CHICAGO — The NBA Combine offers teams an important chance to evaluate future draft picks. But it is also a rare time when decision-makers from every franchise are gathered in one city. So during breaks in the five-on-five scrimmages, as well as in hotel lobbies and restaurants long after the games have ended, trade conversations start and seeds are planted.
As the Celtics enter their most important offseason in years, assistant general manager Mike Zarren, director of player personnel Austin Ainge, and director of player evaluation Dave Lewin have been eager to take advantage of both opportunities here this week.
“This is the first point after the season that you have a chance to talk seriously — now that everybody knows where they’re picking — with a lot of teams about what their goals are for the summer,” Zarren said Friday. “You start to think about the types of trades you might do with each of them. We’ve been doing some of that work all day here.”
Last summer brought the Celtics a rare period of calm. They did not make any major moves, most of their roster remained intact, and they used their lone draft pick on big man Robert Williams.
This year, Kyrie Irving’s free agency will be the dominant narrative of the summer. Free agents Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and even Al Horford (if he decides to opt out of the final year of his deal) will cloud the picture a bit, too. The Celtics will have four draft picks, including three in the first round. And they are expected to navigate all of this while trying to trade for Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis.
“Given the state of our roster and the draft assets we have now and going forward, nearly any kind of transaction is in play. To trade for players around the league, to move up or down in the draft, for future picks, to use our picks,” Zarren said. “We’ve got a lot of flexibility this summer, but also a lot of big decisions to make. So the next two months are going to be very, very busy.”
Last season, the Celtics surged to the brink of the NBA Finals despite the absences of Irving and Gordon Hayward. This year, they welcomed both players back and stumbled through a 49-win season before being throttled in the second round of the playoffs by the Bucks. So there could be some more urgency to reshuffle the deck a bit.
“I think there’s just more uncertainty about the path moving forward,” Zarren said. “There’s a lot of different ways the summer could go. And that’s our job, over the next bunch of weeks, is to figure out what the best path is from here.
“I think it’s safe to say that everyone wishes we’d done better. We’ve only got one goal in Boston and everybody knows what that is, and we didn’t achieve it this year. So we’ve got to work hard to get there.”
Part of the Celtics’ approach will hinge on the decisions of other players and teams. If Irving decides to sign elsewhere, or if the Pelicans convince Davis to ease up on his trade demand, Boston will adjust its approach accordingly.
“We’re going to get a lot of clarity on the direction of the team, both from the decisions we make internally and from the decisions other people make in the next month,” Zarren said. “But it’s still very close to the end of the season, so we’re not at the point where we have clarity on exactly the path we’ll be going on.”
The absence of Danny Ainge, who suffered a heart attack in Milwaukee on April 30, has presented some new challenges during this tumultuous period. But even though Ainge is not here in Chicago, he has been monitoring the Combine and staying in close contact with his staff. He has been able to attend draft workouts in Boston, and spent plenty of time poring over film of prospects and trade targets.
“We just have to make sure he’s not pushing himself too hard,” Zarren said. “Otherwise, there hasn’t been a huge impact. We’re just concerned for his health more than anything else. We’re just glad he’s going to be OK.”
Head coach Brad Stevens did not attend the Combine workouts, but he came to Chicago to take part in the Celtics’ prospect interviews that were held in a hotel here this week. Stevens has also been busy looking for a replacement for assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who recently accepted a job as an assistant at Purdue.
“Brad hasn’t decided what kind of person he wants, at what level, for this coaching hire,” Zarren said. “So he’s talking to a wide range of people.”
The past three days, the Celtics completed nearly 20 half-hour meetings with high-level prospects such as Duke forward Cam Reddish, Texas Tech forward Jarrett Culver, Texas center Jaxson Hayes, and Indiana guard Romeo Langford.
Zarren said these meetings might be the most valuable part of the week, particularly when there is a chance to talk to a player who is not coming to Boston for an individual workout.
“You’ve been watching these players for years, but that doesn’t tell you what kind of people they are,” Zarren said. “Brad has always put a strong importance on having the right people on the team, and so have the rest of us. But you really don’t get to know the person you’re going to have around until you meet them.”