Offseason In Review: Boston Celtics

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

Waiver Claims

Draft Picks

  • Marcus Smart (Round 1, 6th overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.
  • James Young (Round 1, 17th overall). Signed via rookie exception to rookie scale contract.

Camp Invitees

  • Tim Frazier
  • Rodney McGruder
  • Christian Watford

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

It was supposed to be the summer of Love in Boston. Alas, Kevin Love‘s early summer visit to the city turned out to be just that — a visit. The Celtics didn’t possess the sort of trade assets the Timberwolves were demanding for their All-Star power forward, and try as president of basketball operations Danny Ainge might, he never acquired them. The return of LeBron James to the Cavs stoked Love’s interest in playing in Cleveland, and once that happened, no team was able to match Cleveland’s package that included consecutive No. 1 overall picks. That left Ainge holding on to the perennial All-Star he already had and again enduring several more months of on-again, off-again Rajon Rondo trade rumors.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland CavaliersIn a twist of fate, the C’s helped the Cavs clear the cap room necessary to sign James, and in turn trade for Love, when they participated in a three-team trade with Cleveland and the Nets. Boston gave up only a second-round pick that’s so heavily protected it will almost certainly never end up having to surrender it to receive a what’s likely a late first-round pick in 2016 plus Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton. It’s debatable whether Zeller, the 17th overall pick from the 2012 draft, or the future pick is the most intriguing asset out of this swap for Boston. In some sense it could be Thornton, a double-figure scorer in four of his five NBA seasons, but his $8.575MM salary this season casts him merely as the booby prize of the deal for now. The C’s might be able to use his Bird rights to re-sign him and turn him into a bargain next summer, but for the time being the presence of his salary stands as an obstacle.

The acquisition of Thornton along with Boston’s decision to re-sign Avery Bradley wiped out whatever cap flexibility the Celtics might have had. The C’s entered the summer with only about $44.7MM in guaranteed salary, not counting their pair of first-round picks. A touch of creativity would have given them enough money to throw a max offer at a restricted free agent like Gordon Hayward, who played for coach Brad Stevens when both were at Butler. Of course, the Jazz proved they were going to match any offer for Hayward when they matched the max deal that the Hornets gave him. Still, in this summer’s wild restricted free agency market, in which Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe idled without contracts for months, that flexibility might have come in handy for the C’s.

Ainge instead decided to retain his own restricted free agent. Bradley was never in line for max money, but an improved shooting season and continued stellar defense helped him earn annual salaries of $8MM a year. The Celtics showed little hesitancy in committing to Bradley on the second day of free agency just months after the sides had failed to come to terms on an extension, suggesting that the former 19th overall pick made a significant impression last season. It was nonetheless an impression that didn’t stop the Celtics from drafting Marcus Smart sixth overall a few days before they reached a deal with Bradley, and the Smart pick prompted Ainge to once more deny rumors that Rondo would be the odd man out in what had become a crowded backcourt.

It nonetheless seems that the notion of a Rondo trade, or at least the concern that he’ll leave via free agency next summer, helped fuel Ainge’s choice to draft one guard and commit $32MM over four years to another. Smart’s rookie scale contract will see to it that Boston isn’t committing an overwhelming sum to its backcourt, but given the star potential of the former Oklahoma State standout, it could quickly become difficult for Stevens to distribute minutes. Perhaps Ainge is taking a cue from former understudy and current Suns GM Ryan McDonough, who’s doubled down on a strategy of stockpiling point guards that worked to surprising success last season, but time will tell if either experiment pays dividends in the playoffs.

James Young, whom the Celtics took at pick No. 17 this year, can also play guard, but he can swing to the small forward, too, and he’s less of an immediate threat for playing time. Jeff Green, who fits the Bradley mold as an above average player on a salary that’s above average as well, holds down the starting job at the small forward, where Gerald Wallace figures to see minutes if the Celtics have any hope of flipping his decidedly player-friendly contract.

The C’s entered the offseason hoping to use the nearly $5.3MM non-guaranteed salary of Keith Bogans as bait in a trade that would have significant consequences, but Ainge instead used it on the eve of training camp to acquire four players and two future second-round picks. Dwight Powell, the only one of the four players who remains on Boston’s roster, holds some intrigue after having been the 45th overall pick in this year’s draft, and the future second-round picks are not without value, either. But the trade exception equivalent to Bogans’ salary is the most intriguing asset from this transaction as far as Boston is concerned, and it essentially gives Ainge another year to turn Bogans into a player who can help the team. The C’s acquired Bogans in the Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade, so coming away with a contributor of some value would serve as a meaningful bridge from the last Celtics championship to the next one.

The Bogans trade did allow the C’s to accomplish one goal they’d set out to do since July, as before the exchange they’d been carrying too many players to consummate their free agent deal with Evan Turner. The stock of the former No. 2 overall pick isn’t what it used to be, as evidenced by a deal that represents a sharp pay cut even from his rookie scale contract, but he’s a versatile swingman who, at age 26, gives Stevens a chance to unlock the potential that’s yet to fully develop. He’s also another candidate for minutes in the backcourt in what shapes up as a season-long complication for the coach.

Turner’s contract, which fits within the taxpayer’s mid-level exception rather than the full mid-level, also speaks to Boston’s salary crunch, one the team alleviated only slightly in sending Joel Anthony‘s larger salary to Detroit in a one-for-one deal for Will Bynum. Boston is only about $2MM clear of the tax line, and that will present a challenge not just as the Celtics scour for midseason pickups, but also as Ainge tries to construct trades involving Rondo and/or others. This clearly isn’t the sort of team that Wyc Grousbeck and his fellow owners would deem worth paying the tax for, barring the unlikely event that Ainge can strike gold with with a swap.

Such “fireworks” simply failed to launch this summer, to borrow a term from Grousbeck and Ainge, and the reality is setting in that the moves that brought Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston in 2007 are exceptions rather than the rule in the NBA. The Celtics are stuck in no-man’s land, too strong to have a decent chance at the top pick, and too weak to make the playoffs. They possess one key to unlocking the door that leads out of that territory in the form of Rondo, the sort of legitimate star whom successful teams almost always have. Whether the C’s can get where they’re going with him and a team of good-but-not-great players is the key decision that Ainge must make in the months ahead, and it will probably determine whether Rondo remains in Boston for much longer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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