When the Celtics came within two wins of an NBA championship, it showed president of basketball operations Brad Stevens that extensive roster alterations were not necessary, while also affirming that the current group is just not quite good enough.
With that in mind, Stevens and the Celtics intend to enter free agency on Thursday evening with some urgency, but not desperation.
“I think teams are fragile,” Stevens said last week. “I think the way teams work together and operate together are fragile. And I think your identity as a team, when you find one that’s successful, which we did this year on the defensive end of the floor and when we were at our best sharing the ball offensively, those things are fragile. So just to add doesn’t mean that you’re not taking something away from the group. And to change significant pieces in the group doesn’t mean that that might not totally take your identity and shift it in a direction that’s not as successful.”
The Celtics are not really positioned for a seismic strike, nor do they wish to be. But they will have options as they seek to refine the roster around star forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Boston can sign a player using its $6.3 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception, a modest figure that should still be enough to attract a strong bench piece. Also, the Celtics have a collection of traded player exceptions. The biggest and most significant one, which was created when the team sent Evan Fournier to the Knicks last year in a sign-and-trade, is worth $17.1 million and expires in three weeks. Trade exceptions allow teams that are operating above the salary cap to acquire players without sending back matching salaries in return.
“At the end of the day, trade exceptions are a tool, but it’s not our only avenue,” Stevens said. “I think we’ve got the ability to do some small things in free agency with the taxpayer mid-level and the ability to add minimums. If that [exception vanishes] because we don’t find the right deal, we still have two other TPEs to use towards the trade deadline.”
Although the trade exceptions are a means of acquiring higher-salaried players, the Celtics still have to pay those salaries. And they will be a luxury tax team next season, so adding big salaries via this route could cause the tax bill to balloon. According to a league source, ownership is willing to look past a hefty tax bill as long as it clearly moves the team closer to a title.
During the Finals, the lack of bench production from backups such as Derrick White, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard stood out. Stevens said that he will primarily be focused on adding some bench scoring, and there will be plenty of options to fill that role.
Here are some free agents the Celtics could target with both their $6.3 million mid-level exception, and potential trade targets they could pursue using the expiring $17.1 million exception.
Celtics free agent options
In a slight surprise, the Kings on Wednesday declined to submit their $6.6 million qualifying offer to DiVincenzo, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics had interest in DiVincenzo during the 2018 draft, and he was a key part of the Bucks’ 2020-21 title team before being sidelined for most of the playoffs. He’s a strong defender who’s also capable of creating off the dribble, but he played in just 42 games this past season.
The 6-foot-8-inch wing is a good overall fit for Boston’s system. He started 54 of 59 games for the Clippers this past season, connected on 40 percent of his 3-pointers, and at 33 remains a capable and versatile defender who could fit nicely into Boston’s switch-heavy scheme.
Anderson will likely fall out of Boston’s price range, but he did spend his first four NBA seasons with the Spurs while Celtics coach Ime Udoka was an assistant there, and the chance to join a team that was on the cusp of a title could sway him. Anderson, 28, averaged 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Grizzlies this past season, although he is just a 33.4 percent career 3-point shooter.
Warren, who has been limited to four games over the last two seasons because of foot injuries, is somehow still just 28 years old. This would be a risky move with plenty of upside. In his last full season, in 2019-20, the 6-9 wing averaged 19.8 points per game and connected on 40.3 percent of his 3-pointers.
Potential $17.1 million trade exception targets
The Celtics expressed some interest in Burks before the Knicks agreed to trade him to the Pistons this week. But Detroit remains in rebuild mode, and if Boston strikes out on other TPE options in the coming weeks, there could be reason to circle back with Detroit regarding the versatile 6-6 wing who averaged 11.7 points per game this past season. Tatum is the godfather of Burks’s son, too.
After agreeing to acquire Dejounte Murray from the Spurs on Wednesday and sending out three first-round picks in the process, the Hawks may have some interest in restocking their cupboard of picks and shedding some salary. The 6-7 Huerter is due to make $14.5 million next season. He’s a very good 3-point shooter and a decent defender.
Ross is the most attainable player on this list, but the 31-year-old made just 29.2 percent of his 3-pointers for the Magic this past season. He is owed $11.5 million next year and could probably be acquired at a minimal cost of draft capital. Ross played for Udoka’s Portland AAU team as a teenager.
The Cavaliers have given no indication that the 7-footer is available and they now have a playoff-caliber roster, but the Celtics have expressed interest in Markkanen in the past. His size and floor spacing capabilities would be real assets off Boston’s bench. Markkanen has three seasons remaining on a four-year, $67.5 million deal.