Following the Game 6 defeat, Isaiah Thomas met the media with tears in his eyes. He, just like the rest of this resilient group, took the postseason elimination to heart, and it was heartwarming to see the players care so much. Despite the adversity, it's important to give the Celtics a serious pat on the shoulder and remind them of the bright future ahead.
Players grew both individually and as a unit under the expert leadership of head coach Brad Stevens. Boston finished the regular season with a 48-34 record—an unexpected jump in an improved Eastern Conference. Many essential elements of a future title contender are already in place, and a couple of substantial additions could push the Celtics over the top next year.
Key players are tied down to cheap deals, and Boston general manager Danny Ainge will have a plethora of assets at his disposal this summer. The players did their part—now it's time for the front office to work its magic.
Keep Evan Turner
It's rare for players to reinvent themselves the way Evan Turner has. He went from putting up empty numbers for the Philadelphia 76ers, to an awkward fit with the Indiana Pacers, before finally settling in with Boston.
Turner finished fifth in the Sixth Man of the Year Award voting, and he has finally found his niche as a versatile wing off the bench. He still has a tendency to fall in love with his own offense, but those greedy moments are becoming infrequent.
He ran the point, scored in crunch time and played solid defense—all of which Stevens has been complimentary about.
"I can’t imagine anybody being more valuable off the bench than Evan," Stevens said, according to ESPN's Chris Forsberg. "He’s been extremely valuable. He guards three positions a night, sometimes four positions. Obviously we have him with the ball all the time. He’s just had a great year and really impacted us in the last two years."
Turner's lack of three-point range is rarely exposed when he handles the ball, and he can score and make plays in the pick-and-roll. His post game is another reliable weapon—one Boston conveniently utilized in late-game situations.
Both parties will have to be patient. Ainge will most likely chase bigger fish before addressing depth, which will give other teams an opening to snatch Turner. The price tag is also a concern, as he is in for a hefty raise on his $3.4 million salary during the impending cap boom.
The market might be hot for Turner, but he wants to stay if the money is right, according to Bleacher Report's Brian Robb. If he is fine with waiting and signing a reasonable $10 million-per-year contract, Boston should keep him.
Clear the Frontcourt
The Celtics addressed their frontcourt logjam with a midseason waiving of David Lee, but the big men still had to battle for every minute. As Stevens leans more on small-ball lineups with Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder at power forward, Tyler Zeller becomes essentially expendable.
Jordan Mickey, whom the Celtics like and would love to develop, and Kelly Olynyk are still under contract, but the future of almost every other big on the roster is up in the air.
Jared Sullinger, who is entering restricted free agency, saw his minutes drop to 13.5 per game in the playoffs, and his performances may have done enough damage to end his tenure with the team. Bobby Manning of Celtics Blog didn't have many kind words regarding Sullinger's postseason showing:
The drops weren't dramatic but they've deteriorated into such a putrid playoff 'performance' that he has stuck out like an infected thumb that needs to be amputated. Between both losses in Atlanta, he has floated on the perimeter, shown an unwillingness to battle with either Paul Millsap or Al Horford, and worst of all has been kept off the boards completely. The latter part is most concerning of all because it reflects a lack of effort more than a bad mismatch.
Boston shouldn't cut into its cap space to keep Sullinger, and Zeller is likely a goner, too. Amir Johnson has been an excellent contributor, but he was brought in as a placeholder, and it would be surprising if Ainge picked up his $12 million team option. Jerebko was excellent in the playoffs, and his $5 million contract for next season has to be exercised—the value is simply too great not to.
That would leave just four bigs on the roster (Crowder included). Boston could address the gap at center through free agency or simply find another placeholder if it helps land a star elsewhere. Either way, preserving cap room is the No. 1 priority, and Ainge might have to momentarily strip his frontcourt to join the race.
Even if everything fails and Boston desperately has to fill out the roster, there should be cheap options available.
Joakim Noah's market value is at an all-time low, but he would be an intriguing fit both as a defender and playmaker around the elbows. Marreese Speights has bounced back after a slow start with the Golden State Warriors, and he could provide some instant offense off the bench. Zaza Pachulia and Ian Mahinmi are competent, mid-tier bruisers.
Use the Draft to Acquire a Star
Since the Celtics own the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick, they'll have a 15.6 percent chance to land the No. 1 selection, and they'll pick within the top three unless another team moves up. With that in mind, nothing major should take place before the May 17 draft lottery provides some clarity.
If Boston has a chance to grab Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram, it should seriously consider keeping the pick and building around either player. The talent pool becomes a little cloudy lower down, which means there are several directions.
Dragan Bender is intriguing, but he would be a major work in progress. Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield and Kris Dunn should all be solid players, but the Celtics are already set with a backcourt trio of Thomas, Bradley and Marcus Smart.
Boston could also trade down and grab an energetic big like Domantas Sabonis, but he'd compete for minutes with Mickey, and development projects are counterintuitive for a team looking to win.
The most likely scenario, and one Boston is bound to explore if it can't land Simmons or Ingram, is shopping the Brooklyn pick. If a disgruntled star becomes available, the Celtics can pile their assets and concoct some truly enticing rebuilding packages.
Keep the Superstar Chase Rolling
Ainge will be aggressive in free agency, team sources told The Vertical, and yes, that means a run at Kevin Durant. The Celtics believe Durant will meet with them this summer, but they know that meeting won’t accomplish much unless there are significant moves leading into it. Durant will be 28 in September, and the former MVP isn’t interested in hearing what a team could someday become.
Boston is a compelling situation for Durant, but it's true that Ainge will have to bring in further reinforcements to truly grab the former MVP's attention. The Celtics could, in theory, clear enough cap space for two stars by renouncing their free agents or swinging a sign-and-trade.
The DeMarcus Cousins situation with the Sacramento Kings is a constant flood of speculation, while Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman didn't outright dismiss the possibility of moving Jimmy Butler, according to ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. If either team engages in trade talks, Boston has the right assets to construct a mutually beneficial deal.
A player of that caliber would catapult the Celtics to title contention in itself. If Durant was to also come along, Boston could have another dynasty in the making.
There are other options in free agency if the dream scenario doesn't pan out. A pseudo-star like the Hawks' Al Horford would be a spectacular fit in Stevens' system, while someone like the Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside could help the rebounding and rim-protection department. Regardless of who Ainge ends up signing, one thing is certain: He'll aim for the skies.
All salary statistics are courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.
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