For much of this season, common sentiment was the Celtics were truly building toward next season. They already were in the midst of a restructuring, and when Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green were traded in the middle of the season, a place in the draft lottery seemed imminent.
But as fans were counting ping-pong balls, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ignited a flurry of in-season moves that brightened the present as much as the future.
Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, and Gigi Datome helped reshape the team’s identity and locker-room culture. And as the wins piled up and the faith in coach Brad Stevens blossomed, the Celtics nudged into the playoffs, proving they are not very good at being bad.
Along the way, though, the Celtics’ brass never lost sight of the bigger picture. This roster is not being constructed to be swept in the first round of the playoffs; it is being built to challenge for championships. And since that remains a distant goal, the Celtics are sure to be proactive as they enter another busy offseason.
“Our intention is always to be aggressive and opportunistic in the summer,” co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “We don’t want to let a summer go by. The summer of 2007 transformed this franchise, and you never know when the next one will happen.”
The Celtics have about $42 million committed to players for next season. And with four of the top 45 draft picks, salary cap room, and trade exceptions, there will be room for Ainge to maneuver. Before considering the pieces the Celtics could acquire, though, it is worth assessing what they already have and what they might be losing.
The good news for Boston is that its talented young core should, for the most part, remain intact.
■ Thomas, the closest thing the Celtics have to a star, will make $6.9 million next season and is under contract until 2017-18. He came off the bench and played just 26 minutes per game for Boston during the regular season. Stevens loves the energy Thomas brings to the second unit, but the 5-foot-9-inch guard has made it clear he would like to start. The Celtics’ backcourt remains rather crowded, though.
■ Rookie Marcus Smart will make $3.4 million in the second year of his rookie deal. Smart showed he is capable of becoming an elite defender. He goes hard on every possession and is a physical presence, but he must improve his mid-range and long-range shooting. And Smart shot just 25.6 percent from the field from 3-10 feet, according to basketball-reference.com.
“I’ll be watching a lot of film this summer,” Smart said, “and I’ll be in the gym constantly.”
■ Avery Bradley will make $7.7 million in the second year of his four-year contract. Though just 24, Bradley will be entering his sixth year with the Celtics and has become a calming, veteran presence in the locker room. He is also an excellent on-ball defender.
■ Guard Evan Turner is in the second year of the mid-level exception that will pay him $3.4 million, but he is not under contract beyond next season. Turner had flashes of brilliance, registering three triple-doubles during a one-month stretch. Although his scoring average dropped from 14.0 to 9.5 points per game, he averaged a career-high 5.5 assists.
■ This will be an important offseason for James Young as he enters his second year. Young possesses a beautiful jump shot and his long-range shooting would fill a need, but he made just 35.3 percent of his field-goal attempts and appeared to be a defensive liability at times — opponents shot 47.1 percent against him and 43 percent against other defenders. Young is just 19 years old, so the Celtics remain hopeful that there is room to grow.
■ In the post, 7-footer Tyler Zeller was one of the Celtics’ more pleasant surprises. According to basketball-reference.com, Zeller led the team in win-share — the number of wins contributed by a player — with 6.5. He is not the rim protector Boston needs, but he is a reliable defender and has a good touch around the basket. He could become a restricted free agent after next season.
■ Forward Kelly Olynyk had an uneven second year. He probably will be remembered for taking an inadvertent elbow to the face from teammate Shavlik Randolph, causing his eye to swell to the size of a golf ball, and for causing Cavaliers forward Kevin Love’s likely season-ending shoulder injury. Olynyk is a good shooter and allows the Celtics to space the floor, but he must become more aggressive.
“I think I had stretches where I was playing well and doing a lot of different things on the floor, whether passing or creating shots, shooting or getting to the rim,” Olynyk said. “And then I had other games where I wasn’t as good, not the same aggressiveness.”
■ Forward Jared Sullinger, who will make $2.2 million next season, redeemed himself in the playoffs after coming back from what was believed to be a season-ending foot injury. His future will be determined by how seriously he takes his conditioning during the offseason. Sullinger’s rebounding percentage — the number of available rebounds he corrals — gradually has decreased each season.
■ Forward Gerald Wallace’s $10.1 million salary remains an albatross, but it will be an expiring deal next season. The Celtics might look to unload Wallace in a trade if they desire extra salary cap room to make a splash this summer. If not, he likely will spend another year essentially as a highly paid assistant coach and mentor to the younger players.
■ Guards Phil Pressey and Chris Babb have non-guaranteed minimum salary deals.
■ The Celtics also could look to bring back several free agents. The highest priority figures to be Crowder, who helped reshape the team’s identity with his physical play. The Celtics likely will extend Crowder a $1.1 million qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent. His strong performance in the playoffs should increase his asking price, but look for the Celtics to do all they can to match other offers.
■ Veteran forward Brandon Bass is an unrestricted free agent, and he struggled mightily in the four-game sweep against Cleveland.
“It gives me great motivation to go in and improve my skills,” Bass said. “I don’t know what the future holds. It’s up to Danny [Ainge]. But Boston has been great to me over the last couple of years, so it’d be great for me to come back.”
Bass did have the second highest win-share on the team during the regular season, at 5.3.
■ Jerebko, who was acquired with Datome in a midseason trade, was a valuable part of the team’s playoff push. The unrestricted free agent averaged 7.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game with Boston.
“I loved it here,” he said. “I’d love to come back. I’d definitely like to keep this going.”
■ And finally, the Celtics could extend a qualifying offer to Datome. He is a good shooter and Stevens raved about his professionalism, but it is unclear if the team will seek to re-sign him. Although it is a small sample size, Datome had the team’s highest net rating — offensive rating subtracted by defensive rating — at 13.5.