WALTHAM, Mass. -- On the eve of free agency, and just a short while after introducing a 2015 draft class headlined by spunky guard Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked whether he preferred to target tough and gritty players.
"I love tough, gritty players," admitted Ainge. "I don’t know who doesn’t."
Ainge quickly noted that grit alone was not enough to justify falling in love with a player. But a quick examination of Boston's current roster seems to suggest a pattern whereby the Celtics appear to be placing a high value on hard-nosed, blue-collar players, the sort that tend to make up for any lack of pure talent with energy, grit and determination.
From this perch, it's funny that the Celtics' offseason has been met with so much consternation from many in the team's fan base. Because it's our guess that next year's squad will be a much-embraced collection.
Yes, Boston fans love nothing more than a winner -- and that's why some still talk about how the starting 5 of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins never lost a playoff series together -- but this region also loves to embrace a gritty underdog.
The roster Ainge and his staff have constructed reminds us an awful lot of the late 1990s/early 2000s Red Sox and the so-called Dirt Dogs. The Celtics kicked off free agency Wednesday by signing a trio of players that fit the scrappy bill in Amir Johnson, Jae Crowder, and Jonas Jerebko.
The buzzword we often hear around the Celtics is the "culture" the team is trying to instill under third-year head coach Brad Stevens. Assistant coach Jay Larranaga, while detailing what the team is emphasizing to the young players that comprise its summer league roster in practices this week, noted, "We’re trying to adapt them to the culture that Coach Stevens has established with the Celtics. That’s a defensive-first mentality, a team-first mentality. So everything that we are doing, it’s reinforcing and trying to demonstrate to them that this is how we do things here."
Make no mistake, the Celtics would love to add a superstar or two to their roster. That's the most surefire way to build a true contender. While patiently waiting for an opportunity to land that sort of centerpiece, the team seems content to build around a blue-collar core that might help the team achieve beyond what it's obvious talent level suggests.
We saw that last season when, even amidst perpetual roster turnover, Boston put together a gritty group that made a second-half surge and emerged as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
That's going to bump expectations a bit higher this season, but the core of this roster is likely to endear itself with its hustle and tenacity. While acknowledging that roster construction is likely far from complete and the team will work the trade market looking to further upgrade, an early projection at the Celtics starting lineup would something like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Crowder, Jared Sullinger and Johnson. That's a pretty feisty defensive group (Sullinger the weak link aided by Johnson's arrival as a help defender).
Smart gushed about having Crowder back in the fold Thursday, calling him "one of the top competitors in the league." Asked about Johnson, Smart added he's, "another body that is going to bring toughness, he’s going to make guys better each and every day in practice and it’s going to translate to the games."
Boston's bench has some spunk in undersized guys like Isaiah Thomas and Rozier; Jerebko and Tyler Zeller bring full-throttle hustle. Kelly Olynyk and a bulked-up James Young have obvious skill, they simply need to embrace the team's physical mentality.
Eventually we might have to figure out something witty to call these guys. Boston Parquet Pups? Can someone at ESPN Stats and Info check the team record for Tommy Points in a season?
We're under no delusions here: The Celtics still need more pure talent to compete. What we think is being overlooked by an anxious fan base at this stage of roster construction is that the Celtics have a determined young core that Stevens will attempt to extract every bit of production out of that he can.
That might not necessary translate to a big uptick in wins. But there's something to be said for keeping much of last year's late-season core together, building off what that group displayed in the second half of the year, and maintaining patience while waiting for that big-splash addition.
The frustration for some is that there's no obvious path now to adding that talent as Boston starts using its rare cap space. We'd counter with two paths.
While waiting for the moratorium to lift and formally ink their signings, the team remains about $7 million under the cap and could utilize its draft pick surplus to shed more space if it could move the expiring contracts of Gerald Wallace or Evan Turner. Stretching Wallace over the next three seasons would add another $6.7 million in immediate cap room. The post-free agency trade market will also likely make a big name or two available and Boston can muscle into any of those conversations.
Boston might simply have to be patient into next season (or, gulp, next summer) before that opportunity arrives. Keep in mind, too, that with nonguaranteed contracts and a spike in the salary cap looming next season, the Celtics can easily be players in free agency next summer.
Patience isn't an easy thing to sell in these parts. But Ainge has committed to building this team so that it will be a sustained contender when the right opportunity arrives.
Until then, sit back and embrace the team the Celtics are putting together. There's a good chance they'll be hard to resist.