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Boston Celtics free agent preview: The Ballhandlers

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If Marcus Smart leaves town, Boston’s depth will be tested

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

With NBA free agency just days away from opening, as the league year will flip from 2017-18 to 2018-19 on July 1st, it’s time to take a look at which players might be on the move. After making the biggest free agent signings in franchise history the last two summers in Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, the Boston Celtics are expected to have a much quieter offseason.

The Celtics don’t project to have any cap space, and dodging the luxury tax is probably more of a goal than adding any sort of high-priced talent. That said, there will still be some movement, so we’re going to preview free agency here at CelticsBlog with a Boston slant!

The first way we make this free agency preview Celtics-centric is to look at it in the way Brad Stevens defines positions:

· Ballhandlers – These are not only the guys with the ball in their hands, but the guys who defend the opposing team’s traditional point guards.

· Wings – Your classic shooting guards and small forwards grouped together, as Stevens uses them interchangeably.

· Bigs – Here we have the power forwards and centers. Again, Stevens uses these positions largely interchangeably.

· Swings – We won’t do a preview for this one, but these are guys who can swing between spots. We’ll notate them like this: *(can swing between wing and big)

The next way we make this all about Boston is to tailor our rankings in a way that makes sense for the Celtics. Sure, they’d love to be in the mix for LeBron James and Kevin Durant as free agents, but that isn’t going to happen. Instead, we’ll look at those players who might have a shot at wearing green and focus our efforts there.

On to the ballhandlers!

1. Marcus Smart *(can swing to wing) – Restricted Free Agent: Smart is arguably Boston’s most important free agent. We all know about his struggles as a shooter by now. Any hope of that facet of his game improving to even average levels is gone. He is what he is as a shooter. But on offense he’s a much-improved playmaker for others. He’s probably the best lob thrower on the team, especially to the bigs rolling to the rim. Smart is strong enough to get into the paint whenever he wants, and he’s improved his finishing inside from year to year. Last season he broke out a solid floater from inside the key, which complements his bull-like charges to the rim.

It’s on defense where Smart makes his money. He’s one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders, capable of defending 1-4 without much issue. This is a key to Boston’s closing lineups, which rely heavily on switching everything. Several NBA veterans have commented on the special brand of torture Smart brings when he’s guarding them.

It’s a lock the Celtics will tender Smart a qualifying offer and make him a restricted free agent. Then they can match any reasonable offer another team might throw at him. At this point, someone is going to have to massively overpay to get Smart away from the Celtics.

2. Shane Larkin – Unrestricted Free Agent: Larkin had a successful return to the NBA, after playing in Spain for a year. He proved he’s an NBA-caliber backup point guard. Larkin can competently run the offense, with the ability to occasionally provide a scoring burst. But his most improved feature was using his speed and quickness to be a pest on the defensive end. In his first NBA stint, teams were able to take advantage of his lack of size and bully him. He’s gotten better about using his feet to stay in front of players and to beat them to the spot. This makes him an effective defender.

Larkin’s play last season probably earned him bigger contract as a free agent than the Celtics can afford. If not a bigger contract, then certainly a bigger role. With Boston bringing in Brad Wanamaker, that probably ends Larkin’s short tenure with the Celtics.

3. Isaiah Thomas – Unrestricted Free Agent: What? Hang with me for a minute. Isaiah Thomas quickly became an all-time favorite Celtic. His all-out style, combine with his “take no crap” attitude and small stature made him the exact kind of underdog Boston fans love. He was transcendent in green for a couple of years. His time as a Celtic ended with him being dealt for Kyrie Irving, while rehabbing an injured hip and left some hard feelings. But asked recently on Twitter if he’d ever come back to Boston, Thomas responded “You never know!”

How exactly would this work, given Thomas’ known intentions for the Brinks truck to back up to his front door? After an up-and-down season with the Cavaliers and Lakers, Thomas isn’t likely getting that big pay day he hoped for. The Lakers have plans for their cap space, and those plans don’t really include Thomas. That means he’s probably looking for a new gig. With limited cap space around the NBA, that means he’s probably taking part of someone’s Mid-Level Exception. Guess who will be using the MLE this year? You got it!

A return to Boston is unlikely, but so was Thomas’s rise with the Celtics the first time around. Danny Ainge still needs to give Stevens some scoring punch on the second unit that doesn’t involve setting for mid-range jumpers. Maybe IT is the guy.

4. Ian Clark – Unrestricted Free Agent: Clark has championship-level experience from his time with the Warriors. He’s not a pure lead guard, but he can handle the role as a backup. Clark is also solid off the ball as a shooter. He has a pretty good spot in New Orleans, but if he wants to get back to the Finals, he might take a look at Boston.

5. Raymond Felton – Unrestricted Free Agent: Felton has been on good teams for this latest stage of his career, going from the Mavericks to the Clippers to the Thunder. He knows his role as a backup point guard, who can also hold his own on defense when switched on to bigger players. He’s solid running an offense, and he can knock down shots when the ball comes back to him. The “Fatty Felton” jokes will probably never end, but he’s more solid than fat. And that allows him to do enough on defense to be a bother.

Overall, the Celtics ballhandler position is very well-stocked. Kyrie Irving is entrenched as the starter. Terry Rozier proved more than capable of running the show when Irving was out. They’d like to have Smart back and have designs on doing so. And Wanamaker is now in the fold for depth, which, as we saw last season, is something you can never have too much of.

Things get more interesting in terms of roster construction if Smart leaves town. Rozier can handle the backup duties behind Irving, but he’s still at his very best when playing alongside another ballhandler. That would leave the Celtics looking at other options, including re-signing Larkin or bringing old friend Thomas back to Boston.