WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens estimates it’s been about eight years since his last trip to Maine, when the former Butler University coach made a recruiting trip to Lee Academy, about an hour north of Bangor. But that’s not to suggest that Stevens doesn’t have a vested interest in Boston’s Development League affiliate up in Vacationland.
Stevens carved out time during Boston’s hectic schedule last year to watch tape of the Maine Red Claws, even trying to stream games on his laptop when rookie center Vitor Faverani was on assignment with the team.
Stevens’ eight-year absence from Maine ends Wednesday night when the Celtics will trek to Portland to host the Toronto Raptors in an exhibition game at the Cross Insurance Arena.
It’s a bit of synergy with the parent club making a preseason visit to the minor league squad’s digs. It’s another step as Boston attempts to maximize the benefits of a hybrid affiliation that allows the Celtics to select Maine’s players and coaches.
“I watched [Maine's] games online, especially the ones that Vitor was playing in,” Stevens said. “And I actually paid attention to it because I was following Chris Babb,” making reference to an invitee to training camp last year and an eventual regular-season call-up. “It’s hard [to visit Maine in] the middle of the season. But I think it’s great that we get a chance to play up there.
“A big part of [an NBA] development program is having a good D-League program with good coaches that are committed to the player development. And having guys that are in your training camp and ultimately will play there, that’s all good.”
In recent seasons, the Celtics have signed training camp invites with the intention of funneling them to Maine. It’s a chance to get younger players a taste of the NBA atmosphere and immerse them in the team's playbook and principles while giving them a glimpse of potential opportunities down the road.
This season, Boston has three camp invites -- Tim Frazier, Christian Watford and Rodney McGruder -- who will have the opportunity to join Maine, as long as they aren't lured away by potentially larger paydays overseas. There’s also a chance Babb -- waived recently due to a roster crunch -- could end up back in Maine, or the team could try to steer another potential camp cut, someone like recently acquired Erik Murphy, if that player was willing to embrace a D-League opportunity.
For players on the NBA fringe, the D-League represents less money but a greater chance at a call-up than they can get playing abroad. Players often trek overseas for grander paydays, but their deals frequently prevent them from returning stateside before their foreign seasons end.
Last year, the Celtics utilized a trio of D-League call-ups, bringing in Chris Johnson, Vander Blue and Babb when the injury bug chomped away. Johnson and Babb used the opportunity to sign rest-of-the-season deals with the Celtics and might still be here if not for Boston’s overcrowded roster as the team navigates the rebuilding process.
When Babb got called up late last season, the coaching staff had a familiarity with him from camp and he had a basic idea of what the Celtics were running despite not being with the team since October. The Celtics have streamlined their operations a bit this summer by hiring Scott Morrison to coach the Claws. (CLICK HERE for more on Morrison.) Morrison has spent the past two months with the team and much of that time has been used to study the way Stevens is running the parent club.
“We’re trying to make [the playbook synergy] even more of a priority this year,” Stevens said. “I didn’t do a great job of that as I was balancing everything [last season]. Scott’s been here now for, really, the better part of [two months]. He’s been able to learn what we’re doing and they’ll play very similar to us.”
While Morrison admits that there’s a value in running similar styles in order to make it easier for a call-up to adapt in Boston, he thinks it’s even more valuable should a young player -- say someone like rookie James Young -- gets assigned for game reps with Maine.
“If someone were to be assigned to Maine for rehab or more playing time, we want them to be in a good situation,” Morrison said. “They can just step in and get to work on the same stuff they’ve been working on here in camp and moving forward into the season.”
While there’s no guarantee that Frazier, Watford and McGruder will land in Maine, the three were huddled together again Tuesday on the Celtics’ practice floor and have spent extended time with Morrison given the likelihood they’ll remain together up north.
“We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but the guys that we think will be down there, I’ve spent a lot of time with them, we’ve worked together countless hours on the court since I’ve been here,” Morrison said.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a change when we go [to the D-League], different lifestyle, but at the same time, it’s good to have that relationship formed and be able to prepare for mentally, so that when we get [to Maine] we don’t have to worry about where we are. We can worry about where we can get to.”