As a mini-series between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers serves as a watered-down version of a first-round playoff preview, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck says his team is ready for the real thing.
When asked by interviewer Larry H. Russell about Boston's reputation as a free agent destination, Grousbeck praised James for returning to Cleveland as a sign that organization is most important. But the owner faces criticism constantly over the idea that a major free agent would want to sign with the city that just broke its snowfall record.
"Whenever people get that way, while I'm sitting at the game, I look up at the banner and I put my ring out," he said, "I've got no problem with those people."
Rings aside, the Celtics have a new recruiting tool that is becoming more attractive as the season goes on in Brad Stevens. His ascension in the ranks of the league's coaches has been rapid this year and he has received plenty of praise from opposing coaches and players. Grousbeck sees Stevens as one of the keys to drawing in players from around the league.
"I believe that the kind of guy who says, ‘I'm in the prime of my career and there's one thing I'm missing. I've got plenty of money, but I don't have a ring;' If he looks at Brad Stevens and says, ‘I want to play for that guy,' we're going to be in the mix," Grousbeck said.
But the Celtics won't beg players to come to Boston, rather relying on the reputation of the organization and the current framework in place to build a contender as their selling points.
"This whole thing that we have to beg people and we have our hat in our hand and we're telling people to please come; well if you don't want to be a Boston Celtic, you're not going to be a Boston Celtic. We're not going to drag you here. We want you to be here and we want you to choose us. You've got a chance potentially to join a team that is on the way back, hopefully, to being a contender. Hopefully in not very long. We actually want people asking us to possibly consider them."
Grousbeck counters this pessimism often and is confident that his team has the track record to back up his confidence in the organization.
"I feel like my back's up a little bit because this is the premier organization, or history certainly, in the NBA. [It is] one of the finest legacies on and off the court in the world history of sport. People see that. Kevin Garnett saw it.
"When we introduced him at that press conference back in '07, he took an extra 15 minutes before the press conference even started and he went on his own onto the court, which was darkened at the time, and he looked up at each banner and he soaked it in. All 16 banners. He thought about each banner and he said he mentally hung a 17th banner up there. Then we went into the press conference.
"That's the person we want here. Someone who gets it. Someone who Red Auerbach would be proud to coach. They're out there and we'll go get them."
In this rebuild, Grousbeck sees Stevens as the major acquisition who chose Boston, "I think one of the legacies of [the Big Three era] is that we attracted Brad Stevens here. Brad was in a very happy situation at a really fantastic university and he had signed a long-term deal there. He didn't have any intention of leaving. But when he saw the Boston thing and really thought about it; decided after a lot fo thought and a lot of consultation with his family and looking deep inside, he decided to make the move to Boston. He chose us and we're thrilled about it."
Before Stevens, it was Kevin Garnett who chose Boston. Garnett loved Boston so much, according to Grousbeck, that he continues to recruit players to the Celtics to this day.
"KG loved it and I think he's been a real good ambassador for us, telling people [that] it's a great place to play," he said. "It's very common for everybody to say, ‘Oh they can't attract free agents;' you know we attracted Kevin Garnett here. He did not need to sign an extension with us. He did not need to approve that trade. He wasn't technically a free agent, but KG picked coming to Boston and he won a championship here. So I always say that he was the first major free agent to come to Boston because he was able to dictate his terms of what team he wanted to go to and he chose us."
With a first-round series becoming a likelihood with a win Sunday, the Celtics have their most public and effective chance to display their progress to the league. An extended series against Atlanta or Cleveland could show the potential for rapid progress in the manner that catalyzed Golden State and Indiana's rise to the top of their conferences the past two seasons.
Grousbeck sees the rapid progress over the second half of the season as a result of the team buying into Stevens' program and taking it upon themselves to work harder than ever.
"I feel like when I look into [our players], I think a lot of them have really taken steps forward. It's to their credit as they could have packed it in when guys were traded away.
"We didn't necessarily plan on being here. Guys coming in from Detroit, guys coming in from Dallas; [I'm] not sure they knew they were going anywhere. I don't think that many players like getting traded. Everybody holding it together with the attitude and the way that they're playing as a team. Moving the ball, diving on the floor, playing team defense; the way that's all working is really fun to watch."
Stevens has been a revelation, but everyone in the organization has been expecting this progress from him since his hiring. Grousbeck spends as much time as possible with the coach, getting to know him as a person and a basketball leader.
"You know what I like? When I spend time with Brad on the plane or the bus or wherever on the road - I just went on the road with him for a few games a week or two ago and spent some extra time with Brad and just getting to see how he's growing into the job. He feels confident and he should feel confident. But he's humble.
"Talk about a guy that says, ‘I'm ready to learn anything. I'm ready to take any suggestions. Can I do this better or not?' I'm not saying he's asking me for those suggestions. I'm just saying that he's open to doing whatever he needs to do to be the best coach for the Celtics and he loves it here. So we're thrilled with Brad and we think that everyone is seeing it in the play calling and points after time outs and all of that. It's sort of morning-noon-to-night the way he runs the basketball team. It's a real pleasure to watch."
Stevens' leadership has been most visible in the way that seemingly the entire roster has increased its conviction, toughness and consistency since the Rondo and Green trades. Grousbeck points to two specific examples of how the entire team is stepping up against adversity.
"There's no one leader and I could add a few more names to the list in recent weeks. Kelly [Olynyk] comes out and Kelly doesn't seem like the biggest, roughest guy. He's a finesse player, but he comes out with this incredible black eye - four stitches - and has an incredible game and we win. That's leadership and that's where you earn a leadership role.
"Jared [Sullinger] coming back early in better shape. Losing weight and working out twice a day or more and taking care of the rehab and the electrostim on the foot. Doing everything he needed to do to build that thing up faster. That's a couple examples of everybody stepping up."
Grousbeck was careful when asked about Sullinger's foot injury and well-publicized weight issues. Sullinger was presumably out for the season until a surprise return in April gave the Celtics' back a sorely needed post presence.
"I'm gonna let other people comment on Jared other than to say that I'm impressed with what he's done. He has made strides. He's made progress over the last six-to-eight weeks since he's tried to get back from his foot. And now he's back and he looks better. He's playing hard and I'm happy with Jared. So that's where I'll leave it with Jared."
Notwithstanding Sullinger and the litany of issues he has to overcome to restore his reputation as a franchise building block, the Celtics are thriving on a model perfected by the Spurs and being adopted to great success by the Hawks and Warriors. Stevens and Danny Ainge have put together a dynamic and versatile system that can provide a solution to any challenge from an opponent, even if that solution lacks the talent and firepower to predict short-term success.
"Everybody's taking charge of everybody's assignment on the floor. It's shared leadership. It's kind of a group concept of leadership, which is odd but it's effective."
2015 has been an odd but effective year for the Celtics. But the pieces are in place for growth and eventual success. With so many unknowns in the team's path, the organization, top to bottom, appears focused on making the most of whatever opportunity presents itself.