The most difficult advancement for a franchise is to reach that championship level, making this summer the most pivotal for the Celtics in nearly two decades.
The Celtics not only have to devise ways to upgrade their roster to overtake the champion Warriors but the rest of the title competitors, most of whom will make trades and signings and dive into the luxury tax to make improvements.
As much as the Celtics won the Eastern Conference championship and were probably six good minutes in Game 4 from winning the NBA Finals, their weaknesses were exposed by the more experienced Warriors in the final three games of the series.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens will assess the roster and determine what areas need enhancements, but it became apparent toward the end of the series that: 1.) coach Ime Udoka didn’t trust his bench; 2.) the Celtics had issues running a cohesive offense against an elite defense; and 3.) Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum handled the ball far too much and hence made turnovers trying to create their own shot.
The Celtics are over the salary cap, and ownership will have to determine whether it wants to delve into the luxury tax to improve the team. Golden State owner Joe Lacob, a former Celtics minority owner, said he would spend his final dollar to win a championship and the club is $89 million over the salary cap because of the star power on its roster.
Stevens has some ways to improve the roster without a major free agent signing. Firstly, he needs to upgrade the bench. One way Stevens strayed away from the Danny Ainge administration is he cleared the unplayable or ineffective players on the bench.
He sent out Carsen Edwards, Semi Ojeleye, Tristan Thompson, Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall to clear roster space. But he filled the bench with players, some of whom are worth developing but not ready to contribute to any type of playoff run.
It’s time for Stevens to supplement the bench with veterans who know roles and can contribute in short stints. The Warriors were greatly helped by players such as Otto Porter, Andre Iguodala, Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica during the postseason. The Celtics countered with Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Derrick White.
The return of Daniel Theis was a feel-good story in February but Udoka obviously doesn’t think enough of his skill set for him to serve as a productive third big man, which is going to be necessary with Al Horford starting next season at age 36.
Upgrading the bench does not have to be expensive, especially with the Celtics having that $6.6 million mid-level exception to use and trade exceptions of $9.7 million (expiring on July 7) and $17.1 million (expiring on July 18).
That allows Stevens to trade — perhaps future draft picks — for players to fit that exception without salary cap constraints. (Although it would add to the luxury tax.)
Stevens has to assess the point guard position. It may be time to lighten the responsibility from Marcus Smart, sign a quality backup point guard that could shift Smart to shooting guard in a small lineup and jumpstart the offense in the fourth quarter. The Celtics offense was stagnant all season late in games and that has to be addressed because that stagnation likely cost them a championship.
The quality of inexpensive point guards to back up Smart is mediocre. Players such as Detroit’s Cory Joseph or Washington’s Raul Neto could be available at a cheaper price. There are graybeards available such as Goran Dragic or DJ Augustin, players who may have lost athleticism but can get teams into an offense.
Stevens has to assess the expectation of White after this postseason. He came to Boston as a career 34.4 percent 3-point shooter and Udoka said that number would improve with the increase of open threes he would get with Tatum and Brown on the floor. White shot 30.6 percent on threes during his regular-season stint with the Celtics and 31.3 percent during the playoffs.
After his 5-for-8 3-point performance in Game 1 against Golden State, White shot 5 for 17 for the rest of the series and he totaled 3 points on 1-for-10 shooting in the final two games of the series. This trade was praised by observers because of White’s potential, but Stevens gave up Josh Richardson (productive in his Boston stint), former first-round pick Romeo Langford (not a big loss) and a first-round pick and pick swap for White.
That’s a major commitment, considering Richardson may have been more effective in the Celtics offense had they retained him (Richardson shot 39.7 percent from three).
“Just trying to stay confident, being consistent with my form, try to have every shot be the same,” White said of his shooting. “I’ve got a lot of room where I need to continue to get better and just continue to get more and more comfortable with everything that’s going on.”
The hope for the Celtics is White improves over the summer and is benefited by a full training camp. But his struggles punctuate the Celtics’ need for a knockdown shooter off the bench. Stevens filled the roster with defenders, turning the Celtics into the league’s No. 1 defense.
But what happens when those defenders can’t score? That was their primary issue. White, Pritchard and Williams totaled 100 points in the Finals on 35 percent shooting, placing more pressure on Tatum and Brown.
The Celtics need a knockdown shooter off the bench, similar to Golden State’s Jordan Poole, who turned around Games 5 and 6 with his shot making. They will likely have to sacrifice defensive prowess, but the Celtics need a shooter. A player such as Sam Hauser could serve that role, but the lack of development of Aaron Nesmith, another former first-round pick, hindered the bench this season.
The remedy has to be more than hoping Nesmith and Hauser are ready for larger roles next season. Title-contending teams pad their bench with veterans who can help. They create intense competition for playing time. Stevens needs to help Udoka with a better bench and owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca need to help Stevens by sparing little expense in chasing title No. 18.
The Celtics came close this season, but they cannot remain content or hope a flawed roster will collectively improve without reinforcements and additions. That’s an inadequate strategy.