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Robb: Ainge Still Exploring Opportunities To Build Improved Celtics Roster

SALT LAKE CITY (CBS) -- For the first time in nearly two decades on Thursday, the Boston Celtics officially dipped under the salary cap in order to make a pair of free agent signings.

Neither were the flashy big-name moves most Celtics fans were hoping for this offseason. However, the additions of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko to next season's roster marked the start of Danny Ainge's quest to build upon a strong second half of last season for the franchise.

The pair of signings is just the first in what should be a busy next few days for Ainge and team cap guru Mike Zarren. In order to maximize the team's salary-cap room, the Celtics are waiting to finalize the re-signing of Jae Crowder and the trade acquisition of David Lee. Those moves are coming, but not until Boston scours the free agent and trade market to see if roughly $8 million in remaining salary cap room can be put to use.

"We're still working to try to put our team together; keeping our flexibility," Ainge admitted last Thursday night in Utah. "I wish we had our whole team all put together right now, that'd be nice."

While Ainge attempts to scour the market for upgrades, he spoke glowingly about his two new pieces in Jerebko and Johnson, who both signed two-year deals with non-guaranteed money in the second year of the agreements.

"[Jerebko's] a winning player," Ainge declared. "He has great respect from his team and has earned great respect from our coaching staff and the fans of Boston. Very versatile guy that we're very excited to bring back. We've watched Jonas for a while and we liked what he brought to the table. We like how he could spread the court from the 4 and how he competed. He did all those things for us and he fit into our system well. His personality is good; he's a good veteran guy in our locker room and we're very excited to have Jonas back."

Johnson, 28, will provide a boost at the power forward spot in place of the departing Brandon Bass as well. He's a guy Ainge has kept close tabs on even before he joined the NBA at age 18.

"I followed Amir from high school throughout his NBA career," Ainge admitted. "And it took him a while to get going in the NBA but he's just a class act, he's a winning player. He's not one of those guys that just fill up a stat sheet. He just helps you win. He does a little bit of everything. He can defend, he can pass, he can rebound, he can block shots, he can make a shot. He's just a guy that's a good complete basketball player."

Signing a pair of players in their late 20s, as well as the impending acquisition of Lee, puts the Celtics frontcourt at a bit of a crossroads. Young but inconsistent prospects such as Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk will have to battle hard for minutes amidst a sizable crowd of veteran power forwards and centers. Winning, as opposed to developing those youngsters to help enhance their value, has now become the top goal for Boston.

"Development is a priority but you got to earn minutes," Ainge said of the youthful logjam. "I think that harder guys work -- and when we bring in young guys, we want them to learn how to work, we don't want to just give them minutes unconditionally, we want to make them earn every opportunity they get."

That philosophy will be in place in the backcourt as well, where Ainge has piled up seven guards of varying ages after drafting Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter last month. The evaluation process for that group has been ongoing at the team's summer league in Utah, but it appears Ainge is content to see players prove their worth, rather than trading a part or two away in order to clear roster space.

"We have 15 players and there are five positions, so that means there is going to be a crowd," Ainge continued. "I'm excited with the fact that we have great depth at every position and there's going to be some guys that play more than maybe some expect and some guys that will play less. I don't know who that's going to be, but it'll make for an exciting training camp. I think we're a team that, because we don't have a superstar on our team, that we're going to have to be a team that has to use depth to get through the season and be a consistent team."

Just how much of an improvement in the standings the Celtics will be able to make next season with these minor upgrades remains to be seen, but Ainge has done well to ensure the team has the resources to take a step forward in the 2015-16 season, while also maintaining salary cap flexibility for next summer.

For now, Celtics fans will watch and wait to see what "Trader Danny" has up his sleeve as he attempts to create a more balanced roster in an improving Eastern Conference.

"Everybody looks like they are getting better in the summer and a lot of teams have made some very good moves. We like where our team is headed, but we got to do it on the court. I don't know yet [what our expectations are for next year]. Maybe after training camp we'll have a better feel."

Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.

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