The Celtics season ended unceremoniously with a first-round exit. After reshuffling the front office, how can Boston fix the team this offseason?
This wasn’t the Celtics master plan.
After reaching the conference finals in three of the last four seasons, there was promise for Boston. Around the league, it was assumed that they would be one of the five best teams in the Eastern Conference. While the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks all got better, the Celtics and Miami Heat took two steps back. So now with the season behind them, how can the Brad Stevens fix their situation? While we’re still unsure who the next head coach will be, it’s clear that brining the same group back next season won’t work. The changes in the front office indicate that moves will be made.
What went wrong for the Celtics?
Well, outside of shooting and getting to the free-throw line, the Celtics weren’t really good at much else this season. They finished fifth in free throws and 11th in three-point field goals despite finishing the year 25th in field goals made and 27th in field goals attempted. The issues for the Celtics were passing and rebounding. Boston finished the year 21st in assists, the second-lowest mark of the Brad Stevens era.
The last offensive area the Celtics struggled with was the bench, who finished the year third-worst in scoring. Of all the criticisms of Ainge’s tenure in Boston, this one screams the loudest. Many of these bench players – including Semi Ojeleye and Romeo Langford – are failed draft picks from Ainge. Without any production off the bench, the burden was on Tatum and Brown to produce all the scoring.
The other major issue was the defense. According to the NBA.com’s lineup tracking tool, Boston’s five-man lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Tristan Thompson – the Celtics third most frequent lineup of the season – was the 14th worst lineup in basketball in the defensive rating of lineups that played more than 40 minutes together. Trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier also had a defensive rating of 113, pairing with Walker’s 114 defensive rating. Once again, rebounding plagued the defensive issues. Boston surrendered the second-most points per possession on putbacks for the regular season, while also allowing the seventh-most points per possession on spot-up jumpers. They did pretty well against initial pick-and-roll actions, but the rotations proved a mess in giving up open jump shots.
So the question becomes, how do the Celtics fix it? Many projections have Boston just under the luxury tax threshold with all 12 roster spots filled, including their 2021 NBA Draft pick (No. 16 overall). With little room to maneuver, here are some moves the Celtics will need to decide on this offseason.
The Celtics bench needs to change. Part of this will come from the natural progressions of Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, but the Celtics need NBA bodies. Jabari Parker showed flashes on the offensive side of the ball but was a bad defender before the injuries. The big decision will be what to do with Fournier.
Fournier had the season from hell with the Celtics. He dealt with injuries and COVID but is still a shooting guard who will likely command $15 million a year. For the Celtics to retain their sixth man, they’ll almost certainly have to dip into the luxury tax to do it. While the trade itself was built to retain his Bird rights, the tax is something the Celtics have tried to avoid over the years. If Boston wishes to continues to avoid the luxury tax, cheaper alternatives are available. Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock, Patty Mills and Derrick Rose are available and would only take some slight maneuvering to acquire. Boston could also buy low on players like Josh Richardson or Spencer Dinwiddie.
To help the rebounding woes, Boston has to hit on the minimum salary free agents. Players like JaVale McGee and Boban Marjanovic are available and have proven to have varying degrees of value. Adding one as a bench player or starter while Williams closes could be the answer. Not to mention, who wouldn’t want to see Tacko Fall and Boban on the same team?
A bench unit of Nesmith, Pritchard and Robert Williams isn’t a bad building block, but they’ll need another scorer or two to make it serviceable.
There’s not a lot of trade chips left in the Celtics cupboard, but there are moveable pieces. Walker’s contract is viewed by many as untradeable with two years remaining. But Boston has all of its first round picks going forward, plus two players on expiring contracts for next season.
Those two players are Smart and Thompson. Smart has been a mainstay in the Celtics lineup for years. His defensive tenacity and hustle made him a fan favorite. Unfortunately for the Celtics, it also comes with his jump shooting, which has moments of either bad or unacceptable looks from outside. Of players who attempted 10 or more field goals per game, Smart finished with the eighth-worst field goal percentage for the season (39.6 percent). Someone will still take a chance on the shooting guard, but it should be away from Boston.
Thompson is also on an expiring deal, as he couldn’t fix the Celtics center woes in last season. It wasn’t way below his typical level, but he didn’t fix the rebounding and rim protection problems that Boston had. He’s set to make $9.7 million next season, while Smart’s contract is for $14.3 million. It’s not enough to get Boston additional cap space, but it is enough to create $24 million in a trade piece.
Two options the Celtics could look at are the Sacramento Kings Buddy Hield or Harrison Barnes. Hield, who has three more years of control, would fit nicely into the Celtics starting two-guard spot. He’s one of the best shooters in the game but doesn’t have Smart’s defensive instincts or intensity. Barnes can play in a swing position next to Brown and Tatum or hold his own with bench units. He’s a smart basketball player who’s played on good teams but isn’t a flashy player on the court. With just two years of control, Barnes could likely be the more attainable piece. He’s also probably the better player. Hield would likely require at least one additional pick, if not more.
Other trade chips Boston will look at include previously rumored trade candidates Jerami Grant and Myles Turner. Grant bet on himself in free agency and had his best season, but doesn’t really fit the Pistons timeline. Turner would solve a lot of the Celtics issues at center. He’s been one of the best shot blockers in the league, plus he’s a solid rebounder and can shoot from outside. Indiana is in a weird spot with their team. They’ve yet to figure out how to maximize the Domantas Sabonis and Turner frontcourt. Plus, a player like Smart can add toughness to their Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert backcourt.
Grant might be out of the Celtics price range. Detroit will probably look for multiple picks to help their 10th rebuild in 10 years. But a guy like Turner could be had if Boston parts with pick 16 and maybe one future.
Sign and Trade for Lonzo Ball or John Collins
There’s a handful of impending free agents that Boston could pursue via sign and trade. The two that make the most sense with the $24 million of salary from Smart and Thompson are Lonzo Ball and John Collins. Both are younger players who fit the timeline of Brown and Tatum (Both were drafted the same season as Tatum) and fit a Celtics need.
Collins makes the most sense. He’s an super athletic stretch four with good shot blocking ability. He’d also allow Boston’s two stars to play their more natural positions rather than play as a small four and can pair with a center in rebounding and defensive lineups.
Ball, meanwhile, can help the Celtics offense and defense in a variety of ways. At his best, he looked like a future All-Defensive player, plus he’s still a great distributor. The stats will never blow you away, but Ball is the kind of player that fits with almost any team. He’d fix the Celtics ball movement issues and even get the most out of Robert Williams as a rim running option. If front office Stevens can convince Ball or Collins to sign, Smart, Thompson and future pick may be enough to get the sign and trade.
Kemba Walker – 2 years, $36.8 AAV
One of the most difficult pieces to figure into this is Walker. Viewed as untradeable, we’ve seen time and time again that a deal can be made, it’s just slim. Walker’s knee issues and decline are noticeable, but if the Celtics decide not to try and give him one more healthy season, here are the contracts that could fit in a Walker trade.
Kevin Love – 2 years, $30.1 AAV
Kristaps Porzingis – 3 years, $33.8 AAV
Al Horford – 2 years, $26.75 AAV
Steven Adams – 2 years, $17.5 AAV
Russell Westbrook – 2 years, $45.64 AAV
John Wall – 2 years, $45.84 AAV
There are player options on these deals, but it’s safe to assume that they’re opting in for these deals. If Boston moves on from Walker, it’s likely for one of these six guys. It’s safe to assume that the Celtics aren’t going to dip into the luxury tax for Westbrook or Wall. (Seriously, please don’t do it) That takes two players off of the list. Adams would be paired with Eric Bledsoe, which is a non-starter.
That leaves Love, Porzingis or the return of Horford. Oklahoma City will do just about anything for a draft pick. Boston could easily make that trade, but Horford looked washed up two seasons ago now. Porzingis and Love have dealt with injuries over the last two years. It remains to be seen what’s left in the tank. A Porzingis flyer makes sense on paper. He’s young enough to pair with Brown and Tatum, but the knee issues are troubling. If the Celtics want to take a chance, they could inquire with Dallas on the bad contract swap and take on the additional year.
The money is tight, but Boston is in a position to make moves. Stevens and the new front office will have a busy summer on their hands to fix the Boston Celtics roster.
(Photo By: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)