Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge on Wednesday met with reporters for the first time since suffering a heart attack April 30. In a wide-ranging, 20-minute conversation, he touched on everything from his health to Kyrie Irving’s future in Boston. Here are the main takeaways.
■ There are important lessons to take from this season.
After the Celtics surged to the brink of the 2018 NBA Finals and then welcomed back Irving and Gordon Hayward, Ainge said, he knew there would be challenges as players adjusted to new roles. But he acknowledged that he underestimated how long it would take.
“It didn’t really ever take where we had 100 percent buy-in from 100 percent of our players,” he said. “I did not anticipate that. I thought through the course of the year, guys would figure out their roles.”
Ainge said it is common to enter training camp with questions about roles and responsibilities, but they most often are cleared up quickly.
“Then, there’s years like this year when it’s harder,” he said. “Everyone played well at times and not well at times. No one really took the jobs, other than Kyrie, who was a second-team All-NBA player and was our best player over the course of the year, and Al Horford.
“That’s why it was a difficult coaching job for Brad [Stevens], because those jobs weren’t clear-cut. Who’s going to finish every game? Who’s going to start every game? Those were much more difficult decisions.”
■ Ainge’s health is improving, and he is not going anywhere.
Ainge said he has switched to more of a plant-based diet and that he needs to keep eating well and exercising, but he said he feels good and will continue to lead the Celtics.
“My role is not going to change,” he said.
In the days after his heart attack, Ainge watched the Celtics’ playoff game against the Bucks on replay after he was already told the result. But that approach did not last long.
“I was like, ‘That’s more stressful,’ ” Ainge said. “So I watched the second game. The first game I didn’t watch because I was under more stress then. So I enjoyed watching the games and I just got to be in a setting where I’m not screaming and yelling and my veins aren’t sticking out all over my neck.”
■ Irving’s situation remains unclear.
Last October, Irving announced that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics. But he pulled back from that proclamation during the season and had a poor performance in the loss to the Bucks. And in recent weeks, multiple reports have suggested that Irving likely will be going elsewhere this summer.
Ainge, who said he had a good exit interview with Irving after the season, added that there was not much clarity on his end.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s not much I can say about that, honestly, but there’s ongoing conversations. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens there.”
Ainge said Irving’s representatives have not indicated to him that Irving intends to sign with another team. He would like to find out with some advance notice, of course, because that will affect how the Celtics approach the draft and their pursuit of Anthony Davis.
“But he can do what he wants,” Ainge said. “It’s his choice to do what he wants. Sure, I’d like to have answers to all your questions right now. That would be nice. Then I can relax even more. But it’s a busy time of year and there’s a lot of unanswered questions with free agency and draft and all of the players on our roster, all of that.”
Ainge was asked if there was something he could do to make Irving want to come back to Boston.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I don’t know that yet.”
Irving scuffled in the five-game Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Bucks, shooting just 35.2 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from the 3-point line while committing 3.6 turnovers per game and showing scattered effort on defense.
“The first thing I would say about the whole Kyrie thing, it’s unfortunate that one person gets credit or blame for a team’s failures,” Ainge said. “We had a lot of reasons the team did not succeed this year.
“Kyrie deserves his share of the blame, but not any more than anybody else. There’s a lot of guys that didn’t handle things the right way and didn’t make the sacrifices that needed to be done for the benefit of the team.
“So I think that they’re all going to learn from it, including Kyrie. He’s still a young player, and I think Kyrie is going to come back even better next year.”
If Irving does depart, his two-year tenure in Boston will not end up being very memorable. He missed last year’s playoffs because of a knee injury and then fizzled in this postseason, after a regular season that was filled with frustration and finger-pointing.
“There’s always risk in making deals,” Ainge said. “We’re not afraid of risk. We made a risk by trading for Kyrie and, no matter what happens with Kyrie, I’ll never regret that. You just move on to the next deal.”
■ The door is ajar for a Terry Rozier return.
If Irving departs, the Celtics likely will bring back restricted free agent Terry Rozier. After starring in the 2018 playoffs when Irving was injured, Rozier struggled in a reduced role this season. And at the end of the season, he did a bit of a media tour in which he made his frustrations quite clear and even said that if Boston brought back the same team, he would rather be elsewhere.
Since Rozier is a restricted free agent, the Celtics will have the ability to match any offer sheet he signs.
“You guys know I’m a big fan of Terry’s,” Ainge said. “I don’t always agree with how everybody handles the media, just like they probably don’t agree with how I handle the media and things that I say. We don’t always think alike. That’s what makes the game fun.
“But I’m a big fan of Terry’s. I think that if Terry was in the right circumstance and the right role, I think he would love playing in Boston. And if not, then I think Terry would let me know that. But Terry and I have a very good relationship, as Terry does with Brad as well.”
Ainge also said that the Celtics will discuss restructuring Horford’s contract. Horford can opt out of the final year of his four-year, $130 million deal. He could re-sign with Boston at a lower average salary but on a longer term.
■ Ainge is excited about Gordon Hayward.
It was a difficult season for Hayward as he worked to regain his All-Star form after suffering a gruesome ankle injury in the opening minutes of the 2017-18 season. Hayward had powerful moments, but they were outnumbered by the nights when he lacked burst and appeared tentative.
Ainge, however, has high hopes now that Hayward will have another full summer to prepare.
“I’m really excited for Gordon’s upcoming season,” Ainge said. “He’s working hard right now in the gym. He’s here every day with five or six coaches and [players] out there working extremely hard. He’s put a lot of time in. I’m anticipating great things from Gordon this next year.
“I’m not worried about Gordon Hayward. I’m not worried about his future or how good a player he is. He’s doing everything he can. If he doesn’t become the player that he wants to be, then it won’t be from a lack of trying. But I’m very excited and optimistic about his future.”
■ Ainge’s support for Brad Stevens remains strong.
Stevens tried to absorb most of the blame for his team’s struggles after the season ended against Milwaukee. But Ainge made it clear he had no issues with Stevens’s approach, and believes this past year will help him grow.
“It was a very difficult job,” he said. “I knew it’d be difficult from the beginning of the year and we talked about that, but I think it was even more difficult than I anticipated and he anticipated.
“Again, I think he’s going to be a lot better because of the year he went through. He’s the least of our worries.
“We know that he’s going to work to become the best that he can be and that he’s going to learn from it. I wish every one of our players would put the time, effort, and energy into what Brad does, but there’s no other coach I’d rather have than Brad Stevens.”
Ainge said there are no offseason surgeries planned that he is aware of. He also said that Stevens continues to meet with candidates for the assistant coaching opening that was created when Micah Shrewsberry departed for Purdue.