It's hard to believe, but training camp is less than a week away, and the organization is gearing up for a big year. Paul Pierce signed a contract extension, the team was wheeling and dealing on draft day, and players have been working out all summer to prepare for camp.
Less than a week before camp opens, Celtics.com sat down with Head Coach Doc Rivers in his Waltham office for a wide-ranging interview to chat about the offseason, his plans for training camp, and what to look for when the Celtics officially tip off on November 1 against New Orleans.
Celtics.com: So it's been a pretty big off-season for the team with the deals at the draft, and so many roster guys playing in the Vegas Summer League. Going into training camp, where do you think the guys stand in terms of development?
Rivers: "Well obviously, development is huge here because we are such a young team, but that's what they should do. I don't think you should ever rest as a player, and our guys don't. I give them a ton of credit. They work hard at their craft and they want to improve at it, and to a man, I think each one of them has done that. What that will translate to on the floor, I think time will tell. We'll have a better idea later but I certainly don't have it now. I do have expectations for them, and their usually pretty high for each individual player, knowing that individually, each guy probably won't reach that, but probably half of them may."
Celtics.com: With the changes in the coaching staff with Kevin Eastman and Clifford Ray coming in, guys who are more workout-oriented coaches, is that just the reality of having so many younger players?
Rivers: "Yeah, that's about it. The coaches who were here did an excellent job as far as I was concerned; you can't say that the young guys didn't develop last year. I just thought, this is my third year here, and I tend to like to make changes in staff. We make changes in personnel all the time, just like we trade players. I don't see anything wrong in doing that with your coaching staff."
Celtics.com: Is there anything that came out of last season that you're looking to change along the lines of team philosophy? Not necessarily how you're going to play in certain situations, but just overall team strategy?
Rivers: "No, we just have to improve in a lot of the things we were trying to do last year. We ran, but we weren't an efficient running team. We turned the ball over too much to be an efficient running team. We obviously have to do that better. We have to execute better. I thought we were a pretty efficient team at times, until the last six minutes of the game, then I thought we turned real 'young' and we only relied on Paul. That wasn't anything we were trying to do, but it happened because guys don't trust themselves yet.
You saw that in the Finals this year. Gary Payton took two big shots without hesitation; Dallas threw it to their young guys and they gave it right back to [Dirk] Nowitzki. That's part of growing up and learning the game."
Celtics.com: You spent some time up close watching the playoffs doing the games on TV. What did you take out of that, seeing the best teams in the league up close?
Rivers: [Laughs] "Well, that we've got work to do, number one. Obviously, that you've got to keep adding to your talent pool. You're not going to win without it. You can bring in Knute Rockne, or anyone else. You need horses. And if you can't get them through free agency, you've got to develop them. That's the strategy we're using and I think that's a good strategy."
Celtics.com: Of the young guys, do you see any in particular who seem ready to make that jump and be contributors.
Rivers: "No, I don't know yet. I think this is the year that several have to. Since I've been here, we have yet to develop a core. Before you can do anything, you have to develop that. Before you can make trades and figure out where you want to go, you have to figure out who you want to keep. Because we've made trades and decided to play a lot of young guys, we need them to develop and show us that they're keepers. And I think this is the year, and I really believe this, that several will show us that we can't do without them and that they're people worthy of hanging on to."
Celtics.com: You've always talked about playing time, that just because you're here doesn't mean anything, that you've still got to earn it. With all of the young players, it's going to have to be a challenge to find minutes for all of them.
Rivers: "Well, some of them won't play. It's just that simple. We have too many of them to play them all.
"We're in the business of trying to win games and trying to build a team for the future that will win for a long time. This is still a competition, that will never change. So when you look at the numbers of guys that we have, some guys wont play. It's just that easy. But that's on every team."
Celtics.com: When you come into training camp, how long does it take for guys to come in and win jobs?
Rivers: "It depends on your team. I don't think last year we ever did that. Besides Paul Pierce, and Wally, once he was here, and I thought Delonte did, more because there was nobody there pushing him, but he did in his own right, I don't think there was anybody separating themselves. Honestly, we didn't have that type of team last year, in my opinion, and going into it I kind of knew that.
When you have young players its difficult to establish the nine or the 10. To establish that nine or 10-man rotation, you have to have three things: One, you have to have a core you can depend on every night, number two, you have to be healthy, which we were not, with Al and Tony, and number three, you have to be consistent, and that's the thing that young players are not. I think this year a couple of them will become more consistent, and a couple of them will separate themselves, and this will be the start of us developing a great core."
Celtics.com: Going into a month-long training camp, especially the week before the preseason games start, it's got to become a bit repetitive. What do you do to keep it fresh and keep guys focused?
Rivers: "You don't do everything the same every day. You do have to do your fundamentals, but even in those, you can change them, make them competitive, make them fun, but some things, you just can't get through without having them be monotonous. Offensively, you basically have to go five on "0", and run "dummy O" is what they call it, every day, and there's no way around that. As a player, I couldn't stand it, it was boring, but you knew it was important."
Celtics.com: I just saw John Havlicek in the office today. This team does have plenty of legendary players you can call on to speak to the guys. Is that something you plan on doing?
Rivers: "Oh, yeah, I do that all of the time. I don't think you should ever run from history. You should learn from it and embrace it. We have a tool that no one else in the NBA can use; the Lakers I guess can use it too, and we should take advantage of that."
Celtics.com: The young guys can certainly learn from veterans as well. What does Theo Ratliff bring to the table? Last year we had Raef as a veteran presence, and Theo replaces that, but he's also more of a low-post guy who Perk and Al can learn from, showing them the craft and the 'dirty tricks', so to speak.
Rivers: "Yeah, and he'll do it through his play. Theo has been a great defender in our league for a long time. I still think he has a lot to give. Health has been an issue with him, and we want to try to keep him as healthy as possible. But he's a defensive player, a shot blocker, he's a goal-tender, and at times he can be a game-changer. Of the bigs on our team, I think Perk should benefit the most from him."
Celtics.com: What about the point guard position? We come into camp with three guys at that spot. How do you envision that playing out? Is Delonte coming in feeling like it's his position to lose?
Rivers: "It is Delonte's job. It was Delonte's job at the end of the year. But when camp starts, it's an open position. I know Delonte, so obviously, he probably has the upper-hand, because I know what he can do. But it's going to be a very competitive camp, and that's all good."
Celtics.com: So what do Rondo and Telfair bring to the table in that competition?
Rivers: "Well, they bring amazing speed. And that's something we lacked. We were hurt last year by small guards; I thought they had their way with us. So at least we know that should come to a stop. They also have the ability to go coast-to-coast and create, and they both have great court vision, but they both have to improve their shot."
Celtics.com: You talked about the speed, is the running game something this team is still focused on?
Rivers: "Yeah, we want to run, but we want to be an efficient running team. Quite honestly, I didn't think we were a very good fast-break team last year at all, even though we scored high numbers. I thought we were pretty bad on the break. That's where we have to improve. We have to value the ball; we have to make better decisions."
Celtics.com: Talk about Wally, it must be good to be getting him back healthy. What do you expect from him?
Rivers: "More importantly, I get him for a training camp. Obviously, we need him to be healthy and be able to move a bit better than he did last year, but more importantly, we get a chance to put him into our scheme and make him comfortable, and create our schemes with him involved, instead of throwing him into something that was already set. I think that will benefit both of us."
Celtics.com: If anyone is going to be under the microscope this year, it's probably Big Al...
Rivers: "Yeah, and people forget he was injured. He got injured in training camp, and he really never was healthy. He had one stretch when I thought he was starting to get healthy and he was starting to play well, and then he got injured again. It was just a lost year for Al. That was partly due to him, because he didn't come into camp in the shape he should have, but partly due to just bum luck. For a young guy to get injured and miss training camp and preseason, he's behind and he usually never catches up."
Celtics.com: Well, we've certainly seen him here all summer long busting his butt...
Rivers: "Al proved all summer that he's learned from the one part, that's the conditioning part. The other part will be his play, and I can't tell you if Al's going to play well or not, but I can tell you he's done the work, and usually, when good players do the work, they usually have good seasons."
Celtics.com: Overall, what's the biggest thing that stands out in your mind that the team needs to do to improve on a 33-win season?
Rivers: "We have to be more consistent as a team. We have to improve defensively, and we have to take care of the ball as a team. I think if we do those three things, we will improve."
Celtics.com: Any final thoughts?
Rivers: "I'm just excited about the team. This is the first year since I've been here that you can actually see a group developing. By the end of the year, I think we'll know who will be Celtics for a long time."