays more than $10 million per season — and he would almost certainly not settle for less — it would likely put Boston into the luxury tax. The Celtics will factor those possibilities in when dealing with Smart or considering other potential deals, but they will not shudder.
“We’re running a business and trying to win basketball games,” Ainge said. “It’s my job to be fiscally responsible, but we will pay the tax. We plan on being a taxpayer, for sure.”
Even if the Celtics sign Smart, they would still have one roster spot remaining. Second-year guard Jabari Bird, who has played well here, could be a candidate for that opening.
Bird had a two-way contract with the Celtics and Maine Red Claws last season. If he signs an offer sheet for an NBA contract with another team, the Celtics will have the ability to match it. If Bird does not get another offer, the Celtics could simply try to sign him to another two-way deal. There are benefits to entering the fall with one roster spot open, too.
“Fourteen players gives you more options to invite different guys into camp that have a chance to make the team,” Ainge said. “We may have 15, we may not. It depends on a lot of things.”
Of course, decisions at the bottom of the roster are unlikely to have a sizable impact next season. The greater concern is the return of injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Ainge on Wednesday affirmed that both players continue to recover on schedule.
“Yeah, doing great,” he said. “Both of them sound very optimistic and sound healthy, and they’re getting out on the court. Should be playing full-court basketball by the time they get back to Boston sometime in August.”
Hayward and Irving are expected to make the Celtics the heavy favorites in the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James has departed Cleveland to join the Lakers. James reached the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, but Ainge said this perceived opening in the East is not really the one that matters.
“I don’t really care about that,” he said. “We’re trying to win championships, and you still have to play LeBron. I think that there’s a lot of good teams in the East that get undersold a little bit. I think Washington, and Milwaukee’s an up-and-coming team, and Toronto was the best team in the conference last year during the regular season and I think they’re a fantastic team. So, the East is going to be tough.”
The Celtics last week officially signed center Aron Baynes and guard Brad Wanamaker. Baynes was Boston’s starting center for much of last season, and his deal was agreed upon just minutes after free agency opened on July 1.
“It’s very exciting to have Aron back,” Ainge said. “He provides a lot of leadership and energy and defense. He’s sort of the backbone of our defense, so we’re excited to have him.”
Ainge said the Celtics tried to sign Wanamaker, a EuroLeague standout and former University of Pittsburgh star, last season. This year Boston convinced the 28-year-old to leave millions of dollars on the table in Turkey to sign a minimum-salary contract and chase his NBA dream.
“Brad is just a complete player,” Ainge said. “He can score a little. He can run pick-and-rolls. He can defend multiple positions. Tough kid.”
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Rookie Robert Williams was limited in practice on Wednesday and his status for Thursday’s game against the Knicks is unclear.
Williams suffered a knee contusion in the first half of Boston’s summer league opener last Friday and has not played since.
“Obviously, our objective is to get him as strong and healthy as we can for the regular season,” Ainge said. “As nice as it would be to get some experience for the summer league, I think our priority is to get him healthy.