If you are a Celtics fan who just sat and watched Jeff Teague win a championship and the Bucks click at the perfect time behind the brilliant Giannis Antetokounmpo, there has to be a sense of frustration and anger.
Could the Celtics have been the Bucks? If the right moves were made, could Boston have made a similar title run with its stars and a veteran-laden bench? It’s a question to ponder because the moves the Celtics passed on were the type of ones the Bucks made, and they won a championship as a result.
The Bucks signed Bobby Portis for less than $7 million over two years. They traded a first-round pick for P.J. Tucker. They re-signed Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton over the past year. They made a gutsy trade to acquire Jrue Holiday. General manager John Horst’s plan worked. The veterans played well enough to complement Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
While the Celtics decided the best method was to rely on rookies, the Bucks used all of their assets for veterans to take advantage of their title window. Such moves don’t always work, so this could be perceived as a case of Monday morning quarterbacking, but it was disappointing that former president of basketball operations Danny Ainge did not make the significant moves to boost the bench and give the Celtics a chance at making a run.
Tristan Thompson was the Celtics’ primary offseason acquisition and he enjoyed his moments, but he also spent a considerable time out in COVID-19 protocol and did not make the expected impact. Teague was traded to Orlando to clear a roster spot at the trade deadline and was eventually picked up by the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer, his former coach in Atlanta. The Bucks carried themselves with a bigger sense of urgency than the Celtics and it paid off.
So, how do the Celtics get back into Eastern Conference contention? The Bucks aren’t even favored to make the 2022 Finals. That would be the Brooklyn Nets. The Hawks, Knicks, 76ers, and Heat are almost certainly going to take steps forward.
And then here comes teams such as the Hornets, Wizards, and Pacers. The Celtics have a lot of work to do if they want to follow the Bucks’ blueprint.
New president of basketball operations Brad Stevens is already off to an encouraging start, trading high-priced point guard Kemba Walker for Al Horford and Moses Brown to bolster the frontcourt. Stevens gave Oklahoma City the 16th overall pick in that trade. Although the Celtics could always use another prospect, they have loaded their roster with youngsters who did not develop, and that’s been their biggest issue.
That trade allowed the Celtics salary-cap flexibility but not enough for any major additions, unless Stevens can pull off a Portis-type signing and add a veteran on an undervalued contact. Stevens’s biggest decisions over the next two weeks is whether he should pursue re-signing Evan Fournier, who will play for Team France against Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum on Sunday in the Olympic opener.
The advantage for the Celtics is they own Fournier’s Bird rights, meaning they can re-sign him with no regard for the salary cap. Fournier becomes their most attractive free agent because of this. Stevens also has $11 million from the trade exception created by the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade with Charlotte that could be used in a deal.
What will put the Celtics over the top is attracting key role players as the Bucks did with Portis, Connaughton, and former Spurs guard Bryn Forbes. That trio made a combined $10.1 million this past season in salary, just above what Thompson earned for the Celtics.
Value has to be the Celtics’ best friend in any rebuild because they have committed so much money to Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and now Horford. Ainge declined to sign bargain free agents, putting faith in youngsters such as Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Romeo Langford to mixed and mostly disappointing results.
The Celtics need to get older this offseason. Milwaukee chased a seasoned veteran in Tucker (36) to supplement their defense and snatched Portis (26) after one solid but not spectacular season with the Knicks. Portis’s field goal percentage (45.0 to 52.3) and 3-point percentage (35.8 to 47.1) jumped in his first season with the Bucks. That was good fortune and most teams that win championships get career or bounce-back years from veteran acquisitions.
Stevens wanted more influence on personnel decisions and he has all the power now that he’s team president. He will have to rely on his basketball acumen to grab the right veteran free agents. Or he can potentially work out a sign-and-trade for a restricted free agent such as the Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball or the Heat’s Duncan Robinson.
Considering the rapid rise of the Suns, in addition to the success of the Bucks, it’s possible for the Celtics to contend next season with the right moves. But Stevens is going to have to take calculated risks, bank on new coach Ime Udoka selling Boston as a place for free agents to flourish, and be more about the now than the future.
That’s usually how teams win in today’s NBA. They worry about the future in the future.
Antetokounmpo a role model on many levels
It’s not fair to point out the Celtics passed on drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 in favor of Kelly Olynyk because several teams also passed on the Greek Freak. Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, and Michael Carter-Williams were among those taken ahead of Antetokounmpo, who now goes down as the most egregious draft slip in league history.
The two-time MVP entered this season with consecutive playoff failures. The Bucks were unceremoniously knocked out of the bubble by the Heat last season with Antetokounmpo battling a sprained ankle. The prior year, the Bucks were up on the Kawhi Leonard-led Raptors, two games to none, before losing four straight in the Eastern Conference finals.
This season, Antetokounmpo responded from a scary knee injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and played brilliantly in the Finals, swishing his free throws, attacking the rim, draining the occasional 3-pointer, and scoring in the paint at will. The Suns, despite the presence of Deandre Ayton, had no answer.
It was simply Giannis’s time. When he signed a $228 million maximum extension in December, he said his work in Milwaukee wasn’t done. He wanted to bring the small-market city its first title in 50 years and prove that he is more than just a regular-season wonder.
Antetokounmpo’s story is compelling because the reason many passed on him was because he was frail and unproven as a 18-year-old prospect from Greece. He was physically gifted with height and reach but uncoordinated and rail-thin. A relentless work ethic, fueled by his days of selling trinkets in the streets of Athens as a teenager, led to his remarkable ascension.
“A lot of kids from there. But not just from Nigeria; all Africa and all Europe. I know I’m a role model,” he said after the title-clinching Game 6 Tuesday night in Milwaukee. “But this should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams. No matter whatever you feel when you’re down, when you don’t think it’s going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career — might be basketball, might be anything — just believe in what you’re doing and keep working. Don’t let nobody tell you what you can be and what you cannot do.
“People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight and I’m a freaking champion. I made them when I’m supposed to make them. I’m joking — actually, I’m not [laughter].
“Just believe, man. I hope I give people around the world, from Africa, from Europe, hope that it can be done. It can be done.”
Antetokounmpo said he was inspired by a 2017 conversation with the late, great Kobe Bryant, who told him he had a chance to be the league’s MVP. Antetokounmpo already has accomplished that feat — twice.
What Antetokounmpo established during this NBA Finals run is that he is as much a motivator and league spokesman as a high-flying dunker. He realizes he is a role model, one of the great stories of perseverance and survival after dealing with abject poverty.
“When I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal will come from,” he said. “My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed. If I never have a chance to sit at this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams.
“It means a lot. It started almost like a joke at first. It was a challenge to players, and I was like, ‘Let me just shoot my shot.’ Kind of like, ‘What’s my challenge?’ and he was like, ‘MVP.’ But at first I was, like, joking. I didn’t think he was going to respond to me.
“But when he did, he made me believe. I’m like, ‘Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this and I can play at a high level and build my team and win my MVP?’ I had to do it. I had to work hard. And to not necessarily let him down. I had to work hard because people believed that I can do it.
“That’s the thing. I’m a people pleaser. I don’t like letting people down. When I signed with the city of Milwaukee, that’s the main reason I signed because I didn’t want to let the people down and think that I didn’t work extremely hard for them, which I do. But to be able to accomplish those things, it’s crazy. It’s unreal. It’s freaking unreal. I can’t believe it.”
What saved the Bucks during this run is the steady play of Khris Middleton. Celtics fans watched as the then-emerging star punished Boston in playoff series in 2018 and ‘19. He never seemed to miss. He became a more reliable scorer and playmaker during this playoff run, and his ascension is one of the primary reasons he was added to Team USA.
“I love Khris to death, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s crazy. But same thing I said out there, that he doesn’t realize how much he pushes me to be great. I had people push me to be great and be persistent and just be dominant and just keep coming and keep working hard. He’s one of those guys.
“You know, there was nobody in this world that I would rather do this journey with than that guy. He’s been here since the beginning. He’s been since the day we were fighting for some minutes. He was yelling to me when I was 18. He was yelling to me to pass the ball and everything. We were fighting on the court when we were kids, and now we’re on this stage doing it together.”
Antetokounmpo could have played the free agency game, signed with Miami or Dallas, and formed a super team. But his commitment to Milwaukee altered the power structure in the NBA, and it also serves as encouragement and a blueprint for other small-market stars such as Donovan Mitchell of Utah and Devin Booker of Phoenix.
“We have to enjoy this moment. We have to share this moment. Maybe we might not have another moment like this,” Antetokounmpo said. “We can’t predict the future. But we have to live in the moment, enjoy this moment. I hope Khris enjoys it with his family. And he played amazing throughout the whole playoffs. He led us when I was down. He gave me a chance to come back.
“But once we’re done enjoying this, we’ve got to get back to work. We’ve got to do it again. That’s how me and Khris operate.”
Now the season is over and the Bucks have prevailed, the business of basketball takes over, and Milwaukee will have to determine which players to bring back. P.J. Tucker has an expiring contract at $7.2 million, and at 36 this may be his last NBA contract. He will garner a serious look on the market. Bobby Portis, signed for a bargain at $3.6 million this past season, has a player option that he most certainly will decline. Portis, with his impressive postseason performance, will certainly command a deal in the range of $10 million per season and an opportunity to start. Portis has played for some bad teams and he was overlooked in the free agent market before the Bucks brought him on. Beyond those two, the Bucks can return intact to defend their title. As for Phoenix, Chris Paul has a $44 million player option that may not be such a cinch decision. He could opt out and agree to a three-year deal with another contender or return to the Suns. Paul, despite a tough NBA Finals performance, will command considerable attention from teams needing a point guard. The Lakers may try to jump into the competition. Cameron Payne, who resuscitated his career by becoming a productive backup to Paul, is a free agent and he will also command attention. Payne earned just $1.9 million this past season and could quadruple that in free agency. The core of the Suns is secure, but the club will have to create cap space for expected extensions for Ayton and Mikal Bridges . . . The Clippers will likely begin next season without Leonard, if he opts into the final year of his contract. Leonard was diagnosed with a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament and underwent surgery this past week. The injury would not affect his free agent status were he to opt out. Despite the knee injury, he would soar to the No. 1 free agent on the market. Free agency begins Aug. 1 . . . JaVale McGee said he had been working out and staying in shape when he got the phone call to join Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. The reserve center said he is ready to contribute. “I saw the call come in and iPhones are too smart now because it said ‘USA’ on the phone. I figured something had happened [with the roster] and my reaction was excitement, ready to get to it,” he said.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.