When Al Horford informed the Celtics earlier this month that he would most likely be signing elsewhere, it appeared Boston’s roster was crumbling. The Celtics were already preparing for the loss of the All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, and now they were left to figure out how to maintain their position as an Eastern Conference power.
But when they traded center Aron Baynes at the deadline, shedding his $5.4 million salary and putting them in position to open up enough cap space to pursue a maximum-salary free agent, it was clear that they were up to something. And a league source confirmed that the Celtics have interest in Hornets free agent Kemba Walker, so there is suddenly a chance that they will be able to replace one All-Star point guard with another.
No matter how that situation unfolds, however, it is clear that the Celtics are staying prepared for everything. This week the team brass has huddled to formulate its strategy for the opening of free agency Sunday at 6 p.m., and a league source said they have identified a “handful” of players they are prepared to pursue.
The Celtics, the sources said, have been planning for weeks under the assumption that Irving and Horford will depart. A source close to Horford said the forward has returned to his home in Atlanta, and that no decision has been made about his future. Nevertheless, a league source maintained that Horford’s time in Boston is over. Irving, the source said, has yet to give the team the official word that he will not be returning, but added that, at this point, it is unclear whether the Celtics would want him back regardless.
If the Celtics do offer Walker a four-year, $141 million max contract, they would have to clear the decks a bit. It would start with removing the cap holds of free agents Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier by renouncing the rights to sign them. Rozier would become an unrestricted free agent and Morris’s “Bird Rights,” which would allow Boston to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him, would be relinquished.
According to a league source, the Celtics have yet to tender a one-year, $4.3 million qualifying offer to Rozier that would make him a restricted free agent. The source said that final decision would likely not be made until Friday’s deadline, ostensibly when there could be some more clarity about the Walker situation.
Rozier has made it clear that he would like to become a starting point guard and that he would not be interested in returning to Boston if it meant sitting behind Irving. When Irving’s situation seemed to crumble, it appeared there was a chance Rozier could ultimately land the role he was seeking. But now that possibility could be in jeopardy.
Walker, meanwhile, has said several times that re-signing with the Hornets is his “first priority.” Charlotte is the only team capable of offering him a five-year, $221.3 million super-max contract. There is always a chance that the Boston rumblings this week are an attempt by his camp to show Charlotte that it is time to open up the vault. Walker said June 13 that he would likely meet with “a few teams” during free agency.
“Charlotte is my first priority,” he told reporters then. “I’ve got to see what these guys have to offer as well as these other teams . . . If it doesn’t work out, I’m definitely prepared to play somewhere else.”
With the imminent departures of Irving, Horford, and Baynes, it was fair to wonder whether the Celtics would pivot back to their youth movement and look to build around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Using essentially all of the available cap space to sign the 29-year-old Walker could indicate that they are still looking to win now.
League sources said there have been no directives issued from ownership about what route the team should take, and that the Celtics remain prepared to go down several different paths depending on how the summer unfolds.
If Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler leave the Raptors and 76ers, respectively, to sign with Western Conference teams, it conceivably could create new possibilities for Boston in the East. But a league source said the Celtics will not make any moves based on the additions or subtractions of other teams in the conference.
If Irving signs with the Nets, it would likely mean that D’Angelo Russell’s tenure in Brooklyn has come to an end. Russell, a 23-year-old All-Star, could be a solid long-term fit within Boston’s young core. A league source said he is a player that would interest the Celtics, but there are still so many dominoes that need to fall to get to that point.
After a rocky season that was marred by poor chemistry and general unhappiness, there has been some suggestion that the Celtics should try to bring back point guard Isaiah Thomas as a backup in hopes that he could reclaim some of the magic that has eluded him since the hip injury he suffered two years ago.
Thomas has openly stated that he would welcome a return to Boston, but a league source said he will not be in the Celtics’ plans this summer.
There will be plenty of roster openings to fill regardless.
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According to a league source, the Celtics are planning to fully guarantee forward Semi Ojeleye’s $1.6 million contract for next season, as expected . . . Celtics rookie Romeo Langford, who is still recovering from offseason thumb surgery, will not be cleared for full contact when summer league practice begins Saturday. Forward Guerschon Yabusele, meanwhile, is expected to join Boston’s summer league team, but Ojeleye is not, according to a source.