The Boston Celtics enter this offseason armed with three main vehicles to harden their eastern conference championship roster — the $6.3-million mid level exception, the $17.1-million trade exception and veteran minimums. Those trio of contracts, along with a roster that’s already over the luxury tax line by over $8-million point toward a likely sleepy offseason — and that’s fine.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III will return as the best statistical starting lineup in basketball last season. They outscored opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions in 443 minutes together. Four of them are signed for at least two more seasons, while Horford, 36, projects to stay with the team beyond the expiration of his $26.5-million deal next summer. An NBA Finals berth bolstered his guarantee up to $19.5-million, which Boston would need to waive as dead money to utilize, giving them no tangible benefit by doing so.
The edge of the roster stands primed for tinkering, which any additional salary bumping the team into a new tax level. Grant Williams returns at $4.3-million in the final year of his rookie deal — now extension-eligible. The team picked up Aaron Nesmith’s $3.8-million and Payton Pritchard’s $2.2-million options, and will need to make decisions on their fourth-year options for 2023-24 before next season begins. Derrick White ($16.4M) and Daniel Theis ($8.8M), Boston’s deadline additions, have multi-year deals the team is probably tied to unless they want to explore more significant changes this offseason. Given the bench’s issues in the NBA Finals, nearly all rendered unplayable by the end of the series, it’s impossible to rule that out entirely.
“We have to walk a fine line,” Stevens said last week. “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.”
Sam Hauser, Malik Fitts and Juwan Morgan all have non-guaranteed, minimum money as outlets for roster space if the Celtics make major changes. For now, Luke Kornet and Nik Stauskas’ expiring deals open two roster spots, while Brodric Thomas and Matt Ryan enter restricted free agency allowing Boston to fill its pair of two-way roster spots. Second-round pick JD Davison will likely land with the Celtics on one of those deals. Here’s the other storylines to watch as the NBA approaches free agency on Thursday at 6 p.m.
A wave of extensions for NBA stars in recent years rendered the trade a more powerful offseason institution than free agency. Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges headline this class of available free agents, both falling outside of Boston’s price range with their restricted status limiting their ability to leave outright.
The prospect of Kyrie Irving joining them on the market ended when he opted into his $34.1-million player option with the Nets after his prospects of leaving Brooklyn reportedly shrunk. The Nets’ tax bill now balloons again, with Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown, Patty Mills and their underbelly of veteran minimum deals all expiring that have padded their depth in recent years. More on them in a little.
Cap space already started drying up between the handful of rebuilding teams that had it. The Trail Blazers traded for Jerami Grant. The Pistons added Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel as salary dumps from the Knicks, who now appear positioned to use all of their space on Jalen Brunson. The Celtics reportedly declined adding Burks before the Detroit deal, according to MassLive. Oklahoma City’s cap space disappears when the new league year begins later this week and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s extension kicks in. That leaves the Spurs, Magic and Pacers as teams with sizable room entering this free agency, though an increase in projections $1.66-million above previous projections give teams some wiggle room under the cap and tax.
The tax is a more significant barometer of who’s a player in free agency now. Teams thrust against the line, like Boston, don’t have the full $10.3-million mid level exception, nor do the teams that can’t or don’t want to hard cap themselves. Only around one-third of the league can realistically use it as an offseason edge, which Philadelphia appears poised to do to lure P.J. Tucker away from Miami. Boston can’t compete with that money, especially over multiple years. So they’ll fall into the class of free agents below the top tier who see the money dry up. Where will that line form? It could draw pretty high, depending on how the Nets and Warriors spend, whether or not Zach LaVine, Bridges and Ayton stay, then how willing the bad teams are to make splashes.
Once LaVine, Ayton, Brunson, Bridges and Anfernee Simons sign on Thursday, the next tier of free agents will quickly come into focus.
A – Gary Harris, T.J. Warren, Kyle Anderson, Jusuf Nurkic, Marvin Bagley III, Tyus Jones, Collin Sexton, Bruce Brown, Isaiah Hartenstein.
Nurkic, Bagley and Hartenstein should land back with their current teams, though Marc Stein reported Hartenstein could land into the Magic’s cap space. Sexton is the big-money option here that Cleveland might end up drawing a discount on given the money that’ll have dried up at this point. The question is whether Harris, Brown, Jones and Anderson get squeezed by their current teams. All four could easily get paid given the financial standing of the Magic, Nets and Grizzlies. Whether they deem it worthwhile is another question.
Brown could push $10-million in average annual value over multiple years, a massive ascending cost for Brooklyn given the three stars on their roster. They’ll likely be forced to offer him that and beat the market of mid and full MLE suitors for the young slasher who shined in round one against his native Boston. He’ll likely exceed the Celtics’ spending ability.
Harris could return to Orlando for similar money (6-10M AAV), but Boston, Denver, the Lakers and Dallas could all offer compelling roles and winning situations on the smaller mid-level. He formerly played for the Nuggets before the Aaron Gordon trade in 2021. It wouldn’t be stunning to see him return to Denver as Will Barton’s future becomes a question ahead of his free agency next summer.
That leaves Jones and Anderson. A Jones suitor in New York disappeared with the Brunson report. The Grizzlies interestingly drafted David Roddy and Kennedy Chandler last week, two players who fill Anderson and Jones-like roles, respectively, while Memphis has some leeway under the tax to explore consolidating for a bigger star. That may have to wait, but a multi-year offer to either player at the MLE (3 yrs, $19M) could pry either player away from Memphis and fill a need at depth guard or depth forward. Jones averaged 8.7 PPG, 4.4 APG and 21.2 MPG as Ja Morant’s backup, keying the teams’ excellent record when Morant sat. Jones shot 45.1% from the field and 39% from three at 25-years-old, though is a shorter guard at 6’0″ than Boston would ideally like at that spot. They also don’t have many players to choose from who would position themselves behind Smart while helping some of the team’s ball control issues.
Anderson, 6’9″ and 29 next season, played under Ime Udoka in San Antonio from 2014-18 and averaged 7.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 2.7 APG on 44.6% shooting in his fourth season with Memphis. He’s not much of a three-point shooter (33% 3PT), but would help spell Brown and Tatum, and is definitely attainable at $6.3-million.
Warren is the hardest of these players to read by far, and not just because he hasn’t played since 2019-20 through multiple injuries. He had already emerged as a boom-or-bust scorer in Phoenix, before the team eventually just gave him away to the Pacers, who saw him go volcanic in the NBA Bubble. Warren averaged 31.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 2.0 APG with 1.3 SPG and 1.2 BPG on 57.8% FG and a scorching 52.4% 3PT across six games. His postseason performance, 20.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 3.0 APG on 47.1% shooting definitely showcased a more accurate depiction of the high-end of his production as a top option.
He’d have a more refined role in Boston, as a shorter-minute microwave option off the bench, with the size at 6’8″ to maintain the Celtics’ switching scheme. Do the Pacers simply pay up to keep him around? They don’t have tax concerns, and if so, cross him off the board. If not, a prove-it deal may lend him more opportunity elsewhere. A longer-term, winning role could lead him to Boston’s bench. I wouldn’t count on it though.
B – Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Derrick Jones Jr., Bobby Portis, Donte DiVincenzo, Nic Batum, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Javale McGee, Kevon Looney, Robin Lopez, Jalen Smith, Nic Claxton.
The champion’s free agents are most intriguing here, with fair deals for Porter Jr., Looney and Payton II poised to drive up Golden State’s tax bill by nearly $100-million. Could the Warriors start to integrate more of their youth like James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody into those roles? It wouldn’t be stunning to see them keep defensive stalwart Payton II on a slightly above market, long-term deal while letting Porter Jr. and Looney test the market. Both could fit the Celtics’ roster on the MLE, with Porter Jr. shooting 9-for-16 from three over Boston and allowing the Warriors to play small in ways the Celtics couldn’t. Porter would be slightly redundant with Grant, but that could provide some leverage as he approaches free agency next summer.
Porter, 6’8″ and 29 next season, averaged 8.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 1.1 SPG on 46.4% shooting and hit 37% from three. Looney exploded as a rebounding presence and low post scorer late in the season, averaging 6.0 PPG and 7.3 RPG on 57.1% shooting. There’s a chance Golden State would match a MLE offer on him to retain their ability to play bigger with a known commodity while continuing to assess Wiseman’s future with the team. Jake Fischer reported they may pay as high as $10-million annually for him, while noting Porter’s return is less likely.
Portis, Batum and DiVincenzo probably stay with their teams, though the Celtics have been linked to Batum as the Clippers’ roster grows more crowded. Any wings who provide some shooting and defense would help Boston, while Batum’s added playmaking pedigree would provide particular value here. Melo, more three and less D, would be the likelier candidate to leave sunny LA chasing a ring given the state of the Lakers, and would fit on a veteran minimum as an underrated target this offseason who would also share some valuable mentorship and pedigree for the team’s younger players. The Lakers could and probably should use their MLE to retain Monk.
“When you got a guy like Jayson, Jaylen, these guys who have a bright future and you start to look at longevity and consistency across the board, that’s appealing to other guys,” Udoka said. “Myself as a coach, having relationships around the league, I think that’s a benefit as well. Anytime you see guys on that stage and they’re doing what they’re doing at that young age, it starts to look like (a destination) for those guys. I know LaMarcus (Aldridge) had a big part of that coming to San Antonio based on Kawhi (Leonard)’s success and the success we had as an organization, then it trickled down to guys like David West, across the board, guys wanted to come play with other great players. So we saw the result of getting to two Finals in a row in San Antonio, our guys with their futures in front of them was appealing to other guys as well, so product on the floor, coaching in general, players always want to play with other greta players and that’s a benefit for us going forward.”
Any potential pursuit of McGee, Lopez, Smith or Claxton, who could become available if the Nets decide to move on with a cheaper Day’Ron Sharpe, would need to see Theis re-routed out of his pricey backup role on the Celtics first. That wouldn’t be impossible, but is it worth it for a mild upgrade? It’s an important role given Horford’s age and Williams III’s health, and one Theis may be able to fill effectively in the regular season. I’d assume Boston stands pat at center. Theis struggled enough to make it a legitimate MLE target this summer. Smith, who the Pacers effectively can’t re-sign since the Suns declined his team option before trading him, is an intriguing young stretch big who could develop behind the team’s array of big men and provide different combos.
C – Ricky Rubio, Jeremy Lamb, Delon Wright, Thomas Bryant, Patty Mills, Avery Bradley, Lonnie Walker IV, Victor Oladipo, Nemanja Bjelica, Wes Matthews
All the listed players above would fill veteran minimum spots and wouldn’t move the needle significantly on any of Boston’s needs. Ricky Rubio, in particular, is a popular name who tore his ACL in December last year and wouldn’t return until well into this season. That’d be a difficult piece to integrate on the fly, especially if the goal of bringing him in would be to impact the team’s playmaking.
Walker IV is an intriguing case. He’s still young enough to be interest at 24 this coming season, but the Spurs reported resignation toward losing him in restricted free agency should speak volumes. Most of their young players have taken steps under Gregg Popovich since Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Walker’s taken small, inefficient ones averaging 12.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG and 2.2 APG on 40.7% shooting. It’s worth noting Udoka coached Walker IV as a rookie.
Mills, also a Udoka connection, was a Celtics target last offseason before he signed with the Nets. After a scorching start to the season where he averaged 12.2 PPG on 47.8% shooting from deep through November, he slid to 39.2% from the field the rest of the way, though still providing 37% three-point shooting. He’d be well worth a minimum signing to compete with Pritchard for secondary guard minutes.
Oladipo is a fun idea given the defensive flashes he showed against the Celtics. His offense remains a far shell of itself compared to before his string of quad injuries though. A player who would’ve once headlined this class shot 30.6% from the field and 27.6% from three in the east finals against Boston. Bjelica and Matthews probably return to their own title-contending teams.
The trade exception…
We discussed the trade exceptions some here last week, the largest one at $17.1-million from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade that Stevens teased could go unused by the July 18 deadline. That could be Boston trying to regain some leverage against high trade costs, with five options now gone in Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, traded into Detroit’s cap space this week, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who the Wizards flipped today for Monte Morris and Will Barton.
The ship probably sailed on high-salary options Duncan Robinson and an unlikely Fournier return, reportedly technically possible until the league year turns over on July 1 and his salary increases. The Celtics don’t seem intent on expanding their team salary to that degree and both Fournier and Robinson share defensive concerns that don’t fit the identity Stevens and Udoka have both discussed. It’s fair to rule both out for now.
Dejounte Murray is the most intriguing available name by far, playing on a $16.6-million deal that increases to $17.7-million in 2024, when he’ll reach free agency. San Antonio reportedly discussed trading him to the Hawks for multiple first-round picks and expiring salary in Danilo Gallinari. The two sides discussed John Collins as well. The Celtics haven’t been discussed as a suitor, maybe due to Smart and White’s presence. Boston already owes San Antonio a 2028 pick swap option from the White deal. Could they offer three more first-rounders and absorb his full salary into the trade exception? Murray may not provide floor spacing, but seems to be the perfect facilitator and ball-handler the team could’ve used in the later stages of the playoffs. He averaged 21.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 9.2 APG and 2.0 SPG on 46.2% shooting as a first-time all star and runner-up for most improved player. Acquiring him without giving up any salary, though, would increase Boston’s tax bill to roughly $55-million.
Lauri Markkanen and Marcus Morris probably don’t fit, already play important roles on their current teams and make over $16-million each. Malik Beasley and Kevin Huerter would both provide far better value as consistent shooters and defenders at roughly $15-million per season, Beasley only guaranteed one more season while Huerter’s locked up through 2026. Both could be reasonably attainable as salary relief from their current teams, but may require some pick compensation for Minnesota and Atlanta, respectively, too.
Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart probably factor into their teams futures, though Kuzma is a $13-million expiring contract this year. He’d provide some immediate scoring punch off the bench, but wouldn’t be guaranteed to stick around. Kelly Oubre Jr. is a less certain fit, coming off a strong year with Charlotte needing some salary relief to retain Miles Bridges. It doesn’t look like they’ll easily offload Gordon Hayward. Oubre might make sense. Josh Richardson reunion, anyone? It’s a popular idea. He’d have to be ok with a return to the bench, especially considering he hits free agency next summer. Richardson averaged 11.4 PPG and shot 44.4% from three with San Antonio, continuing his hot start to the season with Boston.
Devonte’ Graham probably doesn’t bring enough defensively to warrant his three-year contract. Terrance Ross, another popular name, has long commanded a first-round pick for Orlando to move him. They seem comfortable keeping him around, and his streak bench scoring probably isn’t worth that price. Dillon Brooks’ would be more intriguing. Richaun Holmes has off-court concerns from last season. Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk are fun Isaiah Thomas-era return stories, with Crowder providing more immediate value as a 3-and-D spacer rather than a bench scorer. Both are probably too pricey, making over $10-million. Crowder’s deal is an expiring. Olynyk struggled in his return from surgery last year with Detroit.
Royce O’Neale and Mason Plumlee aren’t talked about as options, but make under $10-million each and could allow Boston to split the bigger TPE between multiple players. Plumlee, like with the free agent big men options, would probably require the Celtics find a new home for Theis. T.J. McConnell would be the cheapest option at $8.1-million, a cost-controlled, defensive, playmaking guard who makes a ton of sense and who the Pacers may no longer have use for. Those three would be excellent options for Boston without massively expanding the team’s salary base.
The Celtics also have two other TPEs that expire closer to the trade deadline.
Juancho Hernángomez TPE ($6.9M, exp. Jan. 19) – Jaxson Hayes, Khem Birch, Cam Payne, Justin Holiday, Cam Reddish, Rudy Gay
Dennis Schröder TPE ($5.9M, exp. Feb. 10) – P.J. Washington, Cam Johnson, Cory Joseph, Torrey Craig
Brown and Grant Williams enter this offseason extension-eligible until Oct. 17. Brown could technically sign a three-year, $119-million deal, which he’ll inevitably decline to become an unrestricted free agent in 2024 and make far more money. Grant would become a restricted free agent next summer if Boston and him can’t come to terms on a deal, with his value probably somewhere between $6-10 million annually. That’ll become much easier for the Celtics to sign on to once they figure out what Horford’s future will be in next postseason’s free agency. Boston rarely signed rookie scale extensions under Danny Ainge and overpaying to keep Williams now after a poor 2021 and hot 2022 wouldn’t be wise. They should wait and see what William can carry into 2023.