WALTHAM, Mass. -- There's a whiteboard in Danny Ainge's office, and this time of year, it's covered in columns ranking the best available players by various categories (position, free-agent type). At the stroke of midnight ET Wednesday, when teams are allowed to make their first official contact with free agents, Ainge and his staff will begin cold calling the players near the top of those lists, with a goal of pitching them on why they should join the Boston Celtics.
There's a certain strategy to whom you call and in what order. Ainge famously used one of his first calls last year to phone Isaiah Thomas, and while it took seven months longer than he might have hoped, the Celtics eventually got their man at February's trade deadline. In his quest to put additional talent around Thomas and Boston's intriguing young core, Ainge is hopeful to hook one of his targets much quicker this time around.
Before the night is over, Celtics decision-makers will have made contact with most of the league's top available names. If history is a guide, Ainge will even phone LeBron James' representatives because, hey, you only get so many chances to tell the best player in the world you wouldn't mind seeing him in green.
Ainge has tempered expectations while being realistic about the competitive marketplace his team will face, but he won't be afraid to swing for the fences. The Celtics believe they have positioned themselves as an attractive option for free agents and simply covet the chance to sell themselves to the sort of players that can help push them a bit closer to being a legitimate contender again.
And it wouldn't hurt to dispel that pesky notion that free agents won't come to Boston. It's a sentiment that's lingered since the Rick Pitino era, which, ironically, was about the last time the Celtics had the honest-to-goodness cap space to actually sign a big-name free agent.
"Free agents will come," Ainge declared Tuesday when presented the notion that free agents don't desire to play in Boston. "But we have to create an environment that makes players want to be here. I think we have a fantastic ownership group, we have a fantastic head coach, we have a lot of quality young players. So free agents that would fit, that see themselves fitting in with our culture and our team, they'll come."
Ainge wasn't trying to convince himself with his statement; he asserted it. Boston has an ownership group that's proved time and again that it's willing to spend to be competitive; a young coach who has drawn rave reviews from everyone whose path he crosses, including superstars like James and coaching royalty like Gregg Popovich; and a young core that overcame constant roster change last season to surge to the playoffs.
But if Boston's first-round playoff exit against the Cavaliers proved anything, it's that the Celtics simply need more pure talent. Even with a pile of draft picks and some intriguing young talent to aid in the trade market, Boston's best path would be to simply sign players with their potential cap space, thereby adding talent without sacrificing assets that could help further enhance the roster (or keep Boston competitive deep into the future).
Much like on draft night, the Celtics will be aggressive at the start of free agency, but Ainge is aware that there's a fine line he must walk. He cannot overspend, particularly on lower-tier talent, just because Boston has cap space. He's pledged not to let the money burn a hole in his pocket.
And Ainge hopes the team's fan base is patient as well. The organization is well aware of how eager its supporters are to parlay that cap space and assets into tangible talent. But careless spending typically leaves teams stuck in neutral rather than accelerating their builds.
The Celtics also know that the league's salary cap is about to skyrocket with new TV money, which will leave most teams with deep pockets in coming seasons. There's a line of thinking that suggests that teams with money ought to spend this summer because even overspends this year could look like steals in the very near future. Ainge must find the proper balance between being proactive and spending recklessly.
As you prep for the blizzard of craziness that is NBA free agency, here's some brief answers to common Celtics free agency questions:
•How much cap space do the Celtics have?
In our most recent Roster Reset, we noted the Celtics essentially have $44.4 million committed to 12 players (if you include the $1.2 million qualifying offer to Jae Crowder and budget for rookie scale contracts for first-round picks). With a cap of $67.1 million, Boston initially has about $22.7 million to play with (but keep in mind that signing Crowder to a long-term deal would bite into that).
•So the Celtics are definitely under the salary cap this summer?
There is a chance Boston could remain over the cap. The team has a host of cap holds attached to its own free agents (namely Brandon Bass and Jonas Jerebko) and bulky trade exceptions from last year's perpetual roster overhaul. If the Celtics don't believe they can attract a free agent, they might be better off staying over the cap another year and utilizing their rights to re-sign a player like Jerebko or their trade exceptions to take on talent via swaps.
•Who are the Celtics targeting in free agency?
Everyone wants names, but here's the more disappointing answer: Anybody who can help the team and can be had at a reasonable rate (of course, the talent level of the player dictates just how much Boston might be willing to spend). Boston surely has its preferences -- Marc Gasol and Kevin Love would be welcomed additions at top dollar -- but the Celtics might settle for the likes of Kostas Koufos or Robin Lopez if they can be had at the right price.
•Player X is visiting Milwaukee and Toronto and Charlotte! Those cities are worse than Boston! Why don't players want to visit Boston!?
Every free agent is different in what he desires from his next team. And the Celtics are likely to only entertain players they believe they have an honest shot at landing. Remember, too, that once you get outside the biggest names in free agency, the publicized wooing process drops off steeply.
•It's 12:02 a.m. and the Celtics haven't signed anyone, should I freak out?
No. Sit tight. Enjoy the rumor mill. Much of Boston's action could be dictated by the trickle-down effect caused when big names land elsewhere. Much like on draft night when Boston pushed hard for Plan A but was rebuffed, Ainge has stressed that the team has plenty of contingency plans entering free agency. Even if the Celtics don't strike early, they can be patient and explore the trade market that will develop as free agents find homes.
•Why should I be confident the Celtics will make a big splash?
Ainge has stressed that the Celtics simply want to "stay in the game." Just like on draft night when the Celtics made a hard push at Justise Winslow, Boston has the ability to at least try to make something happen in free agency or on the trade market (a lot of teams don't even have that luxury). Ainge is adamant it will pay off eventually. It might just take a little more patience.