30 Teams in 30 Days: Boston Celtics Offseason Preview

Everything Danny Ainge touches turns to gold. Everything he lets go turns to sh…well, not quite as good as gold. Ainge is on fire over the last year, trading down two spots to pick up another lottery pick in 2019 and still get the best player (among the top prospects) in the 2017 draft, nabbing Gordon Hayward in free agency, trading for Kyrie Irving, and then watching both of those guys go down and still seeing his team make the conference finals behind the stellar play of Al Horford and Jayson Tatum. It’s an embarrassment of riches in Boston, where the Celtics look to be one of the best teams in the league for the foreseeable future.

There won’t be any massive free agency acquisitions this summer—the Celtics are all spent up to the cap before July starts and will be filling in the gaps on their roster to contend for a championship next season. The top of their roster is set: Irving, Hayward, Tatum, Horford and Jaylen Brown are penciled in as starters. This summer is about figuring out the right pieces around those guys to bring home another trophy for their cabinet—where does Marcus Smart fit in all this? Will Aron Baynes be back after a stellar year? Where do some of the other youngsters fit in the Celtics’ future?

Boston’s offseason begins with Smart, who completed his rookie contract this past season and will be a restricted free agent in July. He has a clear role in the squad as a utility player who can step in for pretty much anybody in the starting lineup and do a job, a valuable trait as the NBA continues to come more versatile. He’s a good playmaker in pick-and-roll and can take over primary ball handling responsibilities against bench units, masking his inability to shoot from outside with intelligent drives to the basket and quick post-ups against smaller players. Smart’s shot selection sometimes leaves something to be desired given his poor three-point shooting, but that may be the only hole in his game on either end of the floor. Smart is a monster defensively and is truly able to guard 1-5 with tenacious effort, jumping passing lanes for turnovers, and knifing in for key defensive rebounds when needed. Boston has been consistently better on defense whenever he’s been in the game over his four-year career and unlike some players who have good on-off defensive numbers, there’s no doubt that Smart’s play is a huge part of his team’s success on that end of the floor.

Ownership has stated that they’re willing to spend into the tax for this team, which they’ll likely need to do to retain Smart and fill in the other holes on the roster. Despite his bench role on this particular team, he’s a starter-level player on almost any other team in the league and will be paid as such this summer. Whether through an agreement with the Celtics or an offer sheet they’ll have the opportunity to match, Smart will get his money, likely to the tune of $50-60 million over the next four years. Boston will begin July about $14 million from the luxury tax threshold after bringing in their first-round draft pick, most of which will be eaten up by Smart’s new deal.

Both pure centers on the Celtics’ roster from 2017-18 will be free agents this summer. Baynes and Greg Monroe both signed one-year deals with Boston (Monroe was brought in later in the season) and will be Non-Bird free agents this summer, limiting what the Celtics can offer them under the Non-Bird Exception. Monroe likely won’t be back—he doesn’t fit the defense-first ethos that permeates the organization and won’t be necessary as a depth piece with the players they have returning. Baynes, on the other hand, was a revelation for Boston after bouncing around from San Antonio to Detroit earlier in his career. He really put it together defensively in his last year in Detroit in 2016-17 and it absolutely rolled over to the next season; the Celtics were one of the best defenses in the league when he was on the floor and finished in the top spot overall. However, given the large supply and relatively low demand for centers in this year’s free agency market, it’s possible the Celtics could use the Non-Bird Exception to bring Baynes back. His contract would start at about $5.2 million in that instance and would leave their entire Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($5.3 million) to be used on another player. If Baynes has other offers, it may be tough for the Celtics to keep him, but there are plenty of other players on the market who can play his role at a high level. Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon (if he opts out of his $7.2 million for next season) could be a mid-level candidate and former 76ers and Mavericks center Nerlens Noel can probably be had for very, very cheap considering the concerns about his game from two other organizations. Jerami Grant could play a hybrid 4-5 role and give them some more athleticism at the big man positions and Ed Davis would be worth a look if Portland decides not to bring him back and his market dries up elsewhere.

The Celtics have two extension candidates this summer (not counting Irving, for whom it makes no sense to sign an extension): Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. Rozier is coming up on the final year of his rookie-scale contract and a stellar playoff run in Irving’s absence, but valuing him this summer before the team is sure of Irving’s long-term plans will prove difficult. After his playoff success, Rozier has to be thinking of himself as a starter-level player deserving of the type of money that comes with that job, but like Smart, the Celtics will not have a starting job available to him as long as Irving is in the fold. Irving will be able to opt out and either re-sign with the Celtics or move to another team next summer, which coincides with Rozier’s restricted free agency; it may be best for both sides to wait until 2019 to figure out exactly where Rozier fits in the future of their team.

Morris, on the other hand, has a more defined role as a backup combo forward who can come in to put up points off the bench and compete defensively. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Celtics do have some ammunition to extend Morris. They can offer him up to four additional years and $43.4 million, though it shouldn’t take that much to retain him. Morris was underpaid on his last deal, however, so he may be looking to make it up on his next one, making him less amicable about a lower-value extension. Working on Boston’s favor with regards to a Morris extension is the threat of Semi Ojeleye, who had a poor rookie year statistically but remains a strong prospect defensively. A below-average three-point shooter, Ojeleye will have to be able to hit the corner three to be a viable rotation piece for a team that’s already deep at his position.

There may not be a better long-term situation in the league than Boston, who has a relatively clean cap sheet, three superstar players already on the roster, and a host of young talent and future assets to sustain their success for the next decade. Ainge has done a masterful job rebuilding this team after their 2008 title team was broken up and the sky’s the limit for a Celtics team that should be the favorites in the Eastern Conference for 2018-19 and beyond.