BOSTON — One season after absurdly high expectations contributed to the derailment of his team’s season, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge wasn’t biting when asked to assess his team’s ability against the landscape of a new-look NBA.
“I know you guys like to make the prognostications, which I don’t like to do,” said Ainge. "I like to wait and see. I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful for guys stepping up and exceeding expectations, instead of making high expectations.”
What Ainge would relent is that, a year after Boston failed to get all its individual talent to play consistent team basketball, that the issue this season would simply be if players make the strides necessary to contend with the NBA elite.
"I think that last year’s questions were more based on how is it going to jell? There was not a question of how much talent we had,” said Ainge. "This year, the question is, are we good enough? And can players step up and take advantage of the opportunities that they’re given to become more elite?”
Ainge said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen in training camp and believes that the effort expended by the players up and down the roster this summer suggests that this team is eager to outkick the tempered expectations heaped upon them.
A handful of other key takeaways from Ainge’s preseason state of the union before the Celtics’ open practice Saturday at new-look TD Garden:
AINGE CAN’T STOP THE HAYWARD HYPE TRAIN
Ainge, who might have steered the Gordon Hayward hype train out of the station back in June, tried to reign things in a bit — though he ultimately admitted that Hayward might just be back to his pre-injury self.
"I think, right now, there’s been a lot of buzz about Gordon and his comeback and I’m worried that it’s getting a little out of hand,” said Ainge. "Like, I think he’s Gordon. He’s back to being Gordon. And we’re very excited about that. I sometimes worry, like, ‘Oh my gosh, they think it’s somebody else.’
"But I’m excited about Gordon. I’m excited about Kemba. Jaylen and Jayson had really good summers. They’ve looked really good in training camp. Obviously they have a great comfort level with the system. And Marcus [Smart]. So, we know who all of those guys are. I think there are lots of questions in lots of other places on the roster.”
Second-year big man Robert Williams didn’t do anything to slow the hype when asked about how Hayward.
"He’s just hungry, man,” said Williams. "I can put it simple as that, he’s just hungry. I was in Boston most of the summer. I got up at 9 or 9:30 to work out and Gordon would be walking out. So, he was in there every day, all day. I can say that I saw that. I’m saying that it also helped instill a work ethic in me. But Gordon, you know he’s hungry. He’s trying to get what he deserves.”
Asked if Hayward had found his old explosion, Williams added, "He just got it back man,” said Williams. "Yeah, he back.”
CONFIDENCE IN BRAD
Echoing a common sentiment since last season, Ainge went to bat for his coach again entering the new season.
"I don’t know if [last season] was his first disappointing season, but maybe the toughest overall,” said Ainge. "If 49 wins is the worst season in your coaching career, you’re probably going to be OK. But Brad just keeps getting better. These experiences, he’s a young coach, works harder than anybody, very bright. I have all the confidence in the world that last year was a learning experience for him, just like all of our young players.
"Like I said many many times before and I’ll continue to say, he’s the least of our worries. He’s prepared, and I think these experiences are going to make him a great coach.”
THE BIG MAN ISSUE
Ainge admitted that one of Boston’s biggest areas of concern is a new-look frontcourt that must fill the shoes of departed players like Al Horford and Aron Baynes.
There’s a lot of optimism around Williams as one of the players that might be able to step forward.
"Most of [the bigs] are new,” said Ainge. "I think Daniel [Theis] has the most experience of that group of guys with our group. I think he’s got a little bit of a head start, just mentally and emotionally and understanding what Brad wants. I think I can see some of the new-ness of the other guys.
"I think Robert has taken big strides from last year to where he’s at. I think his work this summer, you can see it already. So that’s an advantage for him. Those are question marks that I’m not sure how good it’s all going to fit and work but I think, individually, they all can contribute."
DANNY DOESN’T FEEL PRESSURE
The Celtics were the darlings of the NBA before last season, seemingly positioned for a long run as a legitimate title contender and considered the biggest threat to the still-intact Warriors.
Now? They’re regarded as a second-tier team in the East and the long-term outlook is murkier. Still, Ainge doesn’t feel pressure despite the 11 years that have passed since the Celtics’ last title in a win-now market.
“I feel more pressure over an 8-foot putt on the 18th hole for a $5 Nassau right now,” said Ainge. "I think that, listen, the championship standard in Boston is well-documented. And we all know that. And that’s what we love about this. And we love the success of the other teams [in Boston]. And we love the success of the Boston Celtics and what they’ve done, and the people who have played here and been in uniforms here in our history. And so, I think that that feeling of high expectations is always good for us.”
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