WALTHAM — When the free agency window opened four weeks ago, Celtics fans were hoping for a premium signee who would define the future of the franchise. On Monday, the team introduced the results of their July work — five players who will be asked to continue building the team’s winning culture.
It took a couple of years, but the Celtics have completely moved on from the Doc Rivers era. The perception of the organization has changed dramatically, to the point that young players now view Boston as a team that is becoming a contender, albeit methodically.
The Celtics re-signed Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, then introduced David Lee, Perry Jones III, and Amir Johnson, each of whom could be critical to the team’s long-term success.
Each of those five players has a personal agenda. Johnson, who played the previous six years with the Toronto Raptors, wants an expanded role and to become more of an offensive presence. Jerebko wants to have a consistent role on a playoff team.
Crowder wants to prove he was worthy of a five-year contract worth $7 million per season after making roughly $915,000 last season. Lee, in the final year of his contract, wants to prove worthy of another long-term deal at age 32, while Jones, projected as a lottery pick and potential cornerstone during his time at Baylor, seeks to show he is a rotation player after three listless seasons in Oklahoma City.
Together, they further the team’s quest to rise in the Eastern Conference. And while the Celtics lack star power, they are loaded with depth. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was unable to land that big fish, a franchise-defining player to excite the fan base, but he was able to dramatically improve his team without sacrificing draft picks he wants to use for future deals.
So the offseason has been a success, especially because the Celtics acquired players with something to prove.
“I will tell you this, from playing against this team the second half of last year, we barely held on twice,” Lee said of facing the Celtics while with the Warriors. “They’re a team that competes and a team that plays well with one another. I think the system that coach [Brad] Stevens has put in is very effective. Now it’s just a matter of taking another step. And what that step means, I don’t know. It’s too early to tell, but I think that we can be a better team than we were last year and that’s just exciting times.”
With the league’s escalating salaries — a serviceable center such as Robin Lopez will be paid $13 million per season by the Knicks — the Celtics realized they wouldn’t attract a premium free agent, so they signed Johnson to a one-year deal with the second year non-guaranteed, traded for Lee in the final year of his deal, and took a flier on Jones.
“Talent is obviously No. 1 but culture is huge,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said. “Guys that are willing to play together and willing to play toward a common goal is really, really important. That’s the example we want for our young players, that’s the culture we want to be known for throughout the league. We want to attract the players who are looking for that.”
Sometimes the best money spent is the money not spent. Would Celtics fans rather Ainge and son spent money on long-term free agents who may not have worked out, just to utilize salary cap space? Just to say the Celtics went after a big fish? Instead, the organization used its money on short-term contracts that allow future flexibility.
And the Celtics also maintained their cap space long enough to help other teams facilitate deals, such as Monday when they acquired Zoran Dragic — not Goran — and swapped second-round picks with the Miami Heat. The Celtics will waive Dragic and gain a non-protected second-rounder for a heavily protected second-rounder.
And if Jones doesn’t work out, the Celtics still own another second rounder from the Thunder. So while they strive to improve — not as quickly as they would prefer — the Celtics aren’t sacrificing their assets or future salary cap space.
“We like what we have right now,” Danny Ainge said. “I’m excited for the season to start and right now from here until the end of September we’re going to be working with the players and getting them acclimated to the city, to our organization.”
Grade this offseason as a success. The Celtics didn’t overextend themselves, foolishly spending money only to have buyer’s remorse months later. The plan is being well executed but still has many steps until completion.
But it’s OK for now.