Once Kyrie Irving joined Gordon Hayward on the season-ending injury list, the Boston Celtics were playing with house money.
They nearly turned it into a jackpot prize.
Light on experience but heavy on expert coaching, budding talent and swagger, the Shamrocks survived a seven-game tussle with the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round and then dispatched the upstart Philadelphia 76ers in five games the next round.
But they couldn't get past the roadblock that is LeBron James. No Eastern Conference club has for nearly a decade. Boston's wild ride officially ended with an 87-79 Game 7 loss Sunday to James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While falling one win shy of the championship round carries an undeniable sting, Boston can ride a wave of positivity into the summer after a 55-win campaign.
Irving performed like the franchise leader he thought he could be once he stepped out of LeBron James' shadow. Jayson Tatum hit the ground running and sprinted his way onto a stacked All-Rookie first-team roster. Jaylen Brown took substantial steps forward at both ends. Al Horford continued quietly holding things together as an All-Star glue guy.
Oh, and the Celtics are again poised to make a summer splash like an over-caffeinated kid at a water park.
While there isn't much wiggle room on the financial front, general manager Danny Ainge and Co. still have the asset collection to orchestrate a blockbuster—should the right target become available.
Setting the Stage
Putting the trade possibility on the back burner for a bit, the Celtics have done most of their heavy lifting (and spending) already. An overdue clean bill of health would help them see the real returns on their investments.
Hayward, Horford and Irving will collect a combined $80.2 million next season. Tatum, Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Guerschon Yabusele also hold guaranteed contracts totaling another $22.9 million.
That already pushes Boston past the projected $101 million cap, but it keeps the club shy of the projected $123 million luxury tax. Of course, it also doesn't account for nearly half the roster that's potentially headed to free agency.
Greg Monroe, Aron Baynes and Shane Larkin are already bound for the unrestricted market. Marcus Smart, though, will be restricted—and may be pricey. Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader, Daniel Theis and Jonathan Gibson have partial or non-guaranteed salaries. Kadeem Allen and Jabari Bird were playing on two-way pacts.
The Celtics have only their first-rounder in this draft (27th). They had a slight chance of adding another at the draft lottery, but pick protections kept it from conveying. That said, they're owed three first-round picks in 2019, although different protections will likely require extra time for one or two of them to change hands.
Still, Ainge has a number of picks and prospects to put in play if there's a superstar to be had.
Priority No. 1: Marcus Smart's Free Agency
Nothing about Smart's career averages—9.4 points on .360/.293/.756 shooting, 3.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals—would indicate he's approaching a major pay raise. Watching how he operates on the defensive end, though, almost guarantees it's coming.
While he's only 6'4", he's a sturdy 220 pounds and plays bigger than his size thanks to a hawkish 6'9¼" wingspan. He's quick, strong, athletic and relentless—ideally versatile in a league that keeps blurring the lines between positional designations.
"Smart is an omni-defender who can match up with all five positions," Matt Moore wrote for CBS Sports, "a bull in a china shop. … In some ways, he's like a poor man's Draymond Green."
Green has substantial edges in size and distributing but fits the same framework of a do-it-all defender with a shaky jumper. He'll make $36 million over the next two seasons, and it's regarded as a team-friendly amount.
Smart won't get the same in a limited, stingy market, but he'll have suitors. Multiple teams inquired about him at the deadline, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler.
The Celtics won't let him go for cheap. They were 4.7 points better per 100 possessions and more efficient on both ends when he played this season.
But with limited funds available and multiple motivations for maintaining some flexibility (Irving's next contract, potential superstar trade), Smart's price point could determine Boston's decision.
Priority No. 2: Testing the Big-Ticket Trade Market
In a superstar-driven league, why isn't pursuing a superstar this franchise's first priority? Because the Celtics don't need to make a move—they won 55 games with Hayward playing all of five minutes—and the ones they'd prefer might not be possible.
Anthony Davis has his best supporting cast to date, plus a playoff series win (a sweep, no less) now under his belt. He could be a flight risk at some point, but the New Orleans Pelicans have him under contract for at least the next two seasons.
Kawhi Leonard's future with the San Antonio Spurs is harder to decipher.
He suited up just nine times this season while battling a nagging quadriceps injury. He rehabbed away from the team, and inquires into his status were met with the cold instruction from Spurs skipper Gregg Popovich to ask "his group," per USA Today's Sam Amick. There's reportedly a worry within the Alamo City that his group is trying to steer him to a major market, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright.
There's also word of the franchise's interest in trying to repair the relationship with a five-year supermax contract extension, per the San Antonio Express-News' Tom Orsborn. That has always seemed the smartest move to make, because a healthy Leonard is worth the investment, and he should fetch more in a possible trade if his future is secure.
The trade market can shift at any time.
The 59-win Toronto Raptors plan to "explore all options," league sources told Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun. ESPN's Brian Windhorst opined All-NBA third-teamer Karl-Anthony Towns could reach the rumor mill at some point.
It's impossible to tell which of these players are available and would appeal to the Celtics. The key is for Ainge and his staff to keep close enough tabs on the market that if the right opportunity arises, they're ready to pounce. They have the trade chips to afford the most exorbitant price tags, so if they do green-light a talent grab, it could be the type of transaction that resonates across the Association.
While Boston's early draft decisions have garnered the most attention in recent years—getting Brown and Tatum with consecutive No. 3 picks—this front office also has a habit of unearthing value further down the board. Semi Ojeleye, last summer's 37th selection, held a rotation spot in most playoff games.
Because this looks like another deep class, the Celtics should have a chance to land a contributor at No. 27.
"Melton looked to be on the verge of a breakout season for USC before the FBI's investigation into recruiting shut him down indefinitely," ESPN's Jonathan Givony wrote. "His defensive versatility, toughness and intangibles make him a prospect worth investing in."
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor sees shades of Marcus Smart in Melton, meaning the latter could be a cheap replacement option should the former prove too costly.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman linked three other names to Boston.
The first is Missouri big man Jontay Porter, whose per-40-minute marks included the modern mix of 3.7 assists, 2.7 blocks and 2.0 threes. The others are Duke guards Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen. Trent made 2.6 threes per game at a 40.2 percent clip, while Allen, who averaged 21.6 points as a sophomore, posted personal bests as a senior in assists (4.6), steals (1.7) and defensive win shares (2.0).
Unless the Celtics go the superstar-trade route examined above, this feels like mostly an in-house shopping kind of summer. It's not only that their pieces fit so well together, but there are also budgetary concerns to keep in mind.
"The Celtics will have both the $8.6 million midlevel and $3.4 million bi-annual exceptions, but potentially creeping into the luxury tax could restrict how much they use them," ESPN's Bobby Marks wrote. "Keep an eye on the finances for 2019. Boston will have Irving and Rozier up for new contracts next summer (if they don't sign extensions in 2018), with Brown becoming extension eligible, as well."
It's possible Smart is Boston's biggest-ticketed item. It's hard to imagine a cash-conscious market going berserk for a non-shooting guard, but his defensive versatility will net him a fair deal.
If the Celtics have an exception to spend, they might look fill the second-team shot-creator void they tried addressing at the deadline. Tyreke Evans was a target then, per HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy, and still makes sense at the right price. Will Barton should be another option, perhaps slightly cheaper since he's never had the eye-popping scoring numbers Evans has managed in a couple of campaigns.
Aron Baynes might be worth keeping. No matter how many times he's on the wrong end of a posterization, he'll fearlessly man the middle. The playoff emergence of a corner three ball also adds some intrigue to the burly big man.
Boston, though, could opt for someone more athletic—and, perhaps, finally up to the task of boxing out Tristan Thompson. If the Celtics would be willing to sacrifice spacing, Ed Davis might warrant consideration. And who knows, maybe Brad Stevens is the mastermind who could solve the riddle that is Nerlens Noel.
These aren't splashy signings, but Boston has already inked enough fortune-reversing deals. Unless it trades for a top talent, this summer should supplement what already looks like a contending-caliber core.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.