Freedom to operate without limitations is rare during an offseason, but the Boston Celtics are headed to the free-agency spectacle with as few as any team.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is equipped with eight draft picks (including three first-rounders), as well as sufficient cap space to sign multiple max contracts. He'll likely look to move some of those selections for proven players, especially if a star becomes available.
Still, the trade market is unpredictable, while the availability of free agents is written in stone. Ainge will be able to pursue any player he pleases, and he can already circle in some names.
The Celtics are set in the backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley filling most of the minutes, and even more so if Evan Turner returns. But there are plenty of gaps to fill in the frontcourt, which should be the primary focus.
Hassan Whiteside's 2014-15 outbreak was still a legitimate concern going into this year. Was it a fluke? He only played 48 games after not accomplishing much in his first two seasons.
There is no doubt anymore.
He put up 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game in 2015-16, firmly establishing himself as one of the NBA's best rim protectors.
The early-season noise about the Miami Heat being statistically better defensively with Whiteside on the bench died down. The team surrendered 1.6 more points per 100 possessions with the 7-footer playing before the All-Star break but 3.1 fewer after that, according to NBA.com.
Whiteside was recognized for his efforts, finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting and earning NBA All-Defense second team honors. He is a behemoth down low who swats everything in sight, and his presence alone makes opponents jittery when attacking the rim.
Even more intriguing, Whiteside turns 27 this summer, which fits perfectly in Boston's time frame. With everyone entering their prime simultaneously, there would be a multiyear window to contend.
There are a couple of concerns, one of which ESPN.com's Zach Lowe pointed out in February:
All the overblown hubbub over Whiteside's alleged defensive limitations has masked one of the real and irritating weaknesses in his game: The dude never passes. He has 21 career assists, and just 15 this season. Do you know how hard it is to record so few dimes? Friendly hometown scorers dole out that many fake assists to some guys over a normal month or two.
As Lowe also suggests, Whiteside's game isn't predicated on moving the ball. He rolls to the rim with momentum, throws down lob passes and rightfully aims to score when he receives low-post touches.
However, Boston head coach Brad Stevens has crafted an offensive system that requires swift ball movement, and it doesn't excuse big men from their passing duties. There are times when Whiteside faces a wall in the paint, even with four shooters around him, and he has to be able to find the snipers on the perimeter.
The Celtics would have to play at a slightly slower pace in order to incorporate Whiteside into the offense, but he would still need to become a more willing passer to get the most out of his pick-and-rolls.
Whiteside's true value would still be on the defensive end and on the glass. Boston ranked 20th in rebounding differential this season, and that's certainly a department in which he would help. The Celtics defense thrived on quick rotations, but there were matchups which required Amir Johnson to be on the court. Whiteside would be an immense upgrade for those occasions.
If Whiteside doesn't land in Boston's lap, Festus Ezeli would certainly be worth consideration for the starting center job.
The Golden State Warriors will have to count every penny to keep Harrison Barnes this summer. That, along with the fact Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green can cover most of the minutes at center, should make Ezeli expendable.
Ezeli showed a capability to be a legitimate starter during Bogut's brief early-season absence, and he fits Boston's needs. He is an explosive rim protector, has improved his hands and made progress as an on-the-move passer. He plays with tremendous energy, beating guards down the court in transition with regularity—a welcomed element in the Celtics' up-tempo system.
Ezeli's adjusted numbers show promise, as he averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Whether he could keep such a pace with extended playing time is unclear, but the Celtics wouldn't need him to crack 30 minutes with plenty small-ball options available.
The caveat is his spotty injury history.
He hasn't made more than 46 regular-season appearances since his rookie campaign in 2012-13. He missed all of 2013-14 following surgery on his right knee, sprained his ankle the following year and underwent another procedure, this time on the left knee, last February. He appears to be a slow healer considering the long layoffs, which is worrying.
Ezeli is a worthy gamble at the right price, but only if the aforementioned bigs aren't available. Another injury scare this season might have depleted some of his market value, which was sky-high following a hot start. A deal starting in the vicinity of $15 million per year would seem like a reasonable price.
Joakim Noah is a name that should be on Ainge's radar. The 31-year-old center is coming off an injury-plagued campaign, appearing in just 29 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are reportedly targeting the former Defensive Player of the Year, with head coach Tom Thibodeau interested in a reunion, according to Sporting News' Mitch Lawrence. However, the Wolves are likely a year or two away from being legitimate title contenders, while the Celtics are ready to compete now.
Noah's injury is a concern, but he is still just two years removed from finishing fourth in MVP voting. He plays with relentless energy, is a terrific leader and a great rim protector when healthy. He's one of the best passing centers in the league, which would add an intriguing element to Boston's offense.
If the Celtics land another starting center in Whiteside or Ezeli, Noah would be a terrific backup. If they don't, he's still a serviceable starter. It's worth noting that he and Al Horford were college teammates, and a reunion in Boston's frontcourt wouldn't be a bad idea.
Horford might not be regarded as a superstar, but he is still one of the best players in this summer's crop of free agents.
Horford's age is slightly concerning. He just turned 30, and every team should feel a little jittery when handing out a player's last big contract. Still, he's missed just six regular-season games in the last two years, and his reliance on finesse over athleticism should help in the longevity department.
The Celtics were reportedly flirting with the idea of a Horford rental, had the Atlanta Hawks made him available at the trade deadline, according to A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com. The interest appears to be there, and it's warranted.
Horford has a modern big's coveted tools—a potent post game, silky jumper, expert court vision and fast feet on defense. Having a dose of everything makes him a rare specimen and an excellent fit in Stevens' system. Lowe touched on Horford's versatility for Grantland in 2015:
Horford has blended in beautifully. Malleability might be Horford’s best NBA skill. It’s harder to construct rosters around stars who are great at some things and bad at others. A post-up big man who can’t play defense needs certain types of players around him. A pick-and-roll dunker with no shooting range can function only amid pristine spacing. Horford can grow in any environment.
He would likely spend plenty of time at center with small-ball lineups, forming lethal offensive groups with five shooters. He extended his range to the three-point line last season, connecting on 34.4 percent of his long-range attempts.
Horford might not be the elusive rim protector the Celtics miss, but his two-way versatility would improve the team immensely.
All statistics are accurate as of June 8.