Things change on a near-daily basis for the Boston Celtics as they finish up a tumultuous 2018-19 league year and look to be moving forward without their two best players from last year’s team. At some point, it will be worth doing a deep retrospective on how the Celtics got to this point, but as the team looks forward to July, the prevailing thought throughout the league is that they’ll be able to replace the outgoing Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker and will have limited financial flexibility to replace Al Horford, who opted out of his contract and then came to an impasse in negotiations with the Celtics and is now looking elsewhere.
There’s no telling what tomorrow may bring; Horford could be back in the fold by the time this preview is an hour old and it would surprise exactly nobody. Boston has been immensely consistent in their frustrating inconsistency, both on and off the court, over the last year or so – everything was great last summer, Irving was ready to commit to a long-term future with the Celtics, then the entire world fell apart in a season from hell. Now, Irving is on his way out the door, Horford is right behind him, and the team is pivoting toward other targets in free agency.
Until they’re fully able to agree to terms with Walker, the Celtics are projected to have $24.9 million in cap space this summer, including cap holds for Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis, their two best restricted free agents. Pulling the qualifying offer for Rozier and letting him go into unrestricted free agency will open up the remainder of the space needed for Walker; doing so would push them up to $33.2 million in space, enough to sign the former Hornets point guard to a four-year deal worth north of $140 million. With that deal all but complete, at least by the current reporting on the subject, Boston can use the remainder of their money to try to find a starting-level center, though doing so will require them to stretch their dollar about as far as possible.
Signing Walker to his full max will essentially leave them with no cap space; they’ll be down to minimums, the Room Exception for $4.8 million, and the RFA match rights on Theis for future spending. Getting to max-level space will also require them to lose Marcus Morris from last year’s team, who played a significant role as a forward who could defend the 3 and 4 and knock down shots. Adding at least three of their four draft picks to the regular season rotation will help them replace the depth they’ve lost, but they’re still in dire need of a starting center after Horford’s exit and the trade with Phoenix on draft night that moved Aron Baynes to the Suns.
As of now, the three centers on the roster are Theis, assuming they come to an agreement with him or match any offer sheet he receives in free agency, Guerschon Yabusele, and Robert Williams. Between the three of them, they have maybe half of a backup center, depending on how much Theis can really give them on a night-to-night basis. Fortunately for them, the replacement level at center is higher than any other position, so they’ll be able to find a decent option to fill out their starting lineup using their Room Exception, particularly if they’re willing to extend that to a second year with a player option, a contract that would total $9.76 million if the player picked up the second-year option.
Ed Davis signed for the Room Exception last year in Brooklyn, but may be looking for more money this year after a strong season with the Nets. Frank Kaminsky could provide the Celtics with some depth and outside shooting, though his star has fallen so far that he may be available on the minimum after Charlotte decided against tendering him this qualifying offer. Nerlens Noel opted out of the second year of a minimum deal he signed in Oklahoma City last year and will be on the market. Thomas Bryant broke out as the Wizards’ starting center, though a Room Exception deal for him may be too easily matched by Washington. Khem Birch and Enes Kanter could be reserve options for the Celtics as well.
Perhaps the best fit among players realistically available to them is Kevon Looney, particularly if the Warriors are in luxury tax hell after re-signing Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Would Golden State be willing to match a $4.8 million offer for Looney if they knew it could cost them another $20 million in luxury tax penalties? After his strong playoff performance, Looney should have a few suitors throughout the league looking for cheap help at the center spot, but Boston would clearly be able to offer him significant playing time on a team that could still be quite competitive at the top of the Eastern Conference, though a lot of that rests on Hayward returning to full strength after his injury has essentially kept him from being himself the last two years.
Boston’s depth is still pretty good, particularly if they can get something from their top rookies. Grant Williams will give them another version of what Horford brought to the table with his intelligence and playmaking. Carsen Edwards will be given the keys to the second-unit offense and used as a sparkplug scoring threat, with Marcus Smart there to clean up defensively and handle the ball if Edwards doesn’t have it going. Romeo Langford is another scorer Boston can use off the bench. Adding those three guys to the rotation and developing them in a winning environment is a path that has worked for the Celtics in the past with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though obviously those guys were much better prospects when they arrived in Boston upon being drafted.
After a volatile season and offseason to this point, it seems as though Boston will get their guy in Walker and will solely need to fill out the starting center position and add depth where necessary in order to field a relatively competitive team for 2019-20. Losing both Irving and Horford in the same summer is clearly less than ideal, but at least they still have Brown and Tatum on cheap rookie scale contracts and have the cap space to at least replace one of their two outgoing stars. Walker can bring most of what Irving brought to the Celtics without any of the off-court drama for which Irving became famous over the last several months. Losing Rozier may also be addition by subtraction, though I am adamant that he has the skills to play a valuable role for a team, even if he may never have the temperament or basketball intelligence to do so.
Figuring out the center position with their Room Exception shouldn’t be all that difficult, as they can offer plenty of playing time on a team that will be on national television often and looks to still be a playoff team even after losing their two best players from last season. From there, the minimum depth guys can be at just about any position, as they have a few guys on the team who can play multiple positions and roles within their offense. Perhaps investing in a veteran backup point guard along with using the Room Exception on a center would be the best way to fill out the last spot on the roster, though between Smart, Edwards, and Tremont Waters, they may have enough ball handling behind Walker.