Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge knows the landscape of power in the Eastern Conference has been somewhat altered with LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers. To Ainge, though, the focus on winning another championship remains priority No. 1 -- and talk of Boston's road to The Finals being easier with LeBron gone seems a bit premature.
Ainge talked with reporters yesterday about that topic and more, including the fate of restricted free agent guard Marcus Smart, after the team's practice in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League. As to the topic of the East hierarchy, Ainge says where Boston fits into that mix is something he's not overrating. Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globehas more from Ainge:
Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are expected to make the Celtics the heavy favorites in the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James has departed Cleveland to join the Lakers. James reached the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, but Ainge said this perceived opening in the East is not really the one that matters.
“I don’t really care about that,” he said. “We’re trying to win championships, and you still have to play LeBron. I think that there’s a lot of good teams in the East that get undersold a little bit. I think Washington, and Milwaukee’s an up-and-coming team, and Toronto was the best team in the conference last year during the regular season and I think they’re a fantastic team. So, the East is going to be tough.”
Smart remains on the free-agent market and recently told reporters he had "no idea" about where he stands with the Celtics contract-wise. Per Himmelsbach, Smart has met with several teams in Las Vegas, but the issue remains few teams have the salary cap room to offer him the kind of deal he is seeking.
Additionally, the Celtics can match whatever offer Smart receives from another team. Smart also has until Oct. 1 to sign the qualifying offer Boston offered him for next season, which would make him an unrestricted free agent in 2019. To Ainge, keeping Smart is a priority however you slice it.
“Our priority remains the same,” Ainge said. “Our priority is still Marcus [Smart] in free agency, and that’s where we are.”
Sources close to Smart have said that the guard has been frustrated by the Celtics front office’s lack of contact with him during this free agency period, but league sources have said the Celtics are simply waiting for Smart to test the market on his own. It appears increasingly likely that Smart will ultimately accept a $6 million qualifying offer from the Celtics, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer.
If the Celtics sign Smart to a multiyear deal that pays more than $10 million per season — and he would almost certainly not settle for less — it would likely put Boston into the luxury tax. The Celtics will factor those possibilities in when dealing with Smart or considering other potential deals, but they will not shudder.
“We’re running a business and trying to win basketball games,” Ainge said. “It’s my job to be fiscally responsible, but we will pay the tax. We plan on being a taxpayer, for sure.”
Hayward and Irving continue to work their way back from their respective injuries and Ainge said Wednesday that the duo "should be playing full-court basketball by the time they get back to Boston sometime in August.”
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