After watching the Celtics lose four games to the Miami Heat in essentially the same fashion — dominant center play, scoring off the bench, and more toughness down the stretch — it’s easy to determine the team’s weaknesses and offseason priorities.
What’s difficult is filling those needs when the Celtics’ options are so limited because they are so far over the salary cap and close to being a luxury-tax team.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has chased and caught two premium free agents — Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker — signed two former lottery picks to extensions — Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown — and now will have to fork over approximately $170 million this offseason to keep Jayson Tatum in the fold deep into this decade.
Such contracts are indicative of how well Ainge has drafted in the top 10 and how much he’s been able to attract cornerstone free agents. But that has not left him with much money to work with this offseason. By being over the salary cap, the Celtics have a $5.7 million exception — assuming Hayward opts into the final year of his contract — to pursue a capable free agent.
They can get creative and split that exception or wait out the market and sign a veteran free agent to a minimum deal. And even if Hayward opts out, the Celtics will not have a lot of extra money. Because Brown’s four-year, $115 million deal begins in 2020-21, the Celtics would only have a $9 million non-taxpayer exception if Hayward leaves.
So erase those delusions of the Celtics bringing in a high-priced, premium free agent to play center or power forward. Ainge and the team’s brass will have to be creative to bring in an impact player.
But there are two things that help the Celtics in this process: 1. There are four teams with any real salary cap space (Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, and the New York Knicks), meaning the free agent market could dry up quickly and there will be quality players who will have to settle for below-market contracts in such a difficult financial time for the NBA; and 2. Players may accept below-market contracts in exchange for a chance to win a championship. Considering the Celtics’ three Eastern Conference finals appearances in the past four seasons, free agents may sign knowing they will make long playoff runs.
Here is a list of potential free agents the Celtics could pursue. These players would be in the team’s price range and could give it the production it needs to reach the next level:
Willie Cauley-Stein — The former Sacramento King was basically dumped by his initial team and signed a $2.28 million deal with the Warriors to be their starting center. But injuries made the Warriors move Cauley-Stein to Dallas, where he opted out of the NBA bubble. Cauley-Stein is just 27 and can defend, rebound, and score on pick-and-rolls. He’s not an offensive-minded player, but the Celtics don’t run their offense through their center.
Aron Baynes — Ready for a reunion? The Celtics sorely missed Baynes, who was traded to the Suns to clear salary-cap space. The Baynes that played for Phoenix was dramatically different than the Boston one. Baynes averaged a career-best 11.5 points per game and attempted four 3-pointers per game. That element could open up the Celtics' offense if Baynes has to draw defenders away from the basket. Baynes played on a two-year, $11 million deal, so the Celtics could nab him with their mid-level exception.
Nerlens Noel — The Malden native was once a high lottery pick but has turned into a defensive center and rim protector who made just $1.57 million last year with Oklahoma City. Noel is athletic, can protect the rim, and score on pick-and-rolls. The question is, is he a duplicate of current Celtics big man Robert Williams? Noel may be a more polished Williams, but Williams’s eventual upside may be bigger.
Justin Holiday — The former Indiana Pacer has bounced around the league but is a career 36 percent 3-point shooter, including 40 percent last season. He is a solid defender and could give the Celtics' bench that much-needed scoring boost. He earned $4.7 million last season and is not a sexy signing but could fill a need.
Isaiah Thomas — The former two-time Celtics All-Star said he is completely healthy after another hip procedure and the Celtics desperately need scoring off the bench. It’s safe to assume that after being out of the league following his being waived by the Clippers that Thomas would not expect to start. But if he’s even close to his previous form, he would be an immediate upgrade for the bench and perhaps this would be an opportunity for Ainge to recoup Thomas for his physical sacrifice during his previous stint. Thomas played two months on a bad hip, a decision that cost him potentially $100 million.
Pat Connaughton — The Arlington native played solid basketball for the Bucks as a high flyer and 3-point shooter off the bench. Connaughton can attack the basket and play solid defense. He earned just $1.7 million last season and the Celtics likely wouldn’t need their entire mid-level exception to bring him on.
Shabazz Napier — The former Charlestown High standout could become the team’s reserve point guard in case Brad Wanamaker moves on. Napier averaged 11.6 points in a 20-game stint with the Wizards with 35.8 percent 3-point shooting. And again, Napier would come as a cheaper alternative, allowing the Celtics to use their mid-level exception on other needs.