BOSTON – Kyrie Irving can opt out of his Celtics contract and become a free agent. Gordon Hayward might never play like he did before his injury. It’s possible Brad Stevens won’t figure out a way to deploy all of the team’s talent.
There’s one thing, though, that Boston boss Danny Ainge was able to rule out as he returned to work following his second heart attack: “My role’s not going to change.”
A 60-year-old former All-Star and NBA executive of the year, Ainge was in Milwaukee for the Celtics’ second-round series against the Bucks last month when he suffered what the team described as a “mild” heart attack. Doctors said at the time he was expected to make a full recovery.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since he fell ill, Ainge said Wednesday that he had complete faith in assistant general manager Mike Zarren, scouting director David Lewin and player personnel director Austin Ainge.
“I know our organization is in great hands,” he said at the team’s practice facility.
But he’s not ready to turn the reins over yet.
Ainge said he will work to eat better, exercise more and minimize stress. He didn’t do so well at that during the playoffs, when he tried to watch the second game of the East semifinals against Milwaukee.
“I’ve just got to be in a setting where I’m not screaming and yelling and my veins aren’t sticking out all over my neck,” he said.
This summer, that won’t be easy.
The Celtics went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2018 despite losing Irving and Hayward to injuries. With the two All-Stars back last season – and LeBron James moving out of the conference – the team was one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals.
But piecing it all together proved more difficult than expected.
The Celtics managed just a No. 4 seed in the playoffs and lost to Milwaukee in five games. Irving shot 30% during the four-game losing streak that ended the season, and Boston fans began openly rooting for him to exercise his option and become a free agent.
Ainge said Irving was taking too much of the blame for the team’s disappointing season.
“It’s unfortunate that one person gets credit or blame for a team’s failures,” Ainge said. “We had a lot of reasons the team did not succeed this year. Kyrie deserves his share of the blame, but not any more than anybody else.”
Ainge said there were players who questioned their roles or otherwise struggled to fit into the role that Stevens put them in. Although Ainge did not single him out, guard Terry Rozier has complained publicly about what he “put up with” in a season when his minutes dropped for the first time in his career.
“There’s a lot of guys that didn’t handle things the right way, and didn’t make the sacrifices that needed to be done for the benefit of the team,” Ainge said. “We didn’t have 100% buy-in from 100% of the team. I did not anticipate that.”
And though it was Stevens’ job to work that out, Ainge said he had no doubts about his coach.
“Brad, he’s the least of our concerns,” Ainge said. “I wish every one of our players would put the time and effort in that Brad does.”
Ainge is doing his best to keep up. He said his illness didn’t hinder preparations for the June 20 draft, when the Celtics have four picks, including Nos. 14, 20 and 22 in the first round. They will have worked out nearly 100 players “of all shapes and sizes.”
And he’s trying to follow doctors’ orders.
Ainge said he was told to exercise more and lose weight. He also needs to improve his diet, but he won’t be looking to former teammate – and noted marijuana enthusiast – Bill Walton for recipes.
“I’m eating more plants,” he said. “Not the kind of plants in Walton’s garden, by the way.”
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