With losses piling up and the Boston Celtics in a heated race to stay below the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz in the lottery standings, this franchise better have some big free-agency plans.
The 2014 NBA draft started out as this big, outrageously talented group with unlimited potential. Since then, it has been periodically knocked down bit by bit. Now, according to Yahoo!'s Marc Spears' source, Kansas center Joel Embiid is the only potential franchise player in the draft.
To top that off, Embiid is now injured at the most crucial time for a collegiate prospect to prove himself. The chances that Boston has a shot at him are pretty slim as it is. If the answer to Boston's current struggles isn't in this upcoming draft, the franchise will have to locate it in free agency.
Looking into Embiid is key for the Celtics for more reasons then that scout's prediction, or any variety of mock-draft sites ranking him No. 1. He would fill Boston's most glaring hole at the center position.
As it currently stands, the Celtics don't actually play a center. Brad Stevens has been forced to make up a frontcourt with a variety of undersized power forwards. Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Bass have been mixed and matched in the paint, none with the requisite skill set or God-given physical traits to be a successful NBA center.
As a result, at least in partial responsibility, Boston is 22-46 and has lost 12 of its last 15 games.
In a recent podcast with ESPN's Bill Simmons, two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash made note of something the Celtics must address. Nash was speaking about his years with the Phoenix Suns, when the team continually came up just short of a chance to win the NBA title. Mostly, Nash saw them as missing one crucial piece.
We didn't have a defensive center. Ultimately, it is smoke and mirrors without that guy down there that is going to up the percentages for you. ... Other than Miami, everyone has had a rim protector for a long time.
Seven of the eight current Western Conference playoff teams have a strong interior presence on at least one end of the floor playing the center position. The Dallas Mavericks even have Samuel Dalembert.
In the Eastern Conference, things are a bit weaker, but still, you look at the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Charlotte Bobcats with strong bigs. The Washington Wizards are better with a healthy Nene to pair with Marcin Gortat.
The Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks have injuries, but Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez and Al Horford are on the rosters. Even the Toronto Raptors have a promising center in Jonas Valanciunas, and the Miami Heat can protect the rim when needed.
Nash's Suns teams weren't playing anyone with those skills inside. They made due with a fast offense featuring Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in the frontcourt. Nash also said:
You should have a defensive system. When you don't have that guy down there to anchor the system, you get the yips and you start 'okay, let's change it up.' I think, ultimately, you are always trying to adjust and adapt because you know you aren't equipped.
Obviously, that team had better players all-around than the Celtics do and were on the doorstep of making the finals, while Boston is 24 games under .500. However, the same principles should prevail.
The Celtics have at least average players at the other four spots on the floor. A full season with a starting five of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and a legitimate, quality center, is likely a 40-win team.
Depending on what is done to accentuate or improve that unit and their backups, Boston's rebuild could be short-lived. They have to take Nash's words to heart though, and if that center isn't coming in the draft, (center crop very slim beyond Embiid) 2014 free agency will be crucial.
The first thing to understand is Boston's finances. Be careful not to jump the gun in assuming Boston will have all this cap room to go and sign a bunch of guys. Yes, they are on the verge of shedding a sizable amount of money with expiring contracts, but some of that capital is already spoken for.
Humphries will alleviate $12 million himself, while Keith Bogans should net about $5 million. Then there are smaller chips like Jerryd Bayless' $3.1 million and Phil Pressey/Chris Johnson at a roughly combined $810,000.
The first domino to keep in mind is that 2014 draft. Boston is expected to take its two first-round picks, both of which will be making first-round money. The lottery pick they are taking could be top five. Last year's No. 5 pick, Alex Len, made $3.49 million this season, and the price goes up from there in terms of picks No. 1-4.
Next thing to remember is Bradley's situation. As a restricted free agent, the Celtics will have the opportunity to match any offer that comes his way. While his recent struggles with another injury should hamper his market, this is still a dangerous situation and Boston must be careful with how they tread. If he signs the extension offered to him months ago, that is another $6 million or so off the table.
Bradley has had a good season and proven himself a capable shooting guard offensively, and obviously, defensively as well. However, all those skills are only valuable when the player is healthy. Bradley has played in 49 of a possible 66 games this season. Last year, it was 50 of a possible 82, and the year before that, he got hurt just as the playoffs were heating up, and the Celtics needed a defender against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Those absences have added up, and unless this most recent break was just the Celtics being extra cautious and aware of the lottery situation, Bradley doesn't look great to the teams on the market or his own franchise for that matter.
In recent years, the New York Knicks were attempted victims of a "poison pill" offer for Landry Fields and Jeremy Lin. The Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets wound up taking the hit for them when the Knicks chose not to match. The Rockets did the same thing in acquiring Omer Asik, who was a free agent with the Chicago Bulls.
With Bradley's injuries and still somewhat limited offensive game, (1.4 assists to 1.5 turnovers, mired in a shooting slump pre-injury) his market may simply be too small to warrant that type of attention. In which case, the Celtics should have little trouble bringing him back.
Quickly, though, Boston has hypothetically cut into their free agency piggy bank with a glaring need still at center. If they shed everything but the guaranteed contracts and Joel Anthony picks up his $3.8 million player option, Boston holds roughly a $48.5 payroll.
Adding in $6 million for Bradley, plus $5 million for both first-round picks puts the Celtics already over this season's salary cap of $58.679 million.
In terms of unrestricted free agents this summer at the center position, there isn't a ton to speak of. However, there are some names Boston has to take a look at.
Gortat will be a free agent with no holds this summer. Though he turned 30 this winter, he has had a good year for playoff-bound Washington.
Others like Spencer Hawes and Chris Kaman are available, but not quite the prototype Nash was speaking of and the Celtics should be looking for.
Instead, Boston may have to look at restricted guys, which runs the risk of being pricey. We've already touched on the financials, but Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck seems to be interested in a big summer and willing to spend to get it.
Grousbeck told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn (subscription required):
I’ve got confidence that with all these picks and these young guys and our willingness to spend money that we can get there. We’re a patient group. We will take a multiyear plan if that’s what it takes. But I think this June there could be some fireworks.
So, if the Celtics are willing to spend with what cap room they might create, there are names like Anderson Varejao, Zach Randolph and Greg Monroe on the list of restricted free agents. Those are higher quality players, who may not necessarily fit the rim-protector mold, but would still help the Celtics immensely.
Because Boston is hypothetically already over the salary cap before signing one of these bigger names, Danny Ainge will have to get creative and make a trade or two that lightens the team's financial burden. Ridding the franchise of money owed to increasingly dead weight like Gerald Wallace, Vitor Faverani or Anthony would be a win.
He also shouldn't shy away from dealing Brandon Bass or Jeff Green if the return is right, and he can fill those holes in the draft easier than filling the center void.
It will all come back to that void in the middle eventually, though. The Celtics have a gaping hole at the rim and instead of filling it with a green jersey, it is being filled night in and night out by opposing slashers.
It is never too early to think about clogging that up.