In his weekly visit with 98.5 The SportsHub’s Toucher & Rich Show, Danny Ainge addressed the myriad of concerns and disappointments with the Celtics and at every turn, preached patience with how they’re playing, the team’s health, the TPE, and the impending trade deadline.
After Boston followed up a inspiring win against Denver with a demoralizing loss to the Hawks last night, Jaylen Brown said, “I know it’s probably tough to watch. It’s tough to play.”
The fans are feeling it. The players are feeling it. But the general manager and President of Basketball Operations has maintained a broader perspective.
“This is such a strange time with (no) practice and COVID. It’s just weird,” Ainge called the 2020-2021 season.
Ainge acknowledged that those circumstances are affecting every team in the league, but some teams have weathered similar issues better. The Atlantic Division rival 76ers are at the top of the Eastern Conference with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missing multiple games. The Blazers are 18-10 and have won six games in a row after playing without C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for more than half the season so far.
The injuries and COVID are today’s realities, but there’s also the bigger picture to consider. This is a very young roster that includes nine players on their rookie contracts, a minimum vet, and two two-way players that have all seen meaningful minutes in one form or another this season.
In the past, Brad Stevens would experiment early in the season to see how some players fit, but this year, there have been situations where inexperienced rookies and sophomores were thrown into critical situations that they weren’t ready for and they’ve been unsurprisingly inconsistent.
“When you peg your player to be your eighth best player on your team who needs to play a certain role and all of a sudden he needs to be your fourth best player, you’re not as good a team,” Ainge said. “You can get away with those things for short stretches in a season, but it’s hard to get away with it for a whole season.”
That means trying a two-big lineup with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. That means starting Semi Ojeleye, a 3&D specialist, at the 4 for the last several games. That means the a relying on rookie Payton Pritchard and Jeff Teague more with Kemba Walker still working his way back and Marcus Smart out with strained calf.
We’ve seen sparks from the kids. Most recently, it’s been a positive three-game stretch from lottery pick Aaron Nesmith. On the west coast trip, it was Carsen Edwards contributing to a big win against the Clippers. Robert Williams and Grant Williams have flashed some of the potential they showed in the bubble.
All things considered though, it’s hard not to think that the underwhelming Celtics are underperforming at 14-14, to the point that long time Boston Globe beat writer Gary Washburn is questioning whether or not the team has tuned out their coach. To that, Ainge said, “Absolutely not. That’s ridiculous.”
“That’s the culture of sports and sports reporting. It’s a common theme. It must be this if you don’t show up to play with the intensity or the motivation it takes to win. I don’t see that at all.”
For Ainge, he’s fully aware that this team is young. It might be fair to criticism for that. Ainge went into the last two drafts with multiple first rounders and came away with...multiple first rounders. However, there’s only one cure for inexperience: experience.
“I really believe our team is going to come around. It’s not as simple as, ‘we need to make a change. We need to make a fix. We need to add a center. We need to get a point guard,’” Ainge said. “Those things would help us with our objective of winning playoff games, but we don’t know exactly who we are yet, but we know right now that we’re 14-14 and we haven’t played very well and we haven’t played consistent.”
The trade deadline this season is March 25th and the Celtics are still armed with the largest TPE in league history at their disposal. He’s been on the record saying that the team could use “a piece or two,” preferably a shooting big, but he cautions the armchair GM’s out there, especially over five weeks away from the deadline.
Only four games separate the last place Pistons from the play-in tournament. It’s not clear who are buyers and sellers in the trade market yet. Ainge said that deals usually materialize closer to the deadline, so at this point, he doesn’t really know what’s available. And more so, it’s not clear to him what he’s working with.
“Sometimes, the problems are just internal, figuring things out: figuring out your team, getting your team healthy, playing better together. It’s not always about firing your coach or trading these three players, but sometimes it is,” Ainge said. “That’s what we’re in the process of doing—evaluating—but we’re always evaluating: what can we do and what should we do and what kind of deals we can get and what changes we can get to be better.”
As a former player and now GM in Boston who has had a taste of raising banners and the Larry O’Brien, he understands the pressures and demands of the fans. After three trips to the conference finals over the last four years, getting over that hump “I know we live in Boston and it’s championship or nothing. I don’t view the world that way. That’s obviously my internal goal all the time is to win a championship, but in winning a championship, there’s a process.”