- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Two days before his team would surprise the NBA world with the hiring of college wunderkind Brad Stevens as head coach, and 10 days before the franchise-altering swap with the Brooklyn Nets would be formally executed, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stood in a Mattapan Community Center following introductions of the team's 2013 rookie class and smiled wide when asked about the daunting rebuilding process looming in front of him.
"I wouldn't say it's exciting; it's a challenge. But I welcome that challenge," Ainge said. "And I'm re-energized to try to do it again."
Two-hundred-ninety days later, Ainge leaned on a wall outside the Celtics' locker room as his team prepped for its 57th and final loss of a harrowing 2013-14 season, a necessary evil in the prickly rebuilding process.
Ainge, looking haggard like most in the Celtics' organization after a grueling season, still wore that same smile as he expressed optimism that the summer would bring the sort of changes that would thrust his team back into contender status.
But Ainge acknowledged the obvious: This season was tough to endure.
"It was a long season," Ainge said before catching himself at the suggestion that a season devoid of a postseason appearance wasn't quite as long as the team is used to after the success of the big three era.
"I guess not that long," he added. "But it was tough, a tough year."
The Celtics bid good riddance to the 2013-14 campaign with a 118-102 loss to the playoff-bound Washington Wizards. Coupled with a double-overtime win by the Utah Jazz in Minnesota, Boston finished the season tied for the fourth-worst record in the NBA. With one of their two first-round picks, the Celtics will have roughly a 33.7 percent chance at a top-three pick and a 10.4 percent chance at the No. 1 selection.
After a season filled with losses, the Celtics can finally revel a tiny bit in defeat. Boston has put itself in position to add another building block by enduring the rigors of the rebuild. And with the 2013-14 campaign in the rearview mirror, here comes the unbridled optimism that only the NBA offseason can provide.
Reflecting on his first season on the bench, one in which he lost more games than he did during his entire six-year stint as head coach at Butler University, Stevens praised his team for how hard it played, even after its lottery fate was sealed.
"I think the best thing I learned is that it's not fun to not win," Stevens said. "But it doesn't define who you are or how you go about your business. So, one of the things that I'm probably most happy about with our team is that they didn't change necessarily who they were, they didn't let the losing or the multiple losses affect them or their approach and I hope that I was the same way."
Stevens clung to the hope that his team achieved progress, even if it wasn't always reflected in wins. He noted how, if the final games of the season gave rookies Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey additional confidence, then they were critically important to the process of restoring this team to contender status.
"I think that's the bottom line, we're all shooting for something," Stevens said. "Every single day and every single effort you put into it matters in achieving it. This is really not fun to lose. We've had our moments of tasting winning against some good teams; we've had our moments of letting some games get away. You hope to learn from all of those. And not let the bad things happen again."
Stevens was put in a tough spot from the start. Ainge handed him a flawed roster that was overstocked with shooting guards and power forwards, but lacked experienced ball-handlers and big men who could protect the rim.
The Celtics tasted some early success, their season highlighted perhaps by Jeff Green's last-second winner in Miami in November, or Jordan Crawford's December explosion, including a lopsided win against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But things were already bleak by the time Rajon Rondo returned in mid-January. Two months into the season, the Celtics made two trades to start reconfiguring the roster. Not even Rondo could steady the ship -- heck, the team was 6-24 in his 30 appearances -- and the injury bug pecked away in the second half of the season as the losses piled up.
The end result? A team that posted the third-worst winning percentage in franchise history. In a way, it's not fair. Boston was impossibly competitive. The Celtics finished tied for third in the NBA with 49 games that were within five points in the final five minutes. Alas, Boston struggled to close those games out, going a mere 15-34, for a .306 winning percentage that was the second-worst in the league in such games.
Ainge tried to accentuate the positive, but admitted there are plenty of holes to patch this summer.
"I saw a lot of positive things from individuals," Ainge said. "I thought our team gave good effort most nights. I think consistency was our biggest challenge. I don't think the team was a great fit, a great mix, but individually I liked what I saw from almost every player. I just feel like we didn't have the size inside to protect the rim. I thought that was a big factor that cost us a lot of games and we didn't finish a lot of games down the stretch."
But Ainge again cautioned that there are no firm answers when it comes to rebuilding. Asked how long it would take to restore this team to contender status, he smiled and offered, "I don't know. How does anybody know that? What do you want me to make a prediction or something? Am I prophet?"
Ainge added: "I'm hopeful. I'll work my tail off to try to duplicate what we've done in the past, but there are no guarantees."
Inside the Celtics' locker room, team captain Rondo stood in front of a mob of cameras and microphones and was asked what he took from this season.
"Just motivation for next year," he said. "We have a lot to improve on. I look forward to things next year."
Yes, next season represents the hope that the end of this season didn't offer. As the Celtics and their depleted roster endured their final loss of the season on their home turf, Kris Humphries sat on the bench, a pair of sunglasses dangling from his suit pocket.
Maybe it was a hint of things to come. Things remain a bit cloudy, but the Celtics finally see some blue skies ahead. You know the old adage: Future's so bright, you gotta wear shades.
3hChris Broussard and Brian Windhorst