By Brad Stevens’ own estimate, Celtics management needs to thread a needle this summer.
Coming within two wins of the 18th NBA title in franchise history, after executing the biggest season turnaround in franchise history by going 33-10 after Jan. 6 when they fell At 18-21 after blowing a 29-point lead in New York, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations now finds himself in a strange in-between state when it comes to team improvement.
They did just about everything right after Jan. 6, starting with the acquisitions of Derrick White and Daniel Theis at the start of the trade deadline. They eventually started playing defense as rookie coach Ime Udoka demanded, and led the league with a stifling network of switches. They started moving the ball around and became a Top 10 offensive team. They swept the Nets in the playoffs, weathered a pair of grueling seven-game series against the Bucks and Heat and, well, saw their weaknesses exhibited by Golden State in the Finals.
Stevens must therefore strike a close balance when making decisions this summer. He may have to trade a beloved player – yes, maybe even Marcus Smart or Grant Williams – to improve this squad.
Perhaps he adds a valuable free agent without disrupting his core.
“Write, develop and process,” Stevens said earlier this week. “You just look for the things that make the most sense within your group. I think we have to walk a bit of a fine line. I think teams are fragile. I think the way teams work together and function together is fragile. And I think your identity as a team, when you find one that is successful, which is what we did this year on the defensive side of the pitch and when we were at our best sharing of the ball offensively, those things are fragile.
“So adding doesn’t mean you don’t take something away from the group. And changing important pieces in the band doesn’t mean it couldn’t totally take your identity and move it in a direction that’s not as successful,” he said. “And so that’s a pretty fine line.”
But it’s clear to Stevens that these issues of ball safety, play and depth of shot have to be addressed one way or another.
“If you ask me now what we need, I would like to have a few more goals – consistent points – off the bench,” he said. “I think we have some short term needs there, but I believe in some of the guys who haven’t had a chance to play as much, that they will continue to improve and knock on that door soon. . So we have development opportunities within our own organization and we will continue to scour and review what our opportunities are with our trade and draft exceptions and our limited free agency resources.
Aaron Nesmith has been two things – a whirlwind of promising defensive energy with plenty of promise as an off-the-ball scorer, and a great practice shooter who can’t buy a bucket in regular-season games. As the 14th pick in the 2020 draft, he was considered the best pure shooter of the lot, and that’s still why there’s hope for him to land a role off the bench.
“I’m still very confident in my shooting. I’m a phenomenal shooter and I know it, the team knows it, the coaching staff knows it,” he said last week. “So I just wasn’t there this season. In practice, it’s there. In training, it’s there. It’s just as soon as the game starts, it’s mental to press and put much more pressure on every shot I take because I didn’t get them, instead of just shooting the ball like I do every day That’s why I just say I need to take a break mental health and getting back to doing what I do at a high level in games.
That would fill a big need for Stevens, whose quest for more shots should also lead him to the free agent market this summer.
But he was right this season about Payton Pritchard and was confident in trading Dennis Schroder to Houston with the belief that Pritchard could fill that shooting void. Sure enough, Pritchard’s shooting from the bench played a major role last spring until, like everyone else, he was swallowed up by those offensive breakdowns. Alas, the Celtics got five points from their bench in Game 6 of the Finals. If there’s any growth in that lineup – Sam Hauser and Matt Ryan are up-and-coming shooters – it hasn’t quite germinated yet.
Around $19 million of the $26 million Al Horford would be owed next season is guaranteed, but his value to the Celtics at both ends considered, are the savings worth moving on from the 36-year-old? Along with being wrapped up in a trade for a young big — Atlanta’s John Collins name has popped up all over the league — he’s more likely to stay put.
And stashed prospects still need time. Yam Madar has shown attacking development as a Partizan point guard in Belgrade, Serbia, but his (thin) physical limitations point to another season away. He’s definitely not ready to help an NBA finalist. Juhann Begarin has what Madar doesn’t – a huge physical advantage, especially defensively and around the perimeter – but hasn’t done much during his time with Paris Basket to show he’s gone above and beyond. a raw perspective.
Madar will work with the Israeli national team this summer; Begarin will headline the Celtics roster in the Las Vegas Summer League in early July.
Stevens’ tools include a stack of traded player exceptions, with a TPE of $17.1m – courtesy of signing and trading Evan Fournier last year to the Knicks – the price in the event major exchange. He will also benefit from a mid-tier taxpayer exception that will amount to approximately $6.1 million and, of course, valuable business assets.
Any lingering talk of a Jaylen Brown/Bradley Beal trade should finally be buried, and not just because the latter seems determined to re-sign with Washington. Brown needs to work on his grip, but he’s an elite three-tier scorer and the Celtics’ most dynamic option at the rim when they come out in transition. Although Jayson Tatum disappeared in the finale, he is indeed the franchise – a legitimate Top 5 talent with no ceiling in sight.
Rob Williams could also be close to the untouchable, especially as he continues to work on his tenacity and his availability. He is, at least as much as NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, the reason the Celtics defend at an elite level.
And even though he hates it, Smart will find his name in trade talks once again. Although Grant Williams is doing well as Horford’s understudy – he is eligible for a rookie extension this fall – here too there is a player who would generate significant interest elsewhere. Both are equally part of the solution.
Beyond a major trade, however, when Stevens dives into the free agent market, he’ll be looking for depth, not something transformative. He mentioned the game as a primary need, although that doesn’t necessarily mean another point guard is coming.
Passing and ball handling problems largely stemmed from mistakes by Tatum and Brown, although Smart and Derrick White did indeed struggle to calm the unit down late in the final. Smart and White also holds the position better than anyone that will be available with a $6.1 mid-tier exception.
Dallas’ Jalen Brunson is the creme de la creme, outside of Kyrie Irving’s projected availability, and he’ll command a cap tier price that the Celtics are unlikely to be willing or able to pay under cap restrictions. Ricky Rubio would match what they can offer, although given the defensive demands Udoka places on his players, the veteran playmaker may not be up to the challenge at the other end. Tyus Jones (Memphis) has playoff experience and worked his way up behind Ja Morant on a defensive team. At this point, Goran Dragic has played everywhere EXCEPT Boston.
But as one of the league’s biggest supporters of positionless basketball, Stevens doesn’t necessarily do all his math at point guard. Memphis’ Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 all-trades forward/playboy who came off the Grizzlies’ bench this season, was considered by Danny Ainge with the 20th pick in the 2014 draft, before choosing James Young Instead. Even then, the quest was for shooting. Udoka knows Anderson well, dating back to their time together in San Antonio.
In truth, however, free agency could take the Celtics in any direction as they attempt to build offensive depth. Malik Monk celebrated his contract year with the Lakers by shooting 47.7% from 3-point range, and is probably worth more than the Celtics — at least up front — can afford. But it would fill a major need.
Find the right balance
But despite all the outside calls for change, Stevens knows he’s not that far off from a title, with some roster tweaks and perhaps nothing more on the horizon.
In truth, of course, what he needs is for Tatum and Brown to take the next step in their still ridiculously young careers.
“You have to look at it and say, OK, overall we finished the regular season in the top 6 or 7 offensively. We finished (with) obviously a great defense,” he said. “Our defense has been good enough to win throughout the playoffs. Even though we slipped a bit in the Golden State series, a lot of those shots that separated being a great defense from a little underdog was the fact that they scored in transition because of turnovers. So I think everything has to be taken into account.
“Having said that, I think I’m improving, obviously I thought we were struggling with their turnover, we were struggling with their over-assist and super, super activity, but there were a lot of factors that contributed to both the turnovers and at the 2 points. filming. If you had told me going into the Golden State series that we would shoot 41% from three, I would have thought we would have a hell of a chance to win, obviously, but we didn’t.
It won’t take much to get back there either.