LAS VEGAS — Whether pursuing top targets in the free agent market or figuring out how to use their lottery picks, the Celtics have consistently been one of the NBA’s most busy teams in recent summers.
But this offseason has been comparably muted. Boston did not have a first-round pick or salary-cap space, and first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens was mostly left to work the fringes, surrounding stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with some veteran talent while also maintaining flexibility for a bigger splash in the future.
There was a time when it appeared this could simply be a bridge year, but in the end Stevens appears to have fortified the roster enough for Boston to remain in the middle of the pack among Eastern Conference playoff teams, with a chance to move even higher if Tatum and Brown continue to ascend.
On Tuesday night, coach Ime Udoka offered a slight hint that the Celtics might not be done assembling the team just yet. When speaking about newly acquired guard Josh Richardson he also referenced “some of the other guys we’re looking at bringing in.”
The Celtics currently have 16 players under contract for next season, including veteran Jabari Parker, who has a non-guaranteed deal. The league limit is 15 players, but teams can enter training camp with as many as 20. Here’s a look at the roster as it stands.
Potential starters: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder
Both Stevens and Udoka have made it clear that Tatum and Brown will be the focal points. The continued development of Williams, and his ability to stay healthy, will also be a key.
Whether playing Horford and Aron Baynes together three seasons ago, or Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson last year, Boston has shown a willingness to deploy double-big lineups. Horford, who played for the 76ers when Udoka was an assistant there two years ago, could certainly play power forward alongside Williams. Or, Udoka could go with a smaller group, pairing two of Smart, Richardson and Schröder in the backcourt, with Brown and Tatum at the wings. A lot will depend on matchups.
Udoka stressed on Tuesday that since Tatum and Brown will draw so much attention from defenses it will be important for them both to evolve as playmakers. He also said that Smart has already asked to have the ball in his hands as a facilitator more often.
The issue with Brown and Tatum driving and spraying passes to teammates on the perimeter is that after the departures of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, this will likely be one of the poorest shooting Celtics teams in recent memory, as evidenced by last season’s 3-point percentages of Smart (33), Richardson (33.0) and Schröder (33.5).
Schröder would be a good acquisition in any situation, but the Celtics are getting an absolute bargain by signing him for just $5.9 million. Remember, the Lakers offered him an extension last year worth more than $20 million annually. Richardson’s arrival was overlooked a bit because of the timing of the deal, but his defensive versatility will create options and he is a crafty penetrator.
Lead bench roles: Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Kris Dunn
The lack of shooting in the starting backcourt should create even more opportunities for Nesmith and Pritchard, who could now be two of the best shooters on the team. Nesmith erupted for 33 points in Tuesday’s summer league win and said his confidence has blossomed since last season. Pritchard has already shown a willingness to pour in shots from well beyond the 3-point arc.
Dunn is an elite defender and nearly made an All-Defense team two seasons ago. But he is also a poor shooter. According to a league source, the Celtics could also look to trade Dunn to ease the backcourt logjam a bit. If he stays, though, the possibility of an occasional Smart/Dunn pairing should make opposing offenses queasy.
Kanter returns after a productive season in Portland. When he played for the Celtics two seasons ago he said he hoped to extend his shooting range, but that has not happened yet, and he remains a defensive liability. Still, he is also a double-double machine. And with Williams’s injury history and Horford’s advancing age, Kanter should be a suitable third big. Boston got good value signing him for the veteran’s minimum.
Langford’s first two seasons have been slowed by a seemingly unending string of injuries, but he has shown he can be a capable wing defender and slasher. This season should determine whether he has a future in Boston.
End of bench: Carsen Edwards, Bruno Fernando, Jabari Parker
Fernando was acquired in the three-team deal that sent Thompson to the Kings. He played just 226 total minutes for the Hawks last season, but he said Tuesday he believes he can shift a game with his energy and hustle.
Edwards has yet to have an impact during his two years with the Celtics, but the aforementioned lack of shooting elsewhere could present an opportunity for him, too. Stevens and Udoka have both said how they value veteran leadership, so there is a chance Parker could be brought back, but he struggled during his brief stint with the Celtics last year.
Yam Madar and Juhann Begarin, Boston’s second-round picks from the last two seasons, will have a chance to make the roster, too. Begarin will almost certainly remain overseas for another year. That could be Madar’s path, but he said this week that he will play for the Celtics in the fall. It remains to be seen if that was just wishful thinking.