PORTLAND — The Maine Red Claws are off to their finest start in franchise history and own the best record (10-5) in the NBA D-League.
But the basketball season is entering a period when good players move on. And Maine has a lot of good players.
The Red Claws are hoping for the best of both worlds — sending players on to the NBA, while still winning basketball games in Portland.
Maine has already lost its first-round draft choice, point guard Shelvin Mack, who signed Dec. 25 with the Washington Wizards, the team he played for last year.
“We try to to help facilitate players moving up,” said Austin Ainge, the Boston Celtics’ director of player personnel. “We encourage it, and we plan for it.”
That is why Ainge was on the phone before the Red Claws game Monday in the Portland Expo, talking to potential future players. He has already signed a backup point guard (Hank Thorns) and he expects to be looking for more replacements.
“We’re excited to see Shelvin go start for the Washington Wizards and play well,” Ainge said. “I have a feeling some of our guys won’t be far behind because we have some more of the talented players in the D-League.”
Among those are three with NBA experience — forwards Chris Wright and DaJuan Summers and guard Xavier Silas. Plus there is Micah Downs, who was in the Celtics preseason camp this year, and guard Champ Oguchi, who had tryouts with the Spurs and Heat.
There are two other players with NBA connections, but forward Kris Joseph and center Fab Melo are already on the Celtics roster. They are only on loan to the Red Claws (and Joseph keeps bouncing back and forth between Boston and Portland).
The other players don’t have to go to sign with Boston, even though Portland is the Celtics’ D-League affiliate. This is not like minor league baseball where the parent club controls its minor league players. If given the chance, D-League players can sign with any NBA team.
Next week could see players move on. Starting Monday, NBA teams can sign players to 10-day contracts — giving players a limited chance to prove their worth.
Also next Monday through Thursday is the NBA D-League showcase, with 16 games played over four days in one location — the Reno (Nev.) Event Center. Every NBA team will have scouts watching. Maine plays two games Jan. 8-9.
D-League players are obviously hoping for a call up.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” Downs said. “I’ve played in the NBA, but only in the preseason. I just want to get my feet wet. But at the same time, I just have to stay focused on the Red Claws, because that’s what’s going to get me to the NBA, if we’re successful here.”
Downs, a 6-foot-9 guard/forward, leads the Red Claws in scoring with a 17-point average.
Summers, a 6-8 forward, has scored over 20 points in each of his last four games. Summers, who has played previously for the Pistons and Hornets, was cut from the Charlotte Bobcats preseason camp this past fall. He did not make himself available to the D-League draft, weighing offers from international teams.
“We were getting deals overseas and it was good money,” Summers said. “But I wanted to be somewhere where I could position myself to get back to the NBA.”
Summers eventually signed a D-League contract and Ainge immediately signed him.
“That was a great move by Austin,” Red Claws coach Mike Taylor said. “Look at the team (the Celtics) have given us now. They’ve done a fantastic job.”
Indeed, the veteran Summers said, “his team I’m part of is a really good team and it’s been a pleasure to play with these guys. Not just talent, but the type of people they are.”
If none of the Red Claws’ star players don’t end up signing with Boston, Ainge said there are still benefits for creating a talent-rich team. Firstly, the Celtics get a first-hand look at the Maine players in practice and games.
“It helps us evaluate them for the Celtics when we have them here,” Ainge said.
Secondly, if several players move on to the NBA, Maine will have the reputation as a place where players can develop their skills — meaning more good players will want to come here.
Mack thrived in Maine as the Red Claws use the same plays as the Celtics.
“I’ve been able to put up some Rondo-type numbers because of the system we play in,” said Mack, who averaged over seven assists a game, including some efforts in double figures at the end of his stay with Maine.
And with good talent in Maine, the Celtics players here — Melo and Joseph — have solid competition to play against in practice, as well as a winning team to play for.
So what happens when good players leave the Red Claws?
“Our philosophy is next man up,” Taylor said.
The Red Claws got a taste of that recently. Mack has been gone for four games, as has Joseph (dressing out with the Celtics) and Wright (out with a concussion). Also, Melo missed the last game because of a concussion. Out of those four games, Maine won three.
“We went 3-1 and we didn’t have key guys,” said center Scott VanderMeer, who replaced Melo on Monday and scored 14 points. “We can do it with them and without them. We got a core group of guys who can play basketball.”
Maine plays two homes games this weekend, Friday and Saturday night. The Red Claws don’t expect to lose any more top players — yet.