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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Forty-eight hours before the new-look Boston Celtics tip off their 2013-14 season in Toronto, veteran Gerald Wallace was asked what he expects from his new squad.
"I don't know, man. I honestly don't know. I'm looking for a surprise. And hopefully it's a good surprise," said Wallace. "[I hope] we come out and understand the situation that we're in, understand what we need to do as a team and as individuals, and start the season off on a good note."
Here's what most everyone else is expecting: the Celtics to lose. And lose badly. Most pundits seem to believe a young Boston roster with a first-year coach is going to stumble its way through the early stages of a rebuilding process. Informed of this possibility, Wallace, a 13-year veteran acquired by Boston this summer, simply shakes his head and laughs.
|Brad Stevens-led teams are known for surprising people: His underdog Butler squad managed to reach consecutive national title games.|
"I hope not," said Wallace. "I hope you're wrong."
Wallace has been around the league long enough to know what the Celtics are up against. Upon arriving in Boston last month, he acknowledged the difficulty in starting over with a team at this stage of his career. But he also pledged his commitment to the team's transition, noting he'd take great pride in helping the Celtics return to contender status.
And that, in a nutshell, is the 2013-14 season for Boston. It's all about taking the difficult first steps on the road to respectability.
Back in June at a press conference to discuss the departure of coach Doc Rivers, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge expressed an excitement about the rebuilding process that lay ahead, suggesting he'd welcome the process whenever it arrived.
It arrived 48 hours later when, on draft night, the Celtics and Nets agreed to an NBA-rattling nine-player, three draft-pick swap. The Celtics bid farewell to Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, while welcoming Wallace and some other Brooklyn castaways to their murky transition process.
After the Celtics went 2-6 during an eight-game exhibition slate this month, Ainge was asked if he still has the same enthusiasm for the rebuild, having dipped his toes in the water.
"I feel a little bit like you're going back to school after sitting out all summer and you're anxious for something new," Ainge said. "You moved to a new city, you've got a new team, a new everything. So I do feel a little bit of enthusiasm and excitement and encouragement by some things I see.
"[But] as the leader of the organization, I do need to temper expectations and be realistic. And be fair. Because I think expectations sometimes get out of control for the players and the coaches and so forth. I am enthusiastic about it. I also see a lot of hard work ahead of us."
A lot of hard work plus a lot working against Boston.
All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is sidelined to start the season while navigating the final stages of ACL rehab and has hinted at a December return. By that point, Boston's lottery fate might be sealed. The Celtics play a whopping 19 games in 31 days to start the season, 11 of which are on the road, including every single second night of the six back-to-backs the team will endure during that span.
As the leader of the organization, I do need to temper expectations and be realistic. And be fair. Because I think expectations sometimes get out of control for the players and the coaches and so forth. I am enthusiastic about it. I also see a lot of hard work ahead of us.” -- Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations
Boston's younger players are too proud (and maybe too naive) to acknowledge the reality of what's ahead. They've rallied around Wallace's notion that they can be a "sleeper" playoff team. But even Wallace sounded off on his teammates about their effort level (or lack thereof) in the preseason, demanding more from them if they are to have any chance of being competitive.
First-year coach Brad Stevens has spent the preseason stressing his philosophy of process. The 37-year-old Stevens wants his team to focus on the day-to-day improvements -- blocking out the big picture -- and believes that will (eventually) deliver Boston to where it wants to be.
Stevens never had the most talented teams at Butler University, but he squeezed every drop of talent out of his players and got them to thrive as a group, delivering them to consecutive national title games during his tenure. He's being asked to work similar magic with Boston, but being successful in the NBA often requires talent. Which is why the Celtics are stockpiling future draft picks, loading up on assets to use or trade in order to restock their roster.
But that's the future. Is Stevens ready for a season in which he might lose as many games as he did during his entire Butler tenure? (He was 166-49 in six seasons with the Bulldogs.)
The one thing we know about Stevens is that he's unflappable. He's braced himself for the process. For him, it's mind over matter in navigating the ascent.
Three years ago, during one of those national title game appearances in his native Indianapolis, Stevens explained how he manages to maintain his composure. As the story goes, he was flying back from Orlando when his flight -- one that included a couple dozen kids returning from Disney World -- encountered turbulence that bounced passengers all over the plane.
"I swear to you, 20 of them just raised theirs hands in the air and screamed like they were on a roller coaster," Stevens told reporters at the time. "It was a quick reminder to me that attitude is everything, outlook is everything, and move on to the next play.
"Every time I've hit turbulence since then, I've been pretty excited."
Well, buckle up, Coach, and get ready for some fun. Like Ainge, Stevens seems to be genuinely excited about laying the foundation for the future, building the runway upon which this turbulence-seeking plane will eventually land.
Goals this season start on the micro level: learning and buying into Stevens' system; identifying the building blocks for the future; and making daily progress. On the management side, Boston needs to unclog its cap for future seasons, moving high-priced bodies that don't fit the future mold. But wins and losses won't dictate whether the 2013-14 season is a success.
Sure, Boston would benefit from a high draft pick, but here's guessing the team won't be overly concerned if it exceeds expectations and doesn't get a chance at that pick. The Celtics went the tank route in the past and the ping-pong balls rarely cooperated. Boston will sacrifice a bit of draft position for finishing stronger than they start, and maintaining that upward trajectory this season.
For their part, players are trying to ignore all the noise.
"We'll block out whatever anybody is saying about us or any expectations and just fight for the man that's in this room," Courtney Lee said. "We come to practice every day. We compete. We go through this and that. We know we're not going to go out there and give up just because outside people who are not playing the game are writing us off. We're putting the work in. We're going to go out there and fight."
Maybe they'll surprise some people. Most likely they won't. It's all part of the process.