As the Celtics begin to load their figurative wagon for next month’s trip to Orlando and the resumption of the NBA season, there is reason to ask whether everyone is on board.
Specifically, there are reports that Jayson Tatum is among a number of top-tier young players concerned about injury getting in the way of the max contract extensions for which they will be eligible whenever this pandemic-interrupted exercise concludes.
According to league sources, the issue is based on insurance policies taken out by the players that would run out at the traditional end of the NBA year, June 30. Word is there are ongoing talks between representatives of the players and the league, but it’s expected that Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and others will eventually be on the courts at the Disney complex.
Nothing, however, can be entirely certain. There are concerns, too, about committing to the so-called bubble in which players could be quarantined for some three months, as well as questions raised by Kyrie Irving and others regarding whether it’s proper for players to be engaging in games during a time of such important social justice action.
Sources are saying the Celtics are ready to play and will make their social statements at least in large part from the platform afforded by the league and the attention the restarting of its season will provide. But when asked about that and if he’s certain all his players are satisfied that COVID-19 health concerns are being addressed, Danny Ainge told the Herald, “I don’t know that. Don’t know that for sure. I’ve talked with a lot of guys.I talk with them pretty regularly, but I don’t necessarily pose those exact questions, and I don’t know those exact answers. So I don’t know the answer to that.”
As for what his response would be to players who choose to opt out, whether for medical or social reasons, the Celtics president of basketball operations said he wouldn’t address that. But he clearly has no problem with players like Irving whose thoughts may be different than the league’s basic goals of presenting a representative conclusion to the 2019-20 season.
“Hey, listen, players can have any opinions they want. Say what you want,” Ainge said, adding that Irving is part of the Players Association leadership. “I’m sure there’s a lot of opinions out there. We have 500 players. We’re going to have a lot of opinions. That’s the way it is. It’s OK.”
In terms of the Celtic response to the social matter — both thus far and in the future — Ainge is comfortable there, too.
“It’s a time of reflection for our entire organization, and we’re having a lot of conversation,” he said. “I’m really excited about the things our organization is doing, and you’ll probably know about all the things we’re doing some time soon. But I like the conversation we’re having.”
Back in the relatively mundane world of bouncing basketballs, the Celtics continue to host their players in highly regulated individual workouts at the team facility.
“There’s some guys in there working out, trickling in,” Ainge said.
But he shut down the idea that there’s any significant measure of normalcy yet.
“No,” said Ainge. “No, it’s not normal, just because you have coaches with masks and gloves, and players six feet away from coaches just shooting shots. There’s not really much of anything normal that I recognize. It’s just a process that we need to go through before we get back all together. That’s all. But I wouldn’t call it normal.”
Perhaps the only positive for the Celts from the suspension of the season is that injuries have been given time to heal. Jaylen Brown (hamstring), Kemba Walker (knee) and Robert Williams (back) all appear healthy in limited activity so far.
“Jaylen’s been working out. He looks healthy, looks good,” Ainge said. “And Kemba’s been working out, too. So time will tell on all of that. Rob looks healthy, too.”
There was some thought, as Walker’s left knee issue lingered, that the problem was worse than the team was letting on.
“I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m not sure it matters now,” said Ainge. “Time will tell. Time will tell us about the health of players. I mean, there’s always injuries going on, but I’m confident that Kemba and Jaylen are going to have a really good (remainder) of the year.”
Ainge didn’t want to discuss how the plan set out by the league (eight seeding games, then playoffs) suits the Celtics, because, as he put it, “There’s things that are continually changing.”
He said he’s shared his opinions with the league and added, “I feel comfortable that Adam Silver knows what he’s doing. I’m comfortable with that.”
The Celts chemistry, as exhibited on and off the court, would seem to help their cause in the resumption.
“I’m not worried about our guys getting along; I’m worried about playing together and playing their best,” Ainge said. “I think that we’ve had some great moments, and I’m excited to get the season back started again. I think it’ll be a lot of fun, and I think our players will have a blast. I’m excited about them getting started, but we still have a lot of boxes to check before that ever happens.”
And there will be other boxes to check as things proceed. With the Finals now slated to stretch into October and the 2020-21 season tentatively scheduled for a December start, there will be a tight window to fit in the draft and other offseason transactions that include free agency.
“It just is what it is,” said Ainge. “I hear the same stuff you hear, and I’m just preparing for what we’re told we’re doing. This is when we have the draft, this is when we’re going to Orlando… I really do have faith in all the people that are talking to our players, that are talking to our owners and general managers and talking to our coaches. And they’re talking to every team in the league. So it’s a hard job, a really tough time, and I have faith that something good’s going to happen. I’m optimistic.”