Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Friday he doesn’t feel any differently about his slumping team than he did two weeks ago, and he will continue to pursue avenues of improving his team, though that may not be by some deadline trade.
The Celtics enter Saturday’s game with the New Orleans Pelicans on a three-game losing streak, two of those losses to teams with losing records and a loss to Philadelphia, which was without All-Star center Joel Embiid. Still, Ainge isn’t distressed about what is a common NBA skid, and noted injuries as a factor.
“I don’t think it’s time to react,” he said. “It’s been a rough stretch but I’m not worried about that.”
The consensus among NBA executives is the Celtics need another productive big man to actually compete for the NBA Finals. They have worked near-magic with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter as the primary bigs but lack a true rim protector. Of course, rim protectors could be available by the Feb. 6 trade deadline but would come with a hefty price.
“There’s a lot of really good players in the NBA, so there’s always players that you can potentially get,” Ainge said. “But I don’t go into a trade deadline with any more stress or pressure that I have to do something to get better. I don’t see it like that. If a deal is there that we like, we do it. If there’s no deals that we like, we don’t do it.”
When asked whether he would feel more inclined to make a trade if the Celtics were one player away from a Finals run, he said: “That kind of terminology is used a lot in the NBA and I think there’s a lot of teams one piece away if it’s the right piece, if you get Michael Jordan. But I don’t know even what that means, one piece away, it’s all depending upon the piece. Those kind of game-changing pieces are tough to get and tough to trade for, we all know that in our league.”
Ainge made it clear he’s not interested in trading a core of his future — let’s say Marcus Smart or one of his young players — in a package for a player on an expiring contract who will play in Boston roughly two months.
“I don’t think I’m looking at any short-term urgency to trade away all my young assets to get some veteran player,” he said. “But we’re looking. We’ll have conversations before trade deadline like we do every year.
“We like our players. I like all the guys on our team right now. We’re excited about them and each one of them have a bright future. But sometimes you tweak your roster for a better fit, better balance. But at the same time you can also mess your roster up by making changes, too, because these guys get along and play hard together and they like each other and they know our system.
“Change for the sake of change is not what I’m looking for. Change for the sake of progress is what we’re always looking for.”
Health has been a major issue so far for the Celtics. Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart have all been felled with illness or unusual injuries that have prevented the quartet from playing together for prolonged stretches. The Celtics would like to use the next few weeks to evaluate their team in a healthy state.
“We just had a tough stretch,” he said. “San Antonio played great against us the other night. Philly after their long rest, they took it to us. We ran into two really good teams. I’m not even worried about that at all. I know what our guys are capable of doing and I’m confident we’re going to see the Celtics that we saw weeks before. And it’s good that we’re getting close to becoming whole again.”
When asked if the Celtics could make a long playoff run with their current big men, he said: “Well yes, I do believe it’s [good enough]. But a bigger question is what are the alternatives? So we like those guys. They are playing well. I’m a fan of each one of them. It’s always about what you are giving up to get certain players. That’s always the key.
“Anybody can pick guys on an Xbox game or NBA 2K like you can pick your own team but that’s not how the NBA works. We’re not going to give up $19 million of one of our good players to have somebody for three months. That ain’t gonna happen.”
But when assessing his roster and this season, Ainge added: “Listen, I won’t be satisfied until we’re the best team in the NBA and I don’t see us as the best team in the NBA right now. But I like our team a lot. It’s a really fun team to be around. There’s a lot of hope; there’s a lot of growth and I’m excited for the rest of this year.
“Just because I don’t think we’re the best team in the NBA doesn’t mean that my players and my coaches don’t think they’re the best team in the NBA, which is way more important than what I think.”