About 15 minutes after the Celtics season ended with an opening-round playoff loss to the Nets, coach Brad Stevens was asked about the offseason changes he was anticipating. Stevens typically defers such questions to the front office, but in this case he did not.
“Obviously, we’ve got some really good players and some proven guys, but we have to improve,” Stevens said. “There’s several ways to do that. You can improve through, obviously, continued development and the right work ethic and doing a good job with the developmental stuff.
“Then, obviously, there is the ability to acquire people. This team that beat us is a very good team. There are very good teams across the East and we have to get better. We never got a true look at this team this year, but I think we have enough information that shows that we need to get better.”
Less than 24 hours later, Stevens was officially named the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, replacing Danny Ainge, who retired. Now, Stevens will be the one responsible for molding this franchise, and his first offseason figures to present plenty of challenges. Here is what he is working with, as well as some changes that should be expected.
▪ The front office
Stevens leapfrogged assistant general managers Austin Ainge and Mike Zarren and director of scouting Dave Lewin, but this move actually created some stability in the front office following Ainge’s departure. If the Celtics had hired from outside, the new lead executive probably would have brought in a new group. The four holdovers already have a good working relationship.
But Stevens’s departure from coaching after eight seasons did create a massive opening. He is expected to conduct a series of interviews in the coming days, and the belief within the organization is that the Celtics initially will seek a former NBA player who will command the respect of the players from the start.
▪ The players
Amid all the tumult of this season, it’s easy to forget the Celtics have two All-Stars who are under 25 years old and under contract for at least the next three seasons. That setup, on its own, would be the envy of most franchises.
Now, the Celtics must figure out how best to build around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown while operating above the salary cap without many avenues for improvement.
They have 11 players under guaranteed contracts for next season, at a price tag of about $132 million. The projected NBA salary cap is about $112 million, and the luxury-tax line is projected at about $136 million, so the Celtics will be a tax-paying team after they fill out their roster.
Tatum’s five-year max extension will start next year, paying him $28.1 million if he is not selected for an All-NBA team this year and $33.7 million if he is chosen. Brown is in the second year of his four-year, $115 million extension.
Both will be back, obviously, but things become slightly murky after that. Kemba Walker will enter the third year of the four-year max deal he signed as Kyrie Irving’s replacement, and his contract has become a bit of an albatross.
Walker missed the first 11 games of the season to strengthen his troublesome left knee, and then did not play on any back-to-back nights. He dealt with some knee soreness and missed the final two games of the Nets series because of a bone bruise on that knee.
Walker played well when he was healthy, but he is 31 and has had knee issues for several years. The Celtics likely will look into trade options involving Walker and probably would have to attach a draft pick to a deal to get a team to absorb his massive contract. If that doesn’t work out, they will simply hope he can stay healthy and recapture the form that made him dangerous.
Marcus Smart is in the final season of a four-year, $52 million deal. He remains an elite defender and would be one of the Celtics’ better trade chips, but the fact that he is on an expiring contract reduces some of his value. Ainge was a huge Smart supporter, and Stevens seems to value him similarly.
Re-signing Evan Fournier will likely be one of the biggest offseason priorities.
The Celtics surrendered two second-round picks for the veteran wing in March. He was slowed by a bout with COVID-19 but showed his value as a shooter alongside Tatum and Brown after he recovered.
And, most important, the Celtics own his Bird rights, meaning they can sign him without regard to the salary cap. They certainly factored this in when they made the deal, knowing they would be an over-the-cap team next year. Fournier could command a salary of around $16 million-$18 million per year.
Robert Williams, 23, will make just $3.6 million next year and has shown that he could be a foundational piece alongside Brown and Tatum. But he also has proven to be a substantial injury risk. It’s hard to tell, especially this early in a player’s career, whether this is just bad luck or a more long-term issue. But it’s certainly not encouraging.
Williams is eligible for an extension this summer. If he had stayed healthy this year and maintained his production, he would have been a likely candidate to receive a hefty extension. But the Celtics could now have some pause. Ainge was reluctant to give rookie extensions anyway, but Stevens’s approach remains to be seen. Perhaps Williams’s injury history will make him more willing to take a smaller payday now to guarantee some financial security.
Tristan Thompson had some promising moments in the postseason, but the veteran’s $9.7 million salary for next season doesn’t look great considering he will be backing up Williams.
The other guaranteed contracts for next year belong to the string of young players whose potential is still being monitored: Romeo Langford ($3.8 million), Aaron Nesmith ($3.6 million), Grant Williams ($2.6 million), Payton Pritchard ($2.1 million), and Carsen Edwards ($1.7 million).
Langford probably has the most promise among that group. Stevens remarked several times this year that the Celtics’ lack of size was obvious, and Pritchard and Edwards certainly don’t help with that, especially if Walker returns.
Forward Semi Ojeleye is an unrestricted free agent. He was unlikely to return this season if Gordon Hayward had opted into the final year of his deal, but a spot opened after Hayward joined Charlotte. Ojeleye has shown value as a defender, but he turns 27 in December and has not really made significant strides over his four seasons.
Backup center Luke Kornet, who was acquired in the trade that sent Daniel Theis to Chicago, is also an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics could view him as a competent third-string center on a veteran’s minimum salary.
Jabari Parker has a partial $100,000 guarantee on his deal for next year if he is not waived before July 31.
Two-way contract players Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall are both restricted free agents. Waters had flashes in which he looked like a capable backup point guard, but those were often bookended by errors. And he is just 5 feet 10 inches, which doesn’t help the team’s size problem.
Fall remains a fan favorite and has really improved since signing two years ago. But he turns 26 in December and there is only so long a project can be considered a project.
The Celtics still have $11 million from the Hayward trade exception, as well as smaller exceptions from the Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier deals. All three will expire later this summer. The Celtics also will be able to sign a player with the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception.
▪ The draft
Ainge was a master at keeping the Celtics’ coffer of draft picks jam-packed. They had at least four picks in five of the last six seasons. But they have finally used up most of their ammunition.
This year, the Celtics have only their own selections, the 16th and 45th overall picks. It will be interesting to see whether Stevens values draft choices as highly as Ainge did, or whether he might look to start using the team’s capital to acquire veterans.