Celtics' real season begins now

It's early February, a couple weeks before the NBA trade deadline, and Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has popped into a popular burrito joint near the team's practice facility in Waltham to grab lunch before heading over to Boston College to watch Duke freshman Jabari Parker.

As Ainge navigates the cafeteria-like assembly line, workers unabashedly offer trade advice while filling up his rice bowl. One employee seems particularly concerned about a report that the Celtics are talking to the Sacramento Kings about a potential Rajon Rondo deal and wants to see if there's any truth to it. Ainge just smiles and asks for both cheese and the employee's opinion on the rumored deal.

Ainge, having already made two trades a month earlier, is at ease with the approaching deadline and correctly predicts his team's inactivity at the February swap buzzer. Ainge seems more focused on the draft and the offseason that lies ahead, when he knows the real heavy lifting will be done.

Even still, he's reflecting on his trade history -- deals that went through and deals that didn't; deals that were real and deals that were media creations -- and an inquisitor wants to know if he's ever gotten cold feet about a potential franchise-altering swap.

"It's just basketball," Ainge said coolly as that familiar smile reappeared.

Two months later, as his team prepped for its season finale against the Washington Wizards, Ainge reaffirmed what he did that February day: The 2013-14 season hasn't been easy to endure, but he plucked positives from individual player development and always kept his focus on what the team was building toward in the future.

No matter how much Ainge, first-year coach Brad Stevens and the team's players braced themselves for the potential of losing games, it was never easy to endure. But the final buzzer of Wednesday's 57th loss essentially closed the book on the 2013-14 campaign. The Celtics bid good riddance and immediately turned their attention to a 2014-15 season and the unbridled optimism it provides.

Armed with a treasure trove of assets, Ainge enters a pivotal time in his team's future. With the right moves, and some friendly bounces from the pingpong balls, his team could launch right back into contender status. Ainge is brutally honest when he says he doesn't know if there will be the much-ballyhooed "fireworks" that has become the buzzword for the approaching summer, but he's hopeful.

He's far more certain of one thing, saying, "I'll work my tail off to try to duplicate what we've done in the past."

Ainge is equal parts confident and cautious. He knows his team has the assets to make deals -- and he's not afraid to make a bold move -- but he also cautions that the league's other 29 teams must be willing to do business as well.

"We're hopeful," said Ainge. "I have some ideas and some plans that I'd like to do, but there are just no guarantees that we can do it. We need to find good trading partners. We always are trying to make fireworks. Every summer, we try to do something that's unique and special and we will definitely try this summer."

Like that burrito assembly line, Ainge has all sorts of assets to work with this summer. Boston owns as many as 10 first-round picks over the next five drafts; more than $12 million over three trade exceptions; nearly $8 million in nonguaranteed salaries; sign-and-trade options; and young desirable talent. His team might not be in the playoffs, but plenty of GMs wouldn't mind being in his position.

So how will it play out and how soon will the Celtics be contenders again? Ainge feigned mock outrage at the question while barking, "How does anybody know that? What do you want me to make a prediction or something? Am I a prophet?"

The best news for Celtics fans is that Ainge has options, which a lot of teams stuck in rebuilding mode don't have. Even if he can't light the fuse on a grand finale-type fireworks display, there are some bottle rockets he can send up that, coupled with the returning core, could still put this team in better position to contend again next season.

The 2013-14 season was tough to digest, for Ainge, for Stevens, for the players, and for fans. But it's over and now the fun begins.

The Celtics have navigated the exit-interview process with last season's roster, sending players into their summer vacations with goals for how they can help the team improve next season. But team brass was also brutally honest about the uncertainty in regards to how the roster will look. There's always the chance that the only familiar faces come training camp in September could be Ainge and Stevens.

Boston's offseason plan will come into better focus next month. The NBA's draft lottery occurs May 20 and will establish the Celtics' draft position. A little luck could get things rolling in the right direction, but they have assets to counteract if the pingpong balls remain petulant.

And the Celtics have Ainge. He's been through this drill before after the 2006-07 season. His ability to turn the Celtics into championship contenders that following season sets the bar of expectations unfairly high this summer, but he doesn't seem the least bit stressed about it.

Hey, it's just basketball.

You get the sense that Ainge is confident because he knows his team is positioned well. He's hinted that some of his talks in February laid the groundwork for potential moves this offseason. As dreary as the winter was, summer represents a chance for rejuvenation for the Celtics. And Ainge is ready for whatever lies ahead.