There is some hope that while the Celtics are considered a dark horse in the pack of teams that will meet with Durant in New York on July 1st, their ability to sign two max free agents without disrupting their core, flexibility to make moves in the future, and stability in their front office make them an attractive landing spot for the 27-year-old superstar while he's still in his prime. KD has also said that he doesn't want to go through free agency again anytime soon.
Since Durant's season ended in that gut-wrenching loss to the Warriors in Game 7, he's been very vocal about the type of situation he wants to join. Jay King over at MassLive has culled together a bunch of KD quotes regarding the importance of "culture" and team chemistry and juxtaposed them against some of the nice things that current Celtics have said about their team, their locker room, and their bond. Outside of Keith Bogans and maybe David Lee, I can't think of a negative experience a player has had since Ainge hired Stevens three years ago. Seems like a perfect fit, right?
Sure, but maybe next year.
In an interview with CBSSports, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Kevin Durant will likely sign a 1+1 and return to OKC. Teams meeting with him are simply just "planting the seed and laying the groundwork" for a run at him again in 2017 when he opts out of his deal and looks to sign an even bigger, long-term contract when the salary cap climbs to triple digits. It's a coffee date. Maybe next year, it's dinner and drinks.
Danny Ainge has been preparing for this type of scenario for the last three years. He has done a masterful job simultaneously tailoring a competitive roster fit for an incoming superstar and adding young pieces in the event the franchise is in for a longer rebuild. That explains the hesitation to trade for Jimmy Butler or potentially draft players that they couldn't stash abroad. If that transcendent, fireworks-producing move doesn't happen this summer and Durant (and a more star-studded free agent class) is available in a year's time, Danny will be forced to continue this balancing act for another summer and season. However, there are big decisions to make. Here are the four Rs to consider:
Roster reset Boston currently has 9 guaranteed contracts. Five of them are rotation players from last season: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Kelly Olynyk. The other four are last summer's rookie class plus James Young. Barring any trades to consolidate the roster, that leaves six remaining spots.
Because they provide both value on the floor and as possibly trade assets in February, the team will likely pick up the team options on Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. Remember: J&J are on non-guaranteed deals, and a decision on them would have to be made BEFORE July 1st and meeting with Durant. That's #10 and #11. Jaylen Brown is a shoe-in for one of the other vacancies. He's #12. The three remaining slots is where it gets tricky.
Restricted free agents A decision needs to be made on the class of 2011. Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller are restricted free agents, and Ainge will likely extend them qualifying offers. The market for both could be higher than expected. Zeller isn't a prototypical big in the modern NBA, but he's one of the best transition seven-footers in the league and is above average for a big man fifteen feet away from the rim. Danny shouldn't open up the checkbook for TZ and jeopardize cap room in 2017, but if Zeller wants to return on a 1+1 look-see similar to Amir Johnson's deal last summer, that's a possibility.
The more curious case is Jared Sullinger. ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton had him 8th in his free agency rankings, considering his analytic effectiveness and age:
At age 23 (he turned 24 in March), Sullinger started 73 games for a team that won 48 games and played better with him on the court. He's a terrific defensive rebounder who provides a modicum of floor spacing and is a good passer for a big man. As a result, he ranked 33rd in the league in RPM.
Pelton went on to note that Sully had trouble against the more agile Hawks in the playoffs, and that could drive down his price. Full disclosure: around this time every June and July, I'll start scanning social media for Twitter and Instagram sightings of Sully like I'm his parole officer, and right now he's looking good. See here and here. The problem for Sullinger and the roster crunch is that the Celtics now have a bullpen of young guys that can replace him. The hype train to get Jordan Mickey minutes will be full steam ahead, and draftees Guerschon Yabusele, Ante Zizic, and Ben Bentil are all viable candidates for development playing time.
Ideally, Ainge finds a sign-and-trade partner for Sully where he can get a useful player on an expiring contract and a pick in return. Think Taj Gibson or Zach Randolph if their respective teams go into full rebuild mode. I'd hate to see Sullinger and his skill set walk out the door for nothing.
My guess is that only one survives the cut between Sullinger and Zeller. That's 13.
Rookies Yabusele has already hinted a return to the international game and Abdel Nader is Maine bound. Zizic sounds adamant that he's staying stateside, but his 19-year-old body could use another year of seasoning as a Euro stash. Considering the logjams at their respective position, Bentil could beat out Demetrius Jackson for #14.
Reaches This is the $1,000,000 question. Well, it's closer to ~$25,000,000 cap space question. That's what's roughly leftover IF Johnson and Jerebko are retained and IF one of Sully or Zeller or someone in their stead return at around $10M and IF the Celtics bring in another rookie in addition to Brown.
Ainge and Stevens won't go into their meeting with Durant and say, "we understand that you won't be coming to Boston this summer, but who would you like in town when we talk again in 2017?" It's just too much of a risk maxing out a guy like Al Horford with no guarantee that the other shoe will drop. Instead, they'll look to do another 1+1 with somebody that can play right away, possibly be traded mid-season, and understands that this is an opportunity to show the league what he can do.
Boston needs to target players looking to prove themselves in order to cash in—like the Celtics—next summer. It's this strange symbiotic relationship where the Celtics can help drive up their value, while an overachieving player becomes proof positive that the Celtics know how to get the best out of their players. And if they do well enough, maybe they're part of the future plans of the team. Call it the Evan Turner Plan. And for what it's worth, I'd love to bring back Evan Turner, but after playing two years on a discount, he'll likely look for a lucrative long-term deal.
Consider someone like Chandler Parsons. The Mavericks have apparently balked at the idea of offering him a max contract. There are injury concerns, but Parsons has proven to be productive player when healthy. He's entering the sixth year of his NBA career, and it's Year 7 when a vet can command 30% of the cap. Ryan Anderson has missed 97 games in the last three years. His shooting is undoubtedly a threat on the floor, but he could use a bounce-back year as he nears potentially his last payday. He'd fit in perfectly in Stevens' pace-and-space offense. The Rockets tried trading restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas at the deadline last season, but a failed physical nixed a deal with Detroit. Montiejunas finished out the season, but concerns over his back will make most GMs leery of signing him. He's only 25 and could certainly use a redemption year. One of these guys completes the roster at #15.