While it wasn’t an offseason filled with fireworks, the Boston Celtics had a busy summer nonetheless. In his first couple of months running the team’s basketball operations, Brad Stevens swung four trades and made three free agent signings. All of Stevens’ early transactions served a twofold purpose: Improve the Celtics roster for 2021-22, while also cleaning up the team’s cap sheet moving forward.
Whether Stevens hit on the first goal remains to be seen, but he nailed the second one about as well as he possibly could.
Stevens first transaction was a sign of things to come, as he reset Boston’s roster almost immediately. The swap of Al Horford for Kemba Walker and the 16th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft brought Boston back the kind of versatile big they had been missing since...well...Horford left. And this trade cleared some much-needed luxury tax space for 2021-22 as well as removing a significant salary obligation for 2022-23.
From there, Stevens used the remainder of the Gordon Hayward trade exception to bring in Josh Richardson. Then, with Horford in the fold, Stevens turned around and dealt away Tristan Thompson for Kris Dunn and Bruno Fernando.
After the flurry of trades, Boston signed Dennis Schroder to steal of a one-year deal, after his free agent market never materialized. The Celtics brought back Enes Kanter on a minimum deal to replace Thompson. And the team signed Sam Hauser to a Two-Way contract.
Stevens had one last trick up his sleeve. Evan Fournier had already agreed to a contract with the New York Knicks, but Stevens dipped into the Danny Ainge playbook and convinced New York to make it a sign-and-trade. This created a $17.1 million trade exception, at the cost of a second-round pick.
Once again, no fireworks, but in true Stevens’ style, the team hit a series of singles. Add up enough base hits and you’ll eventually see the runs start crossing the plate.
Now, Boston sits in an interesting spot both for this upcoming season and the years beyond. For 2021-22, the Celtics are currently about $6.6 million over the luxury tax line. Given that as recently as a couple of week ago it looked like Boston was setting up to avoid the tax at all costs, that’s actually a positive. Signing Schroder took the team into the tax and they did it anyway. That’s a win.
That small of a tax number is also eminently avoidable. The bill could reduce by a third simply by waiving Jabari Parker from his non-guaranteed contract. From there, it’s just a salary-clearing trade or two (Oklahoma City Thunder, line one!) to avoid the tax entirely.
Are the Celtics better this season than they were last season? They certainly could be. This group projects to have better size than last year’s version. And they’ve got more versatility defensively than recent teams have had. A couple of the kids looked pretty good at Summer League too. If they can take steps forward, Boston will have pretty solid depth for the first time in a while.
And, of course, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both seem poised to continue to ascend towards superstardom. Coming off the Olympics, and with a chip on his shoulder from missing All-NBA in 2020-21 (and a large chunk of money in his extension), Tatum should have his best season yet. Brown isn’t far behind, as he’ll look to build on his first All-Star season. Just those two being as good as they can be, is a pretty nice starting point.
Stevens mentioned that he wanted to build a team “Boston can get behind. A team that plays with great edge. One that plays with grit and toughness.” He seems to accomplished that for this season. He’s got a bunch of versatile, tough defenders and several players who have reasons to prove themselves. That could be a recipe for success.
What about down the line? Unfortunately, we don’t have a Time Stone, nor do we have He Who Remains’ ability to control branch timelines. But what we can say is the Celtics have far greater optionality now than they did a couple of months ago.
The Celtics looked like they were locked in through at least 2022-23 before the Walker trade. Now, all sorts of paths have opened themselves up for the Celtics.
Signing Marcus Smart to an extension took the “shed it all” path to max cap space basically off the table. Creating a large TPE for Fournier cleared it of that path entirely. It was never overly realistic to begin with, as that path would have involved declining Rookie Scale team options for 2022-23 for Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams. That was never going to happen. That’s just wasting potential assets.
If Boston and Robert Williams can reach agreement on a contract extension, expect that to get done. There’s no reason to wait, now that dreams of cap space have all but evaporated. The negotiations should be fascinating, as Williams is overflowing with potential, but has never stayed healthy long enough to put it all together.
Now, Boston projects to function as an over-the-cap team in the summer of 2022 and that’s just fine. Where the messaging of “avoid the tax in 2021-22 because money will be spent in 2022-23” didn’t exactly line up previously, it does now.
Because the Celtics look like they’ll be over the cap next offseason, they can pursue pricey sign-and-trades for stars that may be on the market. Yes, Bradley Beal is the apple of the Boston fan’s eye right now, but he’s not the only star available. Zach LaVine should hit the open market. Taking a step down, Aaron Gordon, Jusuf Nurkic and Jonas Valanciunas could be available and could fill roles for the Celtics. It’s not a banner unrestricted free agent class, but there is quality available.
More interesting next summer could be the restricted free agent market. Jaren Jackson Jr. could be out there and he’d be very intriguing for Boston. If the Suns set a spending limit, Mikal Bridges could get squeezed. Collin Sexton could be available if the Celtics are still looking for a long-term answer at point guard.
And that’s before we even examine the traditional trade market. Damian Lillard’s situation remains unresolved. Everyone questions how many more years of losing Karl-Anthony Towns can endure. And another star or two will shake loose as the 2021-22 season plays out. That’s just how it goes in the NBA.
What Stevens has done is put Boston in position to be in the mix. The Celtics have all of their own first round picks. They’ve got a mix of developing young players and a couple of vets on tradable deals. Horford is on a pseudo-expiring deal, and expiring contracts are always movable.
None of this guarantees Boston will be star-hunting in the next couple of years. They could take the approach of viewing Tatum and Brown as their stars, Smart as a core role player-plus and maybe one or the two kids pops too. In this approach, the goal would be to fill out the roster around them.
The important thing is the Celtics now have the tools to do so. They’ve got three good-sized trade exceptions ($17.1 million, $9.7 million and $5 million) to work with. No, they can’t be combined together, but they can each be used to add a helpful player. The $17.1 million one can even be split up to bring in a couple of helpful players.
The short and long-term futures of the Celtics weren’t very bright a couple of months ago, and even as recent as a couple of weeks ago. But the team’s willingness to at least approach the tax, while setting up to cross that threshold in the future, is encouraging. Boston should be better this coming season and is set up to be a lot better down the line. The future isn’t so bright that you need shades just yet, but you might find yourself starting to squint a bit. That’s a win, for now.