Boston Celtics 2022 Offseason Preview
The Celtics season ended in disappointment but not before re-establishing them as a top-tier title contender. The team should enter this offseason with their expectation for next year being no worse than a 2-seed and a return to the Conference Finals and with their goal being 60 wins, the 1-seed, and the championship. When a team reaches that level their operating procedures change.
To the credit of the front office they recognized this as a possibility at the last trade deadline, when it was not yet clearly the case, and paid full price to trade for Derrick White. That's the type of move a team in this position should be making. The time for half-measures, cost control, and talk of down the road timelines is over.
Ownership must be willing to spend $20M over the luxury tax. With current projections, a team $20M over the tax would have a total outlay in salary and tax of $214M. For reference, the Warriors' total outlay this year was approximately $350M. No one should expect the team to spend what the Warriors or Clippers can but it's time to smash the piggy banks open.
Otherwise, this is a relatively simple offseason. No first round draft pick, no high profile free agents, no cap space to spend...
The salary cap for next season is projected at $122M with a luxury tax threshold of $149M. The team currently sits around $7M over the tax line, depending on how you handle the deep bench spots.
There is no viable path to cap space. It's highly unlikely that they'll stay under the "apron" and so the full, non-taxpayer MLE and receiving players via sign-and-trade is out, barring major roster upheaval.
The taxpayer MLE will be around $6.4M with a maximum contract length of 3 years for $20.1M. The team holds a large $17.1M trade exception as well as two other medium-sized trade exceptions. These trade exceptions can be used to acquire players currently under contract but, because of the team's position in relation to the hard cap, likely not free agents via sign-and-trade.
The team does not own their 2022 first round pick; they do have #53 in Round 2. They hold all their future picks with the 2028 pick being the worse of theirs or San Antonio's.
1. Find a long-term replacement for Al Horford
Good luck with this one. Horford is the one piece of the current rotation who is not under team contract control beyond next season and who is on the downside of the aging curve. Unfortunately, players like him who can guard Joel Embiid, switch onto Jrue Holiday, shoot, and pass don't grow on trees. The ones who do exist rarely become available and when they do they create a bidding war (or get used as the third most important piece in a Nik Vucevic trade, I guess).
2. Make a big splash
Another easier said than done item. The Celtics should put multiple first round picks on the table for any starter-caliber players who fit their system and are even remotely on the market. Brad Beal-type contracts are probably out of the realm of possibility but another player the caliber (and contract size) of Derrick White could be the difference between winning the next title and not.
3. Add wing depth
Jayson Tatum has played more minutes over the past three seasons than anyone in the league. He also played in the Olympics between seasons and the FIBA World Cup immediately preceding this run. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart also played in that World Cup and have played the 10th and 20th most minutes in the league over that three season span, respectively.
Post-trade deadline the team played a seven man rotation of three guards, two wings, and three bigs. Wing depth that can ease the regular season toll on Jayson and Jaylen and hopefully provide some playoff production is critical. The Warriors deserve immense credit for how they shut down the Celtics as the Finals went on, but Tatum also did look exhausted and banged up. Not all of those missed layups were due to amazing defensive contests.
4. Add a veteran depth PG
Playing Marcus Smart at point guard was one of the keys to the Celtics in-season turnaround. His defense at that position allowed the team to build lineups with no weaknesses. On offense, his versatility dovetailed well with the commitment to running things through Tatum. Smart screening for Tatum became a hallmark of their top-ranked offense in the second half of the season. While that broke down late in the Finals, the idea that the team could reasonably upgrade on Smart seems ridiculous to me.
However, in Game 6 when Smart picked up his third foul and went to the bench the team was up 20-15. Ime Udoka went with White and Payton Pritchard in the back court and when Smart returned is was 32-22, Warriors. In that moment, the Celtics could have used a more steady hand on the floor. Now that the team is established as a contender, they may be able to entice a reliable veteran PG for the minimum, even with limited opportunity available. This may be more of a mid-season priority depending on team health, the development of Pritchard as a PG, and who becomes available at the deadline and in the buy-out market.
Jaylen Brown Extension
Jaylen is technically eligible for an extension but the maximum the team is allowed to offer is less than what he would be eligible for in free agency and way less than what he would be eligible if he makes an All NBA Team while on this deal. The team should offer all they can; Jaylen will decline it. No hard feelings.
Al Horford Guarantee / Extension
Al is also extension eligible but at 36 years old there's a limit to how far the team would be willing to go. If he wants to add one additional season at a low salary, cool. In the past he hasn't shown an interest in taking discounts but maybe his experience in Philadelphia and OKC has changed that.
His contract for next season has $7M in non-guaranteed money. Obviously we will not be waiving him for that savings.
Grant Williams Extension
The third year power forward's future value seemed to fluctuate wildly from game-to-game in the playoffs. In a way, that tells you all you need to know. Williams is a useful long-term role player. He's part of the answer to how Horford will eventually be replaced. If he's willing to sign for around what Robert Williams did, maybe with more total salary but less guaranteed, I think that would be fair.
The Celtics reacquired Theis at the trade deadline and were happy that they did when Rob Williams went down with injury. However, Theis is overpaid for a fourth big who dropped out of the playoff rotation and he has two guaranteed seasons remaining on his deal (then a team option). It's possible that won't matter. If the team's budget is $20M over the tax and they can't make a trade to acquire another major contributor above the TMLE level, he fits in fine and there isn't necessarily a reason to change.
If they do make a significant acquisition Theis would probably have to be moved to open budget space even if his salary isn't technically needed for contract matching with the Fournier TPE available. Were he to go, the team would then need to replace him with a different (non Enes Freedom) big who can cover for both Rob Williams's injuries and Horford's age.
Aaron Nesmith Fourth Year Option
Unless the team is much higher on Nesmith than they've ever shown and expect him to take over a significant role next season, they should decline his fourth year option for $5.6M in 2023-24. If that happens he would become an unrestricted free agent in 2023 and the Celtics, or any other team that ends up with him, would be limited to offering him that same $5.6M as the maximum first year salary on a new deal. All that being the case, the Celtics should probably just try to trade Nesmith now, either as matching salary in a larger deal or just as a way to free up budget space for this season.
Payton Pritchard Fourth Year Option
I assume this will be picked up. He was in the playoff rotation and the salary is $4M.
Sam Hauser's Role
Some readers will think it odd that I didn't list "shooting" above as an offseason priority. The problem is that any high-level shooter who also defends well enough to fit into this team would be in the "big splash" category and not just generic "shooting." If the team wants a Duncan Robinson type they seem to have one in the program already. Hauser shot over 40% from 3PT across the G-League and NBA last season, and the shots he takes are more difficult than the average three. He may never be able to hold up in the playoffs but the Celtics need regular season wing depth and he's 6'8".
One thing to note is that Hauser is signed for next season and then would be a restricted free agent the year after that, but the team could also decline his option, make him an RFA now, and re-sign him to a longer contract.
Yam Madar / Juhann Begarin
There's the potential for some tax savings by bringing over drafted players on rookie minimum contracts. Replacing players making veteran minimums on the back end of the roster with Madar, Begarin, or the player chosen at 53 can create an extra million in the budget. If those players aren't going to play anyway, it makes sense to do that with at least one of these guys and then just have them spend the year with Maine.
I'm going to use a total spend of $20M over the tax as my budget. In all instances where the target has positive contract value, the Celtics would be offering future first round pick(s) as the price.
Toronto Raptors Guys
OG Anunoby ($17,357,143 | 18,642,857 | Player Option 19,928,571)
Gary Trent Jr. ($17,280,000 | Player Option 18,560,000)
Anunoby would be the ideal fit for skills, position, and age. There's reporting from Jake Fischer that Anunoby may want out but, like Jerami Grant before him, to a place where he would take on a larger role in the offense. He could not have that here. There's also talk that Portland could offer the 7th pick for him which would take Boston out of the running, I think, even with a big package of multiple picks. Still, I would make that offer.
If Toronto goes the unlikely route of blowing up their nice but upside-capped team while they still have the glow of the title not too far off, Trent could also shake loose. The Raptors could get a massive haul in total if they just sold off Siakam, Anunonby, VanVleet, and Trent to tank for Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. Trent would be a very nice addition to what the Celtics have and would cost less than Anunoby.
Complicating these is that both players fit into the Fournier TPE today but will not once the league season rolls over on July 1.
Atlanta Hawks Guys
John Collins ($23,500,000 | 25,340,000 | 26,580,000 | Player Option 26,580,000)
Kevin Heurter ($14,508,929 | 15,669,643 | 16,830,357 | 17,991,071)
Bogdan Bogdanovic ($18,000,000 | Player Option 18,000,000)
The Hawks seem significantly more ready to shake things up than the Raptors. Collins would be an interesting long-term replacement for Horford, though a less versatile one. The length of his contract would align with the rest of the roster and contract control seems to really appeal to Brad Stevens. This would not be a TPE trade; it would require either moving Horford or (much more likely) packaging Theis, Nesmith, Grant Williams, and a minimum salary player.
Heurter didn't take the step forward that I think Atlanta was expecting. He has a lot of years left at what I would classify as fair money. Still, he's 6'7" and can shoot and isn't terrible with the ball or on defense. He would become our weakest defender but also one of our best shooters. He checks all the age/contract/position boxes.
Bogdanovic makes more than Heurter, is older, and has only one year left before a player option. He makes less sense to me.
Washington Wizards Guys
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($14,004,703)
Kyle Kuzma ($13,000,000 | Player Option 13,000,000)
Two solid role guys on fair deals playing for a bad team. If Washington and Beal part ways and they go full tank the vultures, including the Celtics, will circle these two. Even if Beal stays, Boston should enquire. Either would fit into the Fournier TPE.
Phoenix Suns Guys
Jae Crowder ($10,183,800)
Torrey Craig ($5,121,951)
Cameron Payne ($6,000,000 | Partial Guarantee 6,500,000)
Depending on what happens with DeAndre Ayton the Suns could be looking to shed salary. I think Crowder is too important to them to let go but you never know. He also doesn't fit into the smaller TPEs but if you were to add him there's probably not enough budget space to use the Fournier one on top of that, anyway.
Craig would fit into a smaller TPE and fell out of their playoff rotation despite only making it to Round 2. He was a mid-season acquisition who they would probably be willing to just give away for free. I would not expect him to stick in our playoff rotation either but I'd take him as a regular season option who could save the legs of Tatum and Brown.
Payne's scoring efficiency fell off a cliff last season after being re-signed. He's a more traditional PG than what the C's have and if you want that, think he'll bounce back, and Phoenix has buyer's remorse you might be able to take him for free like you would Craig.
Indiana Pacers Guys
Malcolm Brogdon ($22,600,000 | $21,634,615 | $23,365,385)
T.J. McConnell ($8,100,000 | $8,700,000 | Partial Guarantee $9,300,000)
I get asked about these two quite a lot. Neither make sense to me. Brogdon has the right skills but is always injured and makes a lot of money. McConnell would just repeat the Theis contract issue; plus he turns it over too much to join our group.
You get the idea. Guys like the ones above. Whoever your favorite target is just imagine they're listed here.
Free Agent Targets
There are dozens of players who could be discussed here. I think the approach the team took last season set a good model for how they should handle this one. Strike early on trying to use the TPEs which will determine what your priority if for the MLE signing.
When free agency opens you hit your top few targets with the Taxpayer MLE offer. If none of them bite you then wait out the market to see who is left standing when the music stops. Dennis Schroder didn't work out last season but entering free agency it was assumed that the Full MLE was his floor and that he could still make mid-teen millions. There are always players like that.
Just to highlight a few types of players to go after...
Isaiah Hartenstein (La Clippers, C/PF)
My ideal depth big man if the team does end up moving Theis. We need protection for Rob Williams and Hartenstein blocks a lot of shots, is a solid rebounder, and a good passer. He even started to flash some shooting ability last season. In the regular season he could play some with Rob but would mostly be a center next to Al/Grant or in smaller lineups. The Clippers will surely want him back and should be the favorites but can't offer any more money than Boston can. It's hard for me to see a fringe-starter C with so little track record getting more than the TMLE from anyone else so it comes down to what role he's looking for, or one team with money to burn falling in love.
Damian Jones (Sacramento, C)
Another shot blocker and rim runner with a bit of passing. He would be an option at the minimum, not the MLE. I could see him being a decent backup to Rob because he could play the same role in the defense instead of necessitating system changes whenever Rob is out.
Gary Harris (Orlando, SG)
An obvious, ready-made fit for the Celtics, aside from being 6'4" instead of 6'8". I expect him to get above the TMLE but there really aren't that many teams with spending power above that and so you never know. He might be the type of guy who sees the appeal of playing for a contender for less money with the amount he banked on his last deal.
TJ Warren (Indiana, F)
He's been out injured forever and will start next season in recovery, too. This is an upside play like what Miami did with Victor Oladipo. If you think you can survive the regular season with what we have or can trade for, that gives you months to rehab Warren and integrate him into the team. By the playoffs he could be a major contributor. You could make a similar case for Joe Ingles, I suppose.
Gary Payton II (Golden State, G/F)
Can you double-down on what made the Celtics successful and hurt one of our title rivals? He doesn't really solve any of Boston's problems but sometimes leaning into your strengths is good enough. I expect him to stay in Golden State but again, you never know unless you ask.
Wes Matthews (Milwaukee, G/F)
A better fit but a worse player than Payton II, also being taken away from a title rival.
Bruce Brown, Nic Batum, Kyle Anderson, Otto Porter...
Someone is going to be left standing! If it's any of these guys that would be lovely for us. All of them should be out of our price range but phone calls are free these days.
This is now the Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Williams Celtics with Ime Udoka. When those four shared the floor they had a +19 (!!!) net rating in the regular season and a +9 in the playoffs. Everything from here is about identifying the right pieces to go around them and managing your budget and assets in support of that vision.
This team came close to winning the title. They can win it next year, or any of the few years after that. This is the beginning of their window. It should be good times.