Assessing the Celtics’ roster as free agency approaches
One month ago, it was certainly plausible to envision a world in which Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward were all Celtics next season, likely emerging as the favorites to win the NBA title.
Now, though, it seems that was little more than a pipe dream.
You can call it a pivot, a reload, or a rebuild. It doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that it appears increasingly likely that Boston’s roster is about to undergo yet another major overhaul.
The difference this time is that it will be difficult not to look at the changes as a setback.
But because this team will almost certainly still have Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Hayward, it will still have enough talent to be a nuisance for opponents, regardless of what else happens.
Free agency opens at 6 p.m. on June 30, and there will be much more clarity about the makeup of the roster soon after that. But enough has transpired in recent weeks to at least provide a better picture.
Last season, Celtics ownership faced questions about whether it would be willing to go deep into the luxury tax to build a contender. Now, Boston is making cost-cutting moves to open salary-cap space.
The Celtics are currently in line to have about $25.8 million in cap space, and if they renounce their rights to restricted free agent Terry Rozier, that number would swell to about $35 million, enough to offer a max contract to a player with up to nine years of experience.
Boston could look to add an All-Star-caliber player. It could take different routes on a longer view, too, like using the space to absorb some bad contracts from other teams looking to create space, in exchange for draft compensation.
Or it could sign free agents to one-year deals to set up a run at a top free agent next year, when players like Tatum and Brown might be even closer to becoming stars.
There will be no easy decisions, but there will be change.
Here is a rundown of how the roster appears to be shaping up.
■ Kyrie Irving — All signs continue to point to Irving bolting in free agency. Brooklyn appears to be his most likely destination. If Irving and Kevin Durant are indeed planning to team up somewhere, it’s unclear whether Durant’s Achilles’ injury might affect that plan. Nevertheless, there has been no indication that Irving is seriously considering the Celtics anymore.
When Boston failed to acquire Davis from the Pelicans, it felt like their final hope to sway Irving was washed away.
■ Al Horford — While Irving’s departure has seemed imminent for weeks, Horford’s situation probably felt like the bigger gut punch for the Celtics. League sources have said that negotiations between the sides crumbled, and Horford, who has never been to the NBA Finals, might have realized that Boston no longer presented the best possible path.
Sources said Horford informed the Celtics just over a week ago that he will likely be signing elsewhere, and multiple reports have suggested that teams are preparing offers that will pay him $100 million or more over four years.
■ Aron Baynes — In May, Baynes opted into his $5.4 million salary for next season. He did so when both he and the Celtics thought they were building a championship contender. Now, though, Boston’s reality has shifted. And last Thursday night it freed up salary-cap space by trading Baynes and the 24th pick in the draft to the Suns in exchange for a 2020 first-round choice that Phoenix had previously acquired from Milwaukee.
Could be gone
■ Marcus Morris — At the start of last season, Morris had real concerns about his role on a Celtics team that was welcoming back Hayward from injury and was prepared to give Tatum a larger role. But Morris was a key part of the rotation and made 45 percent of his 3-pointers during the playoffs. Morris, an unrestricted free agent, wants a role and a chance to win.
The bad news is that Boston’s roster remains loaded with young wings, and the team has taken a step back in its championship path. Morris was one of the NBA’s biggest bargains the past four years, making an average of $5 million per season.
He will likely seek something above $15 million per year now.
■ Terry Rozier — After his breakout 2018 postseason in place of the injured Irving, Rozier struggled in a reduced role last year and made no secret about his frustrations. At season’s end, he even went on ESPN and said that if the Celtics brought back the same team, he did not want to come back.
He is a restricted free agent, meaning the Celtics will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs. But Irving’s likely departure could make Rozier more willing to just re-sign with the Celtics and grab hold of the starting point guard spot he has been seeking. It’s just not clear whether the Celtics want to give it to him.
■ Brad Wanamaker — Wanamaker proved capable during his short stints as Boston’s third-string point guard, but he never claimed the role he was looking for.
There’s a chance the Celtics could bring him back with a more defined role as a backup, but that scenario became much less likely when the Celtics added three guards in the draft.
■ Daniel Theis — When it looked like Baynes and Horford would be back, and Davis could be joining them, Theis’s departure seemed quite likely. He showed he is a capable backup big man on a minimum-salary contract the past two years.
He might opt to return to Europe, but Boston’s potentially barren front court could affect things.
They’re back (for now)
■ Jayson Tatum — There is no question that the Celtics’ best hope of remaining an Eastern Conference power hinges on Tatum’s possible ascension to stardom. The 21-year-old has two years left on his rookie deal.
■ Jaylen Brown — Just like Tatum, the Celtics need Brown to show that he can become an All-Star. He is now entering his fourth season, and while he has yet to show substantial progress, he will probably now get the role he was hoping for.
■ Gordon Hayward — It would be fascinating to see how things might have turned out differently if Hayward never had that one fateful fall in the opening minutes of the 2017-18 season.
He struggled for most of last year, but did show flashes of his old form. The Celtics are optimistic that with another full summer to rehab, he will look like the Hayward of old next fall.
■ Marcus Smart — The Celtics last season lost their identity as a relentless, hard-playing, fearless group. If that is to come back, Smart will be at the center of it.
He should have renewed confidence after a good shooting season that was followed up with a first-team all-defense nod.
■ Robert Williams — Williams showed flashes of his unusual athleticism in a limited role last season, though he also appeared lost sometimes. With looming openings in the front court, he’ll get his chance to shine this year.
■ Semi Ojeleye — The Celtics will almost certainly pick up Ojeleye’s $1.6 million team option for next season. He is an excellent defender with potential to become a good 3-point shooter.
■ Guerschon Yabusele — The Celtics picked up Yabusele’s $3.1 million option for next season, but it will probably be his last chance to prove he belongs.
Welcome to Boston
The Celtics selected four players in last Thursday’s draft. None are viewed as surefire, NBA-ready talents, but the draft is hard to predict. If Romeo Langford (14th pick), Grant Williams (22nd), Carsen Edwards (33rd), or Tremont Waters (51st) can emerge right away, it would be a boon to Boston’s reboot.