The offseason has begun in Boston. The Celtics are recovering from their disappointing elimination from the playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks. The team’s brass has roughly seven weeks to prepare for the draft and eight to prepare for free agency.
The Celtics’ need for long-term reinforcements was mentioned in quiet murmurs during the season but in the past few days, as the team reflected on its weaknesses and needs, those cries for big-time help became piercing, especially from point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas was the sole focus of the Atlanta defense. The Hawks essentially dared anyone else on the Boston roster to score 20 or more points. And they were incapable.
“We’re supposed to be in the rebuilding process but we’ve made the playoffs the last two years,” Thomas said. “We’ve gotten better to when I got here until now and I think it just shows a lot of potential in this team and this organization and where it’s going. It can only go up and we’ve got the right players around with a few more added players hopefully this summer and we can make even more noise.”
The needs are evident. The Celtics need a long-range shooter, someone who can stretch defenses. The Celtics need a rim protector. They were 22d in the NBA in blocked shots. The Celtics need another pure scorer, someone besides Thomas who can get to the free throw line.
Thomas led the Celtics and was eighth in the NBA in free throw attempts at 544. The next-highest Celtic was Jae Crowder at 67th. Avery Bradley, the team’s starting shooting guard, attempted just 123 in 76 games.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge aligned the salary cap to where the Celtics could pursue two maximum-salary players if they do not guarantee the contracts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, which total $17 million in additional salary cap space.
So the Celtics have the opportunity to be major players in free agency. And free agency for the local basketball team is always tricky. While the Red Sox, Bruins, and Patriots have had little issue signing premium free agents, the Celtics haven’t signed such a player in more than 30 years.
But now may be the perfect time. The Celtics have salary cap space, a lottery pick coming in, are on the verge of a breakthrough with a young core featuring Thomas, Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Bradley, and feature one of the brighter coaching minds in the game.
So here is a list of the Celtics’ potential free agent targets, along with a percentage that these players actually don green next season.
Kevin Durant, Thunder — Why the heck not? The Celtics, in basketball terms, could be the perfect landing spot for Durant, who at 27 is trying to chase his first NBA title and needs to shake the tag of “best player never to win a championship.”
Let’s take a few things into account here: Durant has played in Seattle and Oklahoma City and has enjoyed his experience, so the lure of city life may not be as persuasive as with other free agents. Durant is a basketball historian and Ainge could sell him on being the next great Celtic, with an opportunity to have his jersey number eventually hanging in the rafters.
It will take quite a sales pitch, but Thomas said he’s more than willing to push Boston as a free agent destination. Durant is also close with former Celtic Kendrick Perkins, who has made known his admiration for the city of Boston. Durant wants to win. He wants a strong supporting cast and wants the right situation.
Chance: 10 percent.
Al Horford, Hawks — The question for the Hawks is whether they want Horford to play center for the future, because they already have Paul Millsap at power forward. Horford does not want to play center into his 30s, giving the Celtics a great opportunity to sell Horford on playing a “stretch four” type of position.
With Horford, the Celtics would have their staunch defender, rim protector, and perimeter shooter in his prime. According to Tom Heinsohn, Horford is not a great player, but he is a major upgrade at a position of need. Chance: 30 percent.
Dwight Howard, Rockets — OK, here’s the deal: Howard wants to be paid like a max player but isn’t a max player anymore. The Celtics could promise him more offensive touches and a much better atmosphere. But what Howard would they get for their $30 million? That’s the tricky part. It would have to be a short-term deal with hopes that Howard revives himself after a couple of poor years. Chance: 25 percent.
Hassan Whiteside, Heat — Whiteside will be able to field offers from any team and if the Celtics really believe in his defensive skills, they can offer a max contract. Whiteside is a defensive difference maker but he’s already 26 and has maturity issues. But just imagine how much the Celtics’ defense would improve with him in the middle. Chance: 20 percent.
Kent Bazemore, Hawks — The Celtics showed interest in Bazemore when he was a free agent two years ago. He would provide athleticism at small forward, and he showed the Celtics how easily he can get to the basket during their playoff series. He made just $2 million this season so he could garner a 600 percent raise in free agency. But he’s only 26 and has improved exponentially over the past two years. Chance: 30 percent.
Al Jefferson, Hornets — Would the Celtics bring Big Al back to Boston? He’s 31 now and coming off one of the worst years of his career, but he would give the Celtics a real post presence and dependable scorer. But he doesn’t protect the rim and isn’t a staunch defender. But in limited minutes, Jefferson would give coach Brad Stevens someone who Thomas can dump the ball into in the post. Chance: 25 percent.
Harrison Barnes , Warriors (restricted) — Barnes appears ready for a more prominent role and the Celtics could make a bid for the swingman with the promise of a starting job. Crowder is the team’s current starting small forward but he could also move to power forward when Stevens employs small lineups. Chance: 20 percent.
Jamal Crawford, Clippers — The Celtics desperately need offense off the bench, and Crawford is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year. He doesn’t play much defense but the Celtics are a good defensive team that needs scoring punch. Crawford is a young 36 and a short-term deal may be a good fit. Chance: 35 percent.
Ryan Anderson, Pelicans — He is the stretch four that the Celtics could use. He is a proven shooter who is a career 37.7 percent from the 3-point line. He is also a decent rebounder for a finesse player. Anderson put pressure on defenses because of his offensive prowess. Chance: 35 percent.
Mirza Teletovic, Suns — Another long-range shooter who could come off the bench and drain 3-pointers. He wouldn’t make the Celtics a championship club but would be an upgrade from what they have. Chance: 30 percent.
Jared Dudley, Wizards — The former Boston College standout is a free agent again. He can stretch defenses and has a high basketball IQ. He would be a solid player coming off the bench but may not be a priority as the market begins drying up. Chance: 30 percent.