The Boston Celtics open training camp Tuesday morning on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., taking the first step in what the team hopes is a nine-month odyssey back to the NBA Finals.
Despite a short summer after the 2009-10 season sprawled into late June when the Celtics fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-game Finals series, Boston coaches and players have expressed a desire to get the new season underway and begin that often-arduous climb back up the NBA mountain.
"I think we're ready to go," coach Doc Rivers said. "I can compare this to the [2007-08 season when] we won it, and it was a short summer. I thought that summer when we got back guys were like, 'Awww man, we've got to start over again.' I think these guys, they can't wait to get started. So that's a good sign."
Players have slowly been trickling back into the gym in advance of Monday's media day -- the unofficial start of the 2010-11 season. Second-year forward Tony Gaffney summed up the positive energy that's already flowing, even amidst a beefed up Eastern Conference.
"The environment in the locker room right now, it's something special," Gaffney said. "I know there's a lot of talk about the Miami Heat right now, but we're a team that's determined and looks ready to get this thing going."
With that in mind, here's an overview of the team heading into camp and what to watch for over the next month leading up to the first game of the new season on Oct. 26 at the TD Garden against that vaunted Heat.
Unable to defend their 17th world title during the 2008-09 season, the Celtics adopted the catchphrase "Reloaded" last season to describe the process by which they revamped their roster for a shot at another crown. While the season featured far more lumps than most expected, the team ultimately sat six minutes away from capturing Banner 18, only to watch the Lakers rally back to claim the 2009-10 title.
Despite entering the free-agency period with a mere five players under contract, one of which was Rasheed Wallace, who planned to retire, the Celtics and their president of basketball operations Danny Ainge calmly reassembled and revamped the roster by making a dizzying 11 signings this offseason (all this against the constraints of the salary cap, which severely limited the team's ability to pay more than the veterans minimum for free agents).
"I'm very excited; this is the most talented team we've had in quite a while," Ainge said. "Now it's just a matter of it all coming together. You never know how it will work until you get a chance to play the game, but we have a lot of talent."
Pressed on why exactly he considered this team the most talented in recent seasons, Ainge quickly listed a number of the team's offseason moves.
"The addition of [Shaquille O'Neal] and Jermaine [O'Neal]; Nate [Robinson] being back for another year; the improvement of Big Baby [Glen Davis] and [Rajon] Rondo; Delonte West is a terrific player and we're excited about him; and the addition of all the new guys."
Name tags not required
Ainge's greatest accomplishment this offseason came in early July when he was able to reassemble the core of last year's team by signing 2/3 of the new Big Three to team-friendly contracts (inking Paul Pierce to a four-year, $61.5 million deal and bringing back Ray Allen on a two-year, $20 million pact) He was able to jam his fingers into what appeared to be a closing window of opportunity and ensured the window remains open for at least one more season.
What's more, Ainge's plea for patience might have helped Rivers take the time necessary to determine that, with the support of his family, he wanted to return to the Boston bench for at least one more run at a title.
With limited resources to work with -- the mid-level exception, minimal rights to his own free agents and the veteran's minimum -- Ainge supplemented the core by re-signing Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels, and inked veteran free agents Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West and Von Wafer.
Now, it's up to Rivers to make it all work and it starts at camp.
"[Chemistry is] the key for us," Rivers said. "We made a lot of changes, and it's important for us to get together as soon as we can to see what we have. See what we have in the locker room, and see how it all works out. That's important for us.
"We were going to have camp at home [in Waltham], then because we kept adding guys, we thought, 'We need to get these guys by themselves, away from everybody, just together,' and hopefully that can force the bond."
Meet the fresh faces
The Celtics enter the new season with three new NBA faces after drafting Avery Bradley (19th overall) and Luke Harangody (52nd overall) this summer, while also inking 2008 draft pick Semih Erden (60th overall). Here's a quick primer on the rookies:
Bradley: A 6-foot-2 combo guard, Bradley is regarded as the top defensive player in the 2010 draft. He's only 19 years old and spent just one season at the University of Texas before making the leap to the NBA. He oozes potential after being ranked the No. 1 high school prospect in the country by ESPNU, even ahead of this year's No. 1 overall pick, Washington Wizards John Wall. Unfortunately, it's been a delayed start to Bradley's professional career. He sprained his left ankle working out for the Oklahoma City Thunder before the draft and required arthroscopic surgery in early July. Ainge admitted this week that Bradley will remain sidelined for the start of training camp and the team will not rush him back to action, given the depth on this year's squad.
Harangody: A 6-foot-8 forward, Harangody used his size to dominate at the college level, averaging 21.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in his senior season for Notre Dame. Things won't be quite as easy at the NBA level, where he'll actually find undersized at power forward, but Harangody played his way into a two-year contract at the Celtic's summer league in Orlando by displaying a scrappy game, complete with NBA 3-point range. That range offers a unique talent for a player his size. The Celtics have had good luck with second-round picks (Glen Davis, Leon Powe, Ryan Gomes), and hope that trend continues with Harangody. His role remains to be determined, considering a revamped frontcourt that might not offer a lot of minutes to younger players.
Erden: The NBA equivalent of the NFL's Mr. Irrelevant, Erden was the final pick in the draft after the Celtics claimed Banner 17 in 2008. Little was expected after the 6-foot-11 center retreated to Turkey immediately after being introduced to the Boston media following the draft. But with an emphasis on beefing up the frontcourt this offseason, particularly with Kendrick Perkins sidelined to start the year following knee surgery, the Celtics brought 24-year-old Erden back to the states to start his NBA career. Erden showed raw potential at Boston's summer league in Orlando and in the 2010 FIBA World Championships in his native Turkey. He helped the host team earn silver in the tournament (the team's only loss coming in the gold-medal game versus the United States). Erden is a project, but adds NBA-ready depth in the event of additional injuries in the frontcourt.
Here are two areas of competition to keep an eye on as camp opens. Check back for our top 10 preseason story lines later this weekend.
Who's No. 15? The Celtics boast the maximum of 15 players under contract for the 2010-11 season, but Ainge has stated numerous times that he plans to carry the best 15 players into the regular season, meaning guys like Gaffney and Oliver Lafayette -- players with non-guaranteed deals after signing late in the 2009-10 campaign -- will have a shot to earn jobs if any of the inked 15 falter. That leaves players like Wafer, who reportedly has only a portion of his veteran-minimum deal guaranteed, fighting to show they deserve a spot on the roster. To mkae it, Wafer will have to show the scoring touch he displayed as a key bench cog with Houston two seasons ago (he was out of the NBA last season in a failed venture with Greek squad Olympiakos). Gaffney is a scrappy small forward which hopes his defensive abilities help earn him a spot as a reserve wing, where Boston is incredibly thin. Lafayette is a talented young combo guard with plenty of potential, but an uphill battle given the Celtics' depth there. After working out the likes of Rashad McCants, Cuttino Mobley and Trenton Hassell recently, the Celtics could bring in other veteran competitors for that final roster berth. A training camp invitee could always surprise, too. The team is expected to have three young players in LSU's Chris Johnson, Southern Indiana's Jamar Smith, and UMass's Stephane Lasme at camp.
Who's the starting center? With Perkins sidelined for much of the first half of the season (even amidst Ainge's report that he's "ahead of schedule" according to Perkins and his doctors), the Celtics must determine the best way to use the O'Neals. Both former All-Stars are eager to show what they have left in the tank, but Rivers must determine the best way to mask their deficiencies at their advanced ages, most notably Shaq's struggles to defend the pick-and-roll. Do the Celtics elect to start Shaq amidst a stronger defensive first unit, including Kevin Garnett, and allow Jermaine to settle immediately into the reserve role he'll occupy by season's end? Or does Jermaine get the nod with the starting unit, shunning a true post presence for a player whose game is gravitating more towards the mid-range and allowing Shaq to feast on reserve units?
Setting the pace
While his players are eager to get back to work, Rivers admitted he's still examining his game plan for camp. In past years, he's leaned hard on teaching basketball X's and O's, but given the abbreviated summer, this year's camp might be more of a conditioning event. Yet, if guys continue to arrive in Boston already in excellent shape, he might have to re-think that syllabus again.
In the end, training camp is merely the ramp to what the team hopes is a 100-plus-game season, accounting for eight preseason games, 82 regular-season games and the postseason. That's a lot of basketball ahead, and particularly with so many veterans, Rivers must set the pace for what's clearly a marathon and not a sprint.
Remember too that this is a team that admittedly got bored with the process during last year's regular season, stumbling through a .500 finish (27-27) after starting the year with a blistering 23-5 mark. It cost the Celtics loftier seeding in the postseason and made the blitz towards another title that much more daunting (potentially contributing to the team running out of steam in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals).
The Celtics will be saddled with lofty expectations, but a team can't win a championship in September or October. Rivers will use the first seven months of the season to determine exactly how to best position his team for postseason success.
Boston spends a mere five days at training camp in Newport, then settles into a preseason schedule that mixes that eight-game exhibition slate with a normal practice routine in Waltham. This is the first step in the journey, and the Celtics hope to start a season with such lofty expectations on the right foot.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.