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Patient Celtics hoping they're another step closer

Jae Crowder, who re-signed with the Celtics for five years, is pleased with the direction Boston is headed. AP Photo/Steven Senne

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When the Boston Celtics acquired Jae Crowder in December in a swap that delivered Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, many believed Boston was cleaning house and accepting a fate of rebuilding through the draft. This made Crowder cringe, so he started knocking on doors around the Celtics' training facility trying to figure out exactly what direction this team was headed.

"I think that was the biggest thing for me because I'm a winner," Crowder said. "When I first came here and we were -- [the media was] saying, 'tanking' -- it was bad. I didn't want to be a part of it, selfishly because I don't like losing. I had to ask. I had to ask our direction moving forward."

So Crowder sought out Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Then coach Brad Stevens. Then the assistant coaches. Then weight room guys, ball boys, and employees of the gym that shares Boston's training facility -- anyone who might know what the plan was for this team.

"What's the direction? You ask everybody," Crowder said. "You ask questions, so that's what I did."

It was stressed to him that Boston's plan was to build a championship contender, but the team had little interest in taking the typical tanking route to get there. The Celtics proved as much in mid-February when they acquired Isaiah Thomas in a trade-deadline swap that helped fuel Boston's surprising second-half surge to the postseason.

Crowder, now smitten and confident with where he believes this team is headed, signed a five-year, $35 million extension with the Celtics on Monday. He believes there's a vision and a strong desire to get this team back to elite contender status and he's eager to help get the Celtics get there.

"I don't think we're going to go backward," Crowder said. "I think we're in the right direction -- moving forward. That's to win playoff games, like Danny said, and we didn't do that last year. So that's our next goal. We're taking steps. Of course we want Banner 18, but at the same time we have to win a playoff game first before we get to Banner 18. I think we're moving in the right direction."

The Celtics completed their heavy summer lifting Monday by executing five transactions -- re-signing Crowder, completing two trades, and signing two first-round draft picks -- then held a media conference to introduce five of their offseason additions in Crowder, David Lee, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Perry Jones III.

The sight of that quintet holding up their green Celtics jersey will do little to excite the casual Boston sports fan. After waiting two decades for the Celtics to generate cap space to chase top-tier free agents, some will lament what the team got while committing $85 million to those five players this summer.

Celtics fans were hoping for a bigger splash, the sort of signings that would add recognizable star power and offer hope for a more immediate return to contender status. But the Boston players who were on the podium Monday -- and the management figures flanking them -- were adamant that this team has taken a step forward this summer, all without sacrificing the flexibility that can help it seek a star further down the road.

"I think we're solid, man," said Johnson, the 10-year veteran whom the Celtics lured away from Toronto with a calculated strike at the start of free agency. "We've got some vets, got some young players, we've just got to put it all together. I think Brad will do a great job -- smart guy, young coach, good X's and O's."

Initially, this is Boston's goal: That Stevens can maximize the talent he has been given with a young, versatile roster and find a way to make a leap forward after last season's surge to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

But the team has maintained that this is a process and one that will not happen overnight. Every move Boston has made since it ushered in the roster overhaul two summers ago has been made to both help the team in the short term, while also maintaining the sort of long-term flexibility that will allow the team to pounce -- or at least throw its hat in the ring -- when a true superstar becomes available.

Johnson and Jerebko? They were signed to modest deals that include nonguaranteed salaries for their second seasons. In introducing Jerebko at the start of Monday's media conference, Ainge humorously said, "We're excited to have Jonas back for a year," then paused a beat before adding, "Or two, we'll see."

The Celtics' preference is that Johnson and Jerebko can aid Boston's climb and Ainge has often referenced how the two "contribute to winning." But if it doesn't work out, Boston can clear $17 million in salary next summer, or utilize those players' nonguaranteed status to make them tradable assets.

In Lee, the Celtics added a former two-time All-Star who had seen his role diminish with Golden State. Boston managed to turn the hefty contract of Gerald Wallace (whose on-court role was minimal in two seasons here) and the nonguaranteed deal of Chris Babb (who wasn't making a bloated roster) into a flyer on a 32-year-old big man who has averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game over a 10-year career.

The Celtics are hopeful Crowder continues to blossom. He was elevated to a starting role in the final game of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers this past season. Crowder's salary commitment -- depending on how it's structured -- will account for roughly 6.5 percent of the total salary cap by the 2017-18 season (that's when Thomas will account for an even smaller percentage in the final year of his bargain deal).

Then there's Jones, whom the Celtics will take a look at because Oklahoma City needed tax relief and delivered him, a second-round pick, and $1.5 million in cash to ease its burden (Boston made a similar move Monday to acquire Dragic from Miami). The Celtics are comfortably below the tax line and can carry additional salary without fear of handcuffing themselves, all while adding to their growing stash of future picks.

Listen, we understand the Celtics fan base is eager to turn these assets into tangible talent. The Celtics are projected to have eight picks in the 2016 draft, this after drafting six players over the past two years. This yearly influx of young talent is not sustainable; at some point they're going to have to cash in.

But rather than rush that process and overpay, the team is content to wait for the next James Harden to come on the market and approach a handcuffed rival with a package that can be headlined with draft picks, young talent and potential cap relief.

All of Boston's summer activity left assistant general manager Mike Zarren, whom Ainge had singled out for his efforts at the start of Monday's media conference, looking worn by the end of the day. Reporters playfully joked that, in the interest of our golf games, the Celtics could take some time off from what's seemingly been perpetual roster change since last summer and enjoy the month of August.

But Boston brass would make no promises. If a chance to improve the team arises during the typical summer doldrums, they'll be ready. The Celtics have bigger goals in mind, something Crowder acknowledged Monday.

"I'm pleased with the guys that we brought in and the guys we picked up," Crowder said. "And the moves we're still trying to make."

The Celtics promised Crowder they'd build a legitimate contender moving forward. The team is hopeful all the moves this summer brings them another step closer to that goal.