WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) – If Doc Rivers can trim down his rotation the way forward Al Jefferson trimmed his body, the Celtics coach would be thrilled.

Rivers used 14 different starters last season, including a hefty Jefferson, and that amounted to just a 33-49 record and no playoff berth.

The 21-year-old Jefferson hopes to regain the promise he showed as a rookie two seasons ago after dropping the extra pounds and figures to be in the eight-or nine-man rotation Rivers is seeking.

“Al Jefferson looks like Jessica Simpson,” Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck joked Wednesday during a media session with Rivers and general manager Danny Ainge.

“Well,” Rivers said, “I don’t know about that.”

“I just had that Lasik” eye procedure, Grousbeck said. “It didn’t work that well.”

The owner can be excused since it was difficult to identify Jefferson, at least from the neck down, during an informal team workout Wednesday at the Celtics practice facility. He appeared at least 25 pounds below his listed weight of 265 last season, making it easier on the right ankle that underwent surgery Aug. 2.

“We felt that he needed to get in better shape,” Rivers said. “He committed himself to unbelievable work and that’s what happened to his body. … I still think that the McDonald’s of the world are going to do pretty well with Al but I think he’s improved (his fitness approach) in a lot of ways.”

So if players must give up the sprinkles on their sundae – or the entire sundae – Rivers would love it, especially if it helps him settle on a core to lead a young team with just four of its current 17 players older than 24.

He began last year knowing that just one player, Paul Pierce, would be part of that core. The group didn’t get much larger as the season progressed because few players were markedly better than others at their positions.

He never settled on a regular rotation.

“I don’t think we ever had one and I don’t think we were a team that should have had one. No one separated themselves enough to have one,” Rivers said. “I do think there will be separation this year where last year I don’t think I ever made that statement.”

Going into training camp, which starts Tuesday, the top 10 players appear to be forwards Pierce, Jefferson, Ryan Gomes and Gerald Green; guards Delonte West, Sebastian Telfair, Wally Szczerbiak and Tony Allen and centers Kendrick Perkins and Theo Ratliff.

Rookie draft picks Rajon Rondo and Leon Powe could broaden that group.

“Doc has some work cut out for him” in settling on a roster and rotation, Ainge said. “There’s going to be some worthy players of playing time that aren’t going to get playing time this year. … I’m excited that we have those choices.”

With all that youth, the Celtics have plenty of trade material and Ainge said he always looks for ways to improve the team.

The Celtics have played 20 seasons without an NBA championship since Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish led them to the 16th in franchise history in 1985-86. Making the playoffs and even winning a series or two would be substantial progress.

Fans’ first chance to see a slimmed-down Jefferson and his young teammates comes Oct. 10 in Cleveland where the Celtics play the first of eight exhibition games. They open the regular season on Nov. 1 at home against the Hornets, who will play 35 home games in Oklahoma City and six in New Orleans.

Expectations should be higher for a team that is still young but has eight of its top 10 players entering their third NBA season.

“I think Bill Russell was the first one who said it,” Ainge said. “Experience is overrated and talent is not overrated and, obviously, I believe the Delonte West and Tony Allens are going to be better because they’re talented.”

Ainge expects fans to appreciate the players’ hard work and effort and hopes that results in a lot of wins.

Rivers isn’t sure what the fans expect from a team that has a chance to be known as more than just Paul Pierce and a bunch of kids.

“I know they absolutely have improved so if those are (higher) expectations by the fans I hope we can meet them,” Rivers said, “but I do believe this team is starting to show its face, and I like it.”

AP-ES-09-27-06 1802EDT


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