MIAMI — The Celtics face some difficult decisions this summer if they truly want to remain in championship contention. Obviously what they’re doing is good enough to reach the semifinals, which would be admirable if this were college.
Reaching the Final Four is a notable accomplishment in college basketball. But the Celtics have reached five NBA Final Fours in the past seven years and have come away with no championships, and that’s not progress.
In fact, the Celtics took a step back this year. They had championship aspirations — again — and lost in seven games to the eighth seed, including Game 7 at home by 19 points. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens accurately said the issue was offense.
There was a high level of confusion with the Celtics’ philosophy this season. Head coach Joe Mazzulla emphasized 3-point shooting, which worked effectively most of the time but not in key playoff games. The Celtics shot 30.3 percent from the 3-point line in the Miami series, including a ghastly 18 for 90 from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
With the Celtics’ inability to score from mid-range or at the rim and their continued issues overall with fourth-quarter offense, a considerable adjustment is needed.
This week, the Phoenix Suns began discussions with 38-year-old point guard Chris Paul about trading him, waiving him, or buying him out. Paul’s contract for 2023-24 is for $30.8 million, with $15.8 million guaranteed, meaning the Suns could waive him and stretch the guaranteed money over five years.
If the Suns waive Paul, he would be a free agent if his contract isn’t claimed. The Celtics should show interest in Paul if that occurs.
Paul is aging, but he’s still one of the best offensive orchestrators when healthy. It’s not that point guard is always an issue for the Celtics, but it is when they need to execute offense down the stretch. Signing Paul would be a short-term move, because when your championship window is now, you make short-term moves.
Marcus Smart is the Celtics’ current point guard, and he has improved at his distribution over the years, but he hasn’t reached that level where the Celtics consistently close out close games against quality teams. They lost Games 1 and 2 against Miami because of porous fourth-quarter offense, and that needs an upgrade.
Paul not only is a premium passer but is brilliant off the pick-and-roll. One thing that makes the Celtics easier to guard is the inability of their guards to hit mid-range jumpers off the pick-and-roll, meaning defenders can cheat and make matters more difficult for premium scorers Tatum and Brown.
Paul dipped on mid-range shots this season, but in 2021-22, he converted 57.4 percent of his shots from 8-16 feet and 51.9 percent from 16-24 feet. By comparison, Smart attempted just 26 mid-range jumpers in 2022-23; 56 percent of his shots were from 3-point range. Mid-range jumpers are just not part of Smart’s game.
As for Malcolm Brogdon, who was acquired to stabilize the offense, especially down the stretch as a point guard, he was utilized more as a bench scorer, earning him Sixth Man of the Year. Brogdon attempted 84 mid-range jumpers this season, making 41.
In other words, Paul would bring something to the Celtics they just don’t have. And his presence wouldn’t mean Smart and Brogdon have to go, although it would make for a crowded backcourt.
Considering Paul’s age, any team that he plays for next year won’t run him out there for 38 minutes a night for 75 games.
The Celtics could find roles for all three players and add to their depth, which was not as strong as they believed.
Smart has improved as a point guard and Brogdon became a reliable scorer before his playoff injury, but the offense needs a new wrinkle, and the Celtics have to consider making short-term moves.
They need someone who can tell Tatum and Brown where to be. They need someone who can burn defenses with mid-range jumpers. They need a commander on offense, and Stevens can’t be concerned with egos when titles are at stake.
The Celtics can’t just run it back and hope for different results. Teams with championship aspirations load their rosters with talent and understand that everybody isn’t going to be happy. If they have a chance to acquire a Hall of Fame-bound point guard with a skill set they don’t possess, they should pursue it.
Paul has his adversaries around the league — he has annoyed teammates with his intensity — but there is not a smarter and savvier player, and it’s time for the Celtics (and Stevens more specifically) to escape their comfort zone and make considerable change.
Danny Ainge kept adding to the 2007-08 roster with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, even though their roles would be reduced. Stevens failed Mazzulla by not adding to this roster. Blake Griffin perhaps could have added a spark in the playoffs but didn’t play. Mike Muscala was supposed to stretch the floor as a frontcourt 3-point shooter but lasted in the rotation for about two weeks.
There will be plenty of suitors for Paul, including the Lakers and possibly the Clippers, and the Celtics should be one of them. They should seriously consider adding him to the roster on a one-year deal.
It’s time for this franchise to capitalize on its championship window and upgrade aspects of the roster that falter in the playoffs, and the No. 1 priority should be to be less predictable and one-dimensional on offense.