Forsberg: How Brad Stevens can get the C’s back to the Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
When Brad Stevens was surprisingly elevated to president of basketball operations a year ago, he had a hulking to-do list. He plowed his way through it: Hiring a coach, trading a hobbled veteran with hopes of future flexibility, filling out a roster, and signing a pair of key extensions.
The season arrived and Stevens didn’t stop tinkering until he had crafted a championship-caliber roster around the homegrown core he inherited.
This summer, the to-do list is far shorter and yet the decisions that Stevens makes could play a monster role in whether the Celtics are back in the Finals next June, and just how long they stay a legitimate title contender.
The good news for Stevens is that he got his work done early and, if he desires, the core of this team is in place for the foreseeable future. His biggest challenge: Not overreacting with a team that was a little more than four minutes away from a 3-1 Finals lead while understanding the urgency to add talent given how daunting a beefed-up Eastern Conference will complicate simply getting back to that championship stage.
The end of Boston’s Finals run spotlighted the need for more bench talent. Celtics ownership must be willing to wade a fair amount into the luxury tax in order to give this team the talent necessary to make another spirited run at Banner 18.
The offseason starts, in earnest, with Thursday’s NBA Draft. It’s a quick turnaround to free agency and the actual start of the offseason.
That’s not a lot of downtime for a team that logged 110 games over the past nine months. But the sour taste of letting a title slip through their fingers ought to motivate everyone in the Celtics organization to do their part in getting the team over the last hurdle.
And it starts with Stevens.
Making draft night moves?
The Celtics will enter Thursday’s pick-a-palooza with only the No. 53 selection after dealing away their 2022 first-rounder in the trade that delivered Derrick White at the deadline. The likelihood that Boston finds anyone at that spot that might contribute to a championship-caliber team any time in the next three years seems minimal, so, if they stick at 53, take a flyer on an overseas stash or someone that might be willing to sign a two-way deal and call it a night.
The bigger question is whether there’s a move that might allow Boston to shuffle higher in the draft should there be a desirable talent, particularly early in the second round (though indications were, last year, the price was still a bit prohibitive in those spots). If you think there’s a Herb Jones or Ayo Dosunmu type still on the board in this year’s draft, players with more upside than you’ll find at No. 53 and whose skill sets are obvious matches for your desired style of play, maybe it’s worth a splurge, particularly if you trust your scouting.
With that in mind …
The second-year swingman can win you over in a hurry with his hustle and grit but the fact of the matter is he’s shooting 31.8 percent on 3-pointers through 1,243 regular-season minutes and, if the Celtics make a splashy move to add a wing talent this summer, his role is murky at best.
So before you even get to the point of pondering his fourth-year option, would it be worthwhile to explore if there’s an interested team with an early second-round pick who might be willing to take a swing on a player that’s still only 22 years old but needs more consistent time to develop? The Celtics would be selling low after using the 14th pick in 2020 on Nesmith but it might be beneficial for the team just in terms of potential savings going from Nesmith’s $3.8 million deal (with a $5.6 million option looming in 2023-24) to a non-guaranteed second-round salary.
The big offseason swing(s)
We’re operating with the idea that Boston will bring back the core of its team in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Al Horford, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, and White. That’s a hefty $136 million commitment for what’s basically just the front half of your 17-man roster. With Nesmith and Daniel Theis ($8.7 million next season) also on the books, the Celtics are just about at the tax line before filling out their bench.
The Celtics will have two primary means of adding talent this offseason: The taxpayer midlevel exception ($6.4 million) and a bevy of trade exceptions headlined by a $17.1 million TPE created by dealing away Evan Fournier last summer (Boston has until July 18 to use that exception).
Go sort contracts by size HERE and dream. The Celtics can offer salary cap relief and future draft assets in the quest for anyone below that $17.1 million number. You call Toronto about O.G. Anunoby, maybe you phone the Clippers just to make sure they’re committed long-term to Norman Powell, maybe you phone Portland after they took on Joe Ingles. Duncan Robinson fits in the exception but Miami might need his salary for any grander trades that Pat Riley might be dreaming about.
The name that ought to come up most often: Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter. Like White, he’s under contract deep into the future and his combination of size and shooting would complement this core well, while filling two of Boston’s biggest areas of need. He’d be one of the team’s weakest defenders but he’s more serviceable on that end than, say, a Robinson type.
Keep in mind that the contracts of Theis and Nesmith leave open some possibilities of deals that don’t involve just taking on a huge chunk of salary but would likely come with a greater draft asset cost.
One other thing to note here: If the Celtics were willing to move Al Horford’s final-year salary, it opens the door to a much larger offseason splurge (and brings into play names like Bradley Beal). That said, Horford likely cemented his spot here with his play this past season, the Celtics still need his veteran presence, and the cost to splurge on a Beal type will be far more prohibitive than adding a lower-tier salary with the Fournier TPE.
The Jaylen Brown extension
We won’t spend much time here because it seems so unlikely. Brown is eligible for another extension on October 1. After taking a decent discount on a four-year extension in 2019, it seems unlikely that Brown would leave money on the table because Boston can only offer a 120 percent increase on his final year salary at this point. A much more lucrative payday awaits after the 2023-24 season and Boston can still pay him max money at that point. The Celtics should offer the extension and not be offended when he doesn’t take it.
The Grant Williams extension
Much like Williams III last summer, Williams — the lone remaining player from that 2019 draft class — is extension eligible this summer. After his exploits in helping to wear down Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo during the early rounds of Boston’s playoff run, Williams seemed to be positioning himself for a nice payday. His role and consistency eroded a bit in the final two rounds.
If the Celtics believe Williams is part of the road map to filling Horford’s role after his departure — or even just a high-level bench player with this core — then it might be worthwhile to engage with the target being a deal in the neighborhood of Williams III’s pact last year (though Williams will likely push to make a bit more, if only for not having the injury history early in his career). The Celtics can always push this decision further down the road if the sides are too far apart this summer.
Filling out the bench
The Celtics can trigger Sam Hauser’s second-year option at a minimum salary after elevating him to the parent roster last season. He could be part of the equation in adding bench shooting. Boston can also consider bringing aboard overseas stashes in Yam Madar and Juhann Begarin. The question becomes, if the Celtics are going to add a backup ball-handler this offseason then does it make sense to pluck Madar when he’d be behind Smart, White, Pritchard, and any offseason addition on the ball-handling depth chart?
Last we saw Begarin, he was extremely raw but had the frame and athleticism to someday be a two-way wing. The same question lingers: Would he benefit more from another season overseas with heightened reps as opposed to being a depth option who bounces to Maine while eating up a year of his first NBA contract.
The better news for Boston is that it should be easier able to attract ring-chasing veterans who might take a minimum salary to be a depth option. The balance there is simply making sure it’s players that don’t need minutes when Udoka is committed to leaning heaviest on his core (though bodies that can drive down minute totals for Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Co. seem important after the way Boston limped to the finish line in the Finals).
Boston’s biggest need can be distilled down to this: More talent. Even if you’re bullish that White, Williams, and Pritchard will be better next year, their Finals struggles amplify the need for at least one more impact player to take stress off the core of this team.
There will be those that scream that the Celtics must consider trading Smart and finding a pass-first point guard. This ignores the fact that Smart spent the second half of the year quarterbacking the NBA’s best offense. The Celtics could certainly benefit from a high-level playmaker off the bench who can steady the offense, but he needs to be versatile enough to impact the game in other ways when sharing the floor with White and Pritchard.
Boston might need to be most aggressive in determining what happens next at the 4 spot. Horford was a revelation at age 35 but the team can’t count on that production over the course of another long season. Horford does so many little things that it’s hard to find a younger replacement to target but that player must be able to hold down the back line and let Williams III roam and maximize defensive efficiency.
The Celtics could benefit from some additional size on the wing. There just wasn’t anyone who could consistently take that baton from the Jays in the postseason, adding to their workload, particularly when the rest of Boston’s bench struggled.
Ultimately, the coach and the core is set. It’s time for Stevens to continue working on the fringes. His in-season moves last year helped push the Celtics to the championship stage. What he does this summer could be key in getting over the final hump to Banner 18.