Less than 24 hours after their frustrating season came to a sudden end with a Game 5 loss to the Bucks in the conference semifinals, the Celtics on Thursday completed exit meetings with the coaching staff and entered what figures to be an interesting offseason.
Last summer was a rare time of calm for this organization that always seems to be reshuffling its deck. But this one promises to be anything but.
So much of the attention will turn to Kyrie Irving’s looming free agency decision and the pursuit of Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis. If Boston is able to acquire Davis — and it will make a push to do so even if Irving does not return — it will likely result in an extensively reshaped roster. But even if that deal never comes to pass, there will be difficult decisions to make elsewhere.
The Celtics will be able to offer Irving five years and $189 million while other teams can only give him four years and $151 million, but Irving has given no indications how much that matters, if at all. The Lakers and Knicks are among the teams that will have the salary cap space to pursue him, and his decision will have a domino effect on Boston’s roster.
Irving had a dazzling regular season but he fizzled against the Bucks, leaving questions about his commitment to the organization as well as his ability to be the No. 1 option on a championship-caliber team. Nevertheless, the Celtics will not turn their backs on him.
After Wednesday’s loss, Irving gave no real hints about his future.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said, “I’m just trying to get back to Boston first, safely. See my family, decompress, do what human beings do.”
Al Horford has a $30 million player option in the final year of his four-year max contract. He could simply opt in, since he is unlikely to fetch an annual salary that high as he enters his age-33 season.
But he could also seek a multiyear deal that gives him more long-term security at a lower annual salary, potentially helping lower the Celtics’ luxury tax bill if Horford decides to stay. Horford battled some knee issues this season, but he remains an All-Star-caliber player and the team’s second-best defender after Marcus Smart.
Horford has seemed happy in Boston and he has great respect for Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge. But he has never won a championship, so if he gets word that Irving plans to leave and it becomes unlikely that the team will acquire Davis, Horford may seek a better opportunity to win.
“I mean, it’s something I haven’t even stopped to think about,” Horford said Wednesday night. “But yes, one of the things that I’ve enjoyed being here in Boston, and just wait and see what we’re going to do as a team, and steps that management is going to do moving forward.”
Marcus Morris is an unrestricted free agent. He carried the team with his outside shooting during its quiet start before hitting a slump toward the end of the year. But Morris redeemed himself during the playoffs, when he shot 51.9 percent from the field and 45 percent on 3-pointers.
The Celtics would like to have him back, but if Irving returns — and especially if Davis arrives — the luxury tax situation could make it challenging to keep Morris, who should command about $10 million per year.
“I love Boston and I feel like they gave me an opportunity to really be able to showcase my game at a high level,” Morris said. “Gave me an opportunity to win, to get to the playoffs, to really take my name and my game to a higher level.”
Point guard Terry Rozier is a restricted free agent, meaning Boston will be able to match any offer sheet that he signs with another team. The Celtics and Rozier’s camp held extension discussions last fall, on the heels of Rozier’s strong performance in the 2018 playoffs in place of the injured Irving. But Rozier was seeking an annual salary of around $18 million, and the Celtics were unwilling to offer that.
Rozier had high hopes for this season anyway but struggled in a reduced role. He played 22.7 minutes per game during the regular season and just 18 per in the playoffs, when he averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds on 32.2 percent shooting. At times this season Rozier made his frustrations, as well as his hopes of becoming a starting point guard somewhere, quite clear. But he also dutifully stepped into whatever role Stevens asked him to fill.
“Definitely do think about it,” Rozier said of free agency. “Looking forward to a family, someone that greets me like a family, that’s going to invest in me all the way.”
If Rozier is convinced that the Celtics will match any long-term offer sheet he signs with another team, he could elect to take a one-year financial hit and sign a $4.3 million qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent after next season. If Irving leaves, however, Rozier could be in position to receive the contract and role he has been seeking in Boston.
Jaylen Brown, 22, will be entering the final year of his rookie deal, and he will be eligible for an extension this fall. The Celtics have not signed a player to a rookie extension since Rajon Rondo in 2009, but Brown would seem like a likely candidate. He struggled at times with a reduced role after the return of Gordon Hayward, but thrived down the stretch, shooting better than 50 percent both after the All-Star break and during the playoffs.
“It tested me,” Brown said. “It tested me definitely mentally, physically, and when you get challenged that’s where growth happens, being uncomfortable. I had to adapt, my role changed, my responsibility changed. I had to adapt in so many different ways.”
Hayward struggled for much of the year as he worked his way back from the gruesome ankle injury he suffered in the opening game of the 2017-18 season. He began to find a rhythm near the end of the regular season before appearing tentative and uneasy against the Bucks. Hayward is under contract for next season and will then have a player option for the final year of his four-year deal.
“Just excited to get to an offseason without having to deal with the injury and rehabbing,” Hayward said. “It’s going to be a really challenging offseason for me with the work I’m going to put in. I’m looking forward to attacking that.”
Forward Jayson Tatum, who did not take the second-year leap to stardom some were expecting, still has two years remaining on his rookie contract. Tatum will inevitably come up in more Davis trade rumors and could end up being the primary piece of that potential deal. But the Celtics will do all they can to keep him out of it.
Center Aron Baynes has a player option on the two-year, $11 million deal he signed last summer. Both sides called that negotiation one of the easiest they have agreed upon. Although Baynes struggled through some nagging injuries, his value as a defender was obvious, and he provides some necessary relief for Horford. It is unlikely that Baynes, 32, will command a bigger deal on the open market, so look for him to stay in Boston.
Semi Ojeleye’s $1.6 million contract for next season is nonguaranteed, but that appears to be an easy choice for the Celtics. Ojeleye’s 3-point shot has potential, and he is a muscular wing who has been deployed to defend everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to LeBron James.
Center Daniel Theis is an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics got a steal when they signed the little-known big man to a two-year, minimum-salary deal. If Baynes and Horford return, though, Theis may look to latch on as a backup elsewhere.
Unrestricted free agent Brad Wanamaker, who left money on the table in the Euroleague last season to chase his NBA dream, never snagged a notable role, but he showed promise during short stints. The Celtics could make Theis and Wanamaker restricted free agents if they extend one-year qualifying offers to them. The Celtics last season picked up their third-year option on forward Guerschon Yabusele, so his $3.1 million contract is guaranteed for next season despite what has been an extremely limited role.
Robert Williams, who was used sparingly as a rookie this season, will be on the second year of his guaranteed deal.