Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Wednesday that LeBron James' departure from the Eastern Conference doesn't change his expectations for his team, nor does it ease the road to claiming the conference.
Speaking to Boston reporters after the summer league Celtics' offday workout, Ainge dismissed the notion that the East is for Boston's taking after James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer.
"What do I care about the Eastern Conference? I don't really care about that. We're trying to win championships, and you still have to play LeBron," Ainge told reporters after Boston's summer squad practiced at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas.
"I think that there's a lot of good teams in the East that get undersold a little bit. I think Washington, and Milwaukee [is] an up-and-coming team, and Toronto was the best team in the conference last year during the regular season. I think they're a fantastic team. So the East is going to be tough."
Ainge repeatedly stiff-armed reporters' attempts to discuss the status of restricted free agent Marcus Smart. Ainge said only, " Our priority remains the same. Our priority is still Marcus in free agency, and that's where we are."
Only a few teams -- Atlanta, Sacramento, and Brooklyn -- have the sort of remaining cap space to make an offer to Smart that would be north of the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, and the Celtics can match any offer he receives.
Smart's name has swirled in rumors in recent days after he huddled with agent Happy Walters in Las Vegas, but Smart has yet to receive the sort of big money offer sheet that would force Boston to make a decision on his future.
The Celtics, who failed to reach an extension agreement with Smart before the start of the 2017-18 season, are in no rush to outbid themselves for Smart's services. Smart has until Oct. 1 to sign the $6.1 million qualifying offer that Boston has extended and that would make him an unrestricted free agent after the 2018-19 season.
Signing Smart at anything more than the qualifying offer would almost certainly push Boston into the luxury tax this season, but Ainge suggested the team is ready to pay to field a title contender.
"It's my job to be fiscally responsible, but we will pay the tax," Ainge said. "We plan on being a taxpayer for sure."
The Celtics also have a qualifying offer out to Jabari Bird, a two-way player with the team as a rookie last season. Bird has been one of Boston's standouts at summer league. The Celtics could use a slice of their midlevel exception to retain Bird should a team sign him to an offer sheet. Ainge said he was uncertain about Boston's plans for Bird.
"Both of them sound very optimistic and sound healthy, and they're getting out on the court," Ainge said. "They should be playing full-court basketball by the time they get back to Boston sometime in August."