WALTHAM -- Somewhere on couches across America, the Celtics players sit comfortably watching the playoffs. They should enjoy the lazy days of the offseason before summer workouts start and executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge hands down the new team code of conduct. More than any talent or strategic shortcomings, Ainge and coach Doc Rivers thought the Celtics' immaturity and inability to deal with adversity resulted in a first-round loss to the Pacers.
With the pain of a third-quarter, Game 7 collapse still lingering and memories of the Antoine Walker suspension and the shirt-twirling Paul Pierce exit from Conseco Fieldhouse still fresh, Ainge vowed to "have higher expectations for day-in and day-out behavior." Ainge tried to soften the sound of his new disciplinary edict by commenting it would not be like a "military camp." But that may fall upon the deaf ears of Boston veterans accustomed to going about their business with a sense of entitlement and their own set of rules.
Although Ainge and Rivers do not know what the code of conduct will include -- a dress code, fines for tardiness and benchings for missed workouts, or bad behavior could be possibilities -- the new team rules will place an emphasis on respect and accountability. All of this may keep Gary Payton west of the Mississippi and make other free agents a little skittish about venturing to Boston, but Ainge doesn't care. He believes "raising the bar" on acceptable behavior will automatically improve the Celtics' play and how a player conducts himself translates directly to how he competes.
"I just feel like we need players who are going to respect the game more, respect teammates more, respect coaches, respect [the media], respect ballboys, respect airline pilots, show up on time," said Ainge during a press conference yesterday at the team's training facility. "We need to step up our code of conduct. There's too much of a lackadaisical attitude that's frustrating. There's not enough respect for all people and the game itself.
"We just need to make stricter guidelines and have higher expectations. We can make more rules. I don't know what those are yet. Doc and I will spend time together this summer and we'll come up with some. But we both feel very strongly that we don't like what we see from a behavioral standpoint."
Ainge tried to cushion his criticism, noting such issues were not the exclusive territory of the team he largely assembled. Ainge views a lack of team loyalty and individual humility as a cultural and generational issue, which makes his attempt to undo selfish, bad habits seem an even more monumental undertaking. The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady clearly serve as a local model, while the Suns and MVP point guard Steve Nash stand as an NBA model.
But without those type of character leaders, Ainge must depend upon a rulebook and the example set by 16 Celtics championship teams. Ainge also sees the Celtics of old as a model of how a winning team conducts itself. He would like to rekindle that kind of attitude and respect for the game.
"There's such a focus, and I don't know if this starts in AAU ball or all the attention that shoe companies give or agents give, there's a lot of theories, but it's too much about me," said Ainge. "We have too much me and not enough team. We're going to do what we can. I'm not sure what all those things are right now, but we're going to do what we can to stop that all.
"There's just certain things that have to be expected that I think we let slide. Again, I take responsibility for that. Those are things that you just can't come in mid-stream and just say, 'OK, here's what we're going to do now.' I think now is really the time to implement things that have gone on in the past, to hold things true to the game, [to have] respect of the game that I think is sliding throughout our league. We'll see what we can do."
Although inappropriate behavior may be borderline epidemic in the NBA and the league sets certain standards, teams must take the toughest stands on a regular basis. The Wizards suspended Kwame Brown for the remainder of the postseason after he missed practices and a game. Memphis coach Mike Fratello told Bonzi Wells not to attend the team's final playoff game after arriving late for a team shootaround.
NBA commissioner David Stern has been conduct and image conscious for a long time, and that emphasis has only increased with the events of this season. For Rivers, whom many describe as a player's coach, enforcing the Celtics' law may be tough. Then again, to hear Ainge, nothing could be tougher on a coach than players who fail to listen and lack respect.
"I need to help him get players that he can coach," said Ainge.
Asked if there were Celtics whom Rivers found uncoachable this season, Ainge added: "I wouldn't say any one individual is uncoachable. There's some things that Doc will do differently next year. It was a difficult circumstance. Gary Payton was very good for our team this year in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it's tough for Doc to coach Gary the way that he wants to coach everybody because of who Gary was and the circumstances in which he came in. All our veteran players are used to being coached a certain way.
"They all made adjustments to [Rivers], which is what they're supposed to do because no coach is perfect and no coach is exactly who you want them to be. We need to create an environment where you've got to earn your minutes and you've got to earn them every day."
Reading between the lines, certain veterans were more difficult to handle than Rivers wanted to let on publicly. While disagreements between Pierce and Rivers were public, some veterans were seldom seen or heard after practice and games and, as a result, conflict with the coach was kept quiet. Even though Ainge's plan spoke volumes for his support of Rivers, Ainge made it clear he backed his coach all the way, saluting his work ethic and passion for the game.
"I addressed the team twice all year -- before the season and at the end of the season," said Ainge. "[I dealt with] the same topics that we're talking about right now, dealing with adversity throughout the course of a game, a bad call by an official, your coach not liking what he's seeing on the court, a teammate not passing you the ball at the right time, a 10-point run by the other team, all the things that happen that cause you to get emotionally unfocused. That's a big issue. The second issue is being grateful for your job. My goodness, this is a dream that they all have had since they were little kids. But there is, for whatever reason and it's not just in the NBA, but it seems like a generational thing, a sense of entitlement. That sense of entitlement is dangerous to any team."
If Ainge has his way, the Celtics' new code of conduct will create a paradigm shift in the way players approach the game. But just as Ainge cannot answer how long before Boston becomes a championship-caliber team again, he cannot predict how successful his efforts to change team culture will be.