What Thursday’s NBA Draft should have taught the Celtics and other title contenders is that the afterthoughts, bottom-feeders, and lower-level clubs are beginning to catch up.
Teams such as the Pistons, Thunder, and Magic are making moves, saving salary-cap space to sign free agents, and attempting to escape their downtrodden status.
The message should be clear to the Celtics that another NBA Finals run is not guaranteed and they need to work this summer to upgrade a solid roster because the competition is closing in.
The Celtics don’t have any cap space. They have several trade exceptions — the NBA version of a free agent coupon — two of which will expire in the coming weeks. They have a $6.3 million midlevel exception and minimum-salary slots to offer veterans who may want to join for a chance to play for a winner.
Coach Ime Udoka and president of basketball of operations Brad Stevens have acknowledged that improvements to the roster — especially the bench — are needed. Stevens made headlines by acknowledging the Celtics need a “playmaker.” Udoka said the bench needs upgrading, veteran help they lacked against the Warriors.
One interesting move was the selection of Alabama guard JD Davison, a one-and-done prospect who would have certainly boosted his draft status had he remained in school. Instead, he becomes an intriguing test case for a franchise that hasn’t scored well on second-round picks and has passed on one-and-dones in the second round.
For example, the Clippers took a chance on Kentucky’s Brandon Boston Jr., who entered the 2021 draft with flaws but immense potential, and he’s turned out to be a solid rotation player.
“We’ve got to evaluate the back end of our roster and decide on the guys who are here and guys we can add via trade or via free agency,” Stevens said. “We’re in a position roster-wise where we can focus in the development of a young player or two. That’s important. We’ve traded the last couple of first-round picks. We like the guys that are playing overseas. He can grow and develop and focus his attention on improving.
“We’re going through the whole list and we’re trying to find the guys that fit what we need.”
The Celtics need to use all of their assets to reach that difficult-to-obtain championship level, and they can’t simply rely on this past season’s performance or “we were up 5 in Game 4 with five minutes left” as reasons to simply run it back.
An interesting comparison for the Celtics with their $17.1 million trade exception should be the Warriors from a few years ago, when they decided to take back D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade from Brooklyn for Kevin Durant. The Warriors had little intention of keeping Russell — he didn’t fit in the team’s concept or culture — but they wanted his salary slot to facilitate a trade.
The Celtics could acquire Duncan Robinson from Miami, and if he doesn’t work out, eventually use his salary as a trade chip to acquire another player. Because the Celtics can use the trade exception without concern of the cap, they can use that player as an asset. Russell played 33 games for the Warriors, averaged 23.6 points, but he was sent to the Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins. Celtics fans witnessed the impact of Wiggins on the Warriors.
“Free agency is coming up and we do have some needs to address,” Udoka said. “Consistency, scoring off the bench is a huge key. Certain positions and roles need to be touched on.”
The hope for Udoka is that he, along with players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, can use their Finals run and perhaps some personal recruiting to attract free agents to Boston, especially those who may be willing to accept a reduced salary.
“I’ve been a part of [recruiting by winning] in many places I’ve been,” Udoka said. “Great players attract others. Guys talk to each other throughout the season, especially in the offseason. Just being on the stage and watching the growth of our young guys is appealing to other players. When you have guys like Jayson and Jaylen, these guys who have a bright future and you start to look at longevity and consistency across the board, that’s appealing to [free agents]. Myself as a coach, having relationships around the league, that’s a benefit, as well.”
The good news for Celtics fans is the brain trust realizes reinforcements are needed. The drafting of Davison offers hope that they are indeed interested in cultivating untapped potential, which is an essential part of success in the NBA. Now comes adding those needed pieces in free agency.
New NBA players have stories to tell
The draft featured several players who aren’t exactly household names — partly because they didn’t spend enough time in college — who have fascinating stories.
The biggest story line, after Paolo Banchero edging out Jabari Smith as the No. 1 pick, was the destination of Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, who was projected to go to Sacramento with the fourth pick but never worked out or sent any medical information to the Kings. Ivey’s representatives did not want him to go to Sacramento and were going to force the Kings to take him without important information.
The Kings instead opted for Iowa forward Keegan Murray. Ivey went fifth to the Pistons after working out for them. The Pistons were the big winners on draft night by nabbing Memphis center Jalen Duran with the 13th pick in a trade with the Hornets that also sent Kemba Walker to the Pistons. Walker will be bought out.
Ivey is the son of Notre Dame women’s coach and former Grizzlies assistant Niele Ivey, and he’s considered a potential cornerstone, especially teaming with 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham in the backcourt.
Ivey’s mother also played five years in the WNBA and has a bright basketball mind.
“You don’t see too many stories like that,” said Ivey, “and the bond that we have is special. I thank her for all the things that she’s done for me. I know I wouldn’t be on this stage, I wouldn’t be here, without her.”
Ivey has developed a relationship with former Purdue great Carsen Edwards, an ex-Celtic who will be part of Pistons training camp. Ivey also played a season under former Purdue and Celtics assistant Micah Shrewsberry.
“It means a lot,” Ivey said of the Purdue connection. “I look up to Carsen. He’s one of the reasons why I came to Purdue, just to see how much he worked. He’s just a special talent. I’m excited to join him.”
The Pelicans used the eighth overall pick, acquired from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, on G League Ignite point guard Dyson Daniels. The Pelicans are loading up on young talent and Daniels could become an impact player, a prolific ball-handler with international experience.
“I think Australian basketball has come a long way in the last few years,” he said. “There’s some great Australian players in the NBA. For me to represent the country of Australia means the world to me. Every opportunity I get to play for Australia, I want to take it. I love playing for it. I love the culture they’ve built there. And being able to hopefully play in the World Cup and the Olympics coming up, that would be a dream come true for me, just like it was getting drafted.”
Daniels is the latest draft pick from G League Ignite, a team filled with high school phenoms who did not want to play in college and instead opted for the NBA minor league and a $500,000 salary.
“The G League was huge for me,” Daniels said. “Playing against the NBA style of play, playing against NBA-type players, I had to learn how to play faster, more physical. Know when I could get mine. We had a great team and we had really good veterans and a really good coaching staff. I learned a lot throughout my year, and I think I improved as the year went on. The G League was definitely a really good step for me and helped me get here.”
Clippers may take next step
A sleeper to overtake the Warriors in the Western Conference next season are the Clippers, and they may not add one impactful player in free agency. Good health is what will elevate the Clippers to the next level, with a full season of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The Clippers also signed 3-point specialist and defender Robert Covington to an extension and are bringing back Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, and Terance Mann. A team that has been besieged with injuries the past few years, as well as its meltdown in the bubble, is due for a long playoff run.
General manager Lawrence Frank is banking on his team avoiding injuries and getting a full opportunity to play next season with Leonard and George at peak form. The lone primary free agent is Nicolas Batum, who may return, although he will be courted by several clubs, including possibly the Celtics.
“I think our No. 1 goal on free agency is we would like to try to retain our free agents,” Frank said. “I think we have a pretty good sense of how we are going to play. I think we just go back to two years ago, and then we have added some real significant pieces to that.
“And then even though we haven’t had the benefit of seeing what it looks like, I think you just have to project a little bit. We are really fortunate that [owner] Steve [Ballmer] has given us the resources to put together the type of team that we have, and then we continue to assess, OK, how can we continue to upgrade, how can we get better?”
Frank will have to determine if the Clippers could use another major addition, such as point guard Kyrie Irving, who may opt out of his contract with the Nets or negotiate a sign-and-trade and has listed the Clippers as one of his preferred teams. The Clippers have enough assets to facilitate a sign-and-trade with the Nets.
“I hate trades,” Frank said. “It’s the worst part of the job because we have all good guys. I mean, you’re around our guys. They are all good guys. So, look, it’s part of the job, so it’s not one where you’re looking for any sort of sympathy.
“But your job is, every decision that we make is, how does it help us compete and win a championship, so it’s really, really tough when you do it. So you almost, you’re happy when you don’t. And so I’m glad we did not make a trade. I’m sure many of our guys are glad we did not make a trade.”
Frank said the organization would have to think deeply about adding a potential franchise-altering player such as Irving. The Clippers have been seeking relevance for decades, and another cornerstone player could bring them to the Warriors’ level. But is Irving worth the risk?
“I think you look at it all,” said Frank. “And you start first with the question: Does it enhance the group? Does it help connect the group? Is it a young, emerging player that may have a pathway to play? Is it a veteran who provides a skill set that maybe we need? Is it a player that has unbelievable basketball character, and yet has great self-awareness and knows where they are at their stage? So, I think you really study it, and any time you put a player in the locker room, whether it’s through the draft, free agency, trades, it is a statement to your team what you think of them, because that is their sanctuary.
“So, in terms of basketball leadership it is very important to understand the basketball character of the player. So, basketball character may be a little bit different than what you hear of in terms of character. Basketball character is, can you be counted on every single day to do what you do at the highest level, and are you, how committed are you though those habits?”
Frank wasn’t speaking of Irving specifically, but he was referring to a player who could affect the team positively or negatively. The decision of pursuing Irving could mean a GM’s job if it doesn’t work out.
What team will take a chance on this remarkable talent who has proven to be so unreliable and mercurial?
“The bond that you form with your teammates, that’s part of basketball character,” said Frank. “Can you be the same teammate when things are going bad for you as well as when things are going good for you? And I think all those things are leadership skills.”
The close relationship between Leonard and George has helped carry the Clippers through difficult times. Frank knows the window of opportunity is closing, which may encourage him to make a daring move.
“Those guys set a great tone of, we work, that’s what we do,” Frank said. “There is not a lot of talking in terms of hyperbole. It’s, we are about our work. And we have an unbelievable head coach in [Tyronn Lue] in that he connects with all the guys and brings everyone together.”
The Warriors are NBA champions, and they celebrated their fourth title in eight years with a parade in San Francisco. But there are a few offseason issues they will have to address to bring the gang back for another run. Jordan Poole is eligible for a contract extension, while key defender Andrew Wiggins enters the final year of his contract. The club will also have to find a way to bring back Gary Payton II, but he’ll likely get a more lucrative offer from a team with cap space. Kevon Looney will demand eight figures on the open market. Payton can be compared with Boston native Bruce Brown, who emerged as a defender/slasher and could cash in on free agency. The Warriors are far over the salary cap but do have the rights to bring back their drafted players without cap restrictions. Former lottery pick Otto Porter is also a free agent and could demand a midlevel exception after staying healthy during his lone season with the Warriors and being a contributor during the title run. Andre Iguodala is 38 and could retire or sign a one-year deal at likely the veteran minimum … The Hawks appear destined to make major offseason changes, and forward John Collins has been on the trading block for months now and could be moved soon. The Hawks want to improve defensively and Collins is their most tradeable piece besides Trae Young. The Hawks also want to give Young a capable backcourt mate who can score and are willing to part with Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter to get to that next level … The Gordon Hayward experiment has not worked in Charlotte and the Hornets appear ready to part ways to open up cap space to bring back Miles Bridges, a restricted free agent. Hayward has been injured most of his two years with the Hornets and he has two years left on his contract with a player option for another year. Hayward missed the play-in game with a sprained ankle and he’s been outshone by Bridges, who enjoyed a breakout season. With Hayward’s contract down to two years, he becomes more marketable, especially for a team such as the Pacers with cap space. The Pacers were one of Hayward’s preferred teams before he opted to sign with Charlotte.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.