The Golden State Warriors presented the template for the Boston Celtics in their NBA Finals meeting. The value of cohesion and identity. The poise of a champion. How to build a roster by spending into the tax and maintaining flexibility through maintaining salary slots, like they did with Andrew Wiggins. Al Horford noticed another level his team would need to reach to compete for a title. Ball control proved more optional for Golden State than it would for Boston — a team that saw its turnover rate increase in each round and nearly end its postseason in the second and third rounds. Now they’ll try to address it with limited resources to do so.
Celtics president Brad Stevens acknowledged turnovers, among other self-inflicted mistakes in the Finals, cost Boston a championship in his exit interview. After entering 2021-2022 with new head coach Ime Udoka’s mission statement becoming the improvement of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s playmaking, their failure to protect the ball on the biggest stage now puts Boston in a predicament. While the growth, identity and core they’ve formed appears sustainable and continually upward in coming seasons, they find themselves needing to map the future of their offense while maintaining a defense-first mentality they’re intent on maintaining. It’ll likely amount to running back the best defense in the NBA, while adding some shooting and salaries to give the team flexibility in case the offense undermines their biggest goal — a hot start this fall.
“I think we need a little more playmaking,” Stevens said on Tuesday. “I think that that’s real. I think we need more playmaking, but I don’t think we can expect to be stagnant. We have to make sure we continue to play with pace. When we’re at our best, we play with pace. When we create one advantage, the ball whips around the court. I thought we played pretty slow in that last series. Credit (the Warriors), they impacted us for sure, but with all that said we had a chance to go 3-1 in Game 4 with about five minutes to go. Maybe we feel a little bit different, but there’s no question that in this league, the more guys that can make a play offensively, the better, but the challenge is whatever you do around the margins of our roster, we have a unique identity, we have uniqueness in our side and our ability to be versatile all across the board. We have to take all of that into account when we’re adding to our team, but if we can maintain that and add some playmaking, without a doubt you want to do that.”
The Celtics have a narrow window to upgrade the roster, they’re effectively at the hard cap, eliminating sign-and-trades like a Jalen Brunson type of addition unless they send out significant salary like Marcus Smart. Their salary situation similarly limits them to the roughly $6-million mid level exception to offer free agents. They traded their first-round pick for Derrick White and any usage of their $17-million trade exception would be heavily taxed.
Stevens said Boston’s ownership granted him approval to do whatever’s needed after a year where the team made multiple moves aimed at avoiding the tax. They inevitably will pay it this year, already $8-million over the line with the roster they have in place, and poised to move into the higher brackets with any additions. Having the core of their roster signed through at least next season is an advantage, no Gordon Hayward surprise departures are in store, and they’ve kicked back any potential repeated tax penalties until the 2025-26 season. They’ll also receive roughly $10-million cash as a non-taxpayer team, as first reported by John Hollinger of The Athletic, mostly from the major taxpayers like Brooklyn and Golden State. Adding $17-million in a trade exception addition(s) and a $6-million free agent would raise the team’s tax payment to over $90-million.
“We finished the regular season as a top six or seven offense. We finished, obviously, as a great defense,” Stevens said. “Our defense was good enough to win throughout the entire playoffs. Even though we slipped a little bit in the Golden State series, a lot of those baskets that separated being a great defense from a little bit below that was that they scored in transition from the turnovers. You’ve got to take it all into account. That said, to improve, obviously I thought we struggled against their switching, we struggled against their over-help and great, great activity … there were a lot of factors that contributed to both the turnovers and the two-point shooting … as far as improving, it’s the same old deal. Draft, develop and deals. You just look for things that make the most sense within our group. We have to walk a fine line a little bit.”
“I think teams are fragile,” he continued. “I think the way that teams work together and operate together are fragile, and I think your identity as a team when you find one that’s successful, which we did this year on the defensive end of the floor, and when we were at our best sharing the ball offensively, those things are fragile, so just to add doesn’t mean you’re not taking something away from the group. To change significant pieces in the group doesn’t mean that might not totally take your identity and shift it in a direction that’s not as successful. So it’s quite a fine line, if you ask me right now what we need, I’d like to have a little more consistent scoring off the bench and I think that we have some short term needs there, but I believe in a couple guys who didn’t play as much. That they will continue to improve and be knocking on that door soon, so we have some development opportunities within our own organization, and we’ll continue to scour and look at what our opportunities are with our trade exceptions and the draft and our limited resources in free agency.”
With Tatum and Brown solidified as the core going forward and Smart, for all his limitations, the key to that defensive identity by bringing size and switching one through five at the point guard position, plus communication, it’s easy to imagine the team’s three core players back. Smart would be a central piece and salary in any deal attempting to upgrade the point guard position though, which does thrust him into that annual question of where he fits into the team’s plans going forward. You’d rather get ahead of any opportunity than left behind by playmaking deficiencies once the season begins. There’s also a two-year Brown window before his free agency to contend with. Stevens, despite having time on his side, will need to utilize foresight. He sounded intent on Tuesday of betting on the starting lineup’s dominant defensive run from 2022.
Despite a disappointing finish in the Finals, there is no clear path to moving Smart while improving overall at that position, which Stevens alluded to in his argument. Any offensive improvement at point could be counteracted by the team’s defensive decline, as Kemba Walker’s departure and its inverse effect showed. Many would’ve moved on from Smart for Kyle Lowry or Lonzo Ball, then Smart had the healthiest, steadiest season of all three, while keying Boston’s turnaround with his greater focus on playmaking over scoring.
Al Horford will inevitably return at $26.5-million for one more season, with his guarantee boosted to $19.5-million by the Celtics’ Final run, there’s little upside to waiving him, taking that dead cap hit and restructuring his contract into the future entering his 36-year-old season. They can figure that out next summer. Robert Williams III gained value that borders on untouchable after a tremendous playoff run playing through pain. Stevens said Williams, Smart and Tatum have no surgery plans to address their injuries, only needing rest. He added Williams III did not put himself at long-term risk by playing through his knee soreness.
That brings the bench into focus. Grant Williams and White fell short of expectations in the Finals and later stages of the postseason, removing a shooting outlet for Tatum and Brown and impacting their playmaking. Daniel Theis proved unplayable late, another spacing challenge on offense at the four and five whose defense took a hit. All three players project to return given their value and contract situations, but will likely face competition for their roles. Stevens’ comments about hope for internal improvement points toward Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and even Sam Hauser, who Udoka noted made defensive strides despite not playing often. Nesmith flashed some of his own in a short east finals stint, before acknowledging he mentally lost his shot early in the season and never got it back. He would not commit to Summer League last week.
While the team’s improvement will largely need to come internally for now, this offseason is still an important moment for the team to structure its books toward more future flexibility. Signing a free agent, perhaps a wing like Otto Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, Pat Connaughton, Gary Harris, Gary Payton II or P.J. Tucker to a multi-year deal would give the team another medium-sized contract and sturdy rotation player to help spell Brown and Tatum’s minutes, while improving the team’s spacing and leadership.
That’s the fine line Stevens signaled. The Celtics may not be able to offer the consistent minutes they handed Dennis Schröder last offseason, or the salary that helped Josh Richardson transition into a bench role. Tyus Jones is perhaps the only name who would impact the team’s playmaking at a high level, but perhaps at too high of a cost for Boston to afford. Ricky Rubio, ever the popular name to address this shortcoming, tore his ACL in December and will miss time into next season.
The same line of thinking will enter play with the Evan Fournier trade exception, which expires July 18. Duncan Robinson could fill nearly the entire exception at $16.9-million and keep that figure as a usable salary through 2026. He’d come at a significant tax cost though (roughly $50-million without sending out any money). The incentive for Miami to get off as much of his contract as possible after removing him from the rotation is a given, and could potentially come with the benefit of pick compensation for a Celtics team that traded their own first away.
The Heat own the No. 27 pick in this year’s draft, but would need to use it before trading a player since they’ve dealt their 2023 pick, due to the Stepien Rule. Other trade exception options include Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Kevin Huerter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kelly Olynyk, Terrence Ross, Monté Morris, among others. None are sure to help Boston’s issues, more onus placed on internal improvement.
“I felt like our depth was really good through the east, then obviously we struggled off the bench in the Finals,” Stevens said. “Whether that comes from the guys inside the program now, and they’re able to win those minutes because of a great summer of development and they come in ready, and they increase their ability to add to winning, or that comes from outside, we’re going to try to do well. As far as increasing the competition and whether it’s a veteran, young player or whatever, it’s who can add to winning. They did do a good job of that, Golden State, but you think one of their most impactful guys off the bench was a guy who has barely been in the league in Payton, I thought he was terrific off the bench. I thought Poole, obviously a third-year player, was terrific off the bench, so whether it’s veteran, whether it’s a younger player, it’s more about the fit with adding to our core on the court.”