Over the next two weeks at CelticsBlog, we’ll be doing our version of exit interviews for the players, Ime Udoka, and Brad Stevens. However, with the draft on Thursday and free agency starting a week later, the NBA has already turned the page on the 2021-2022 season and is looking at next year. For now, it doesn’t look like Boston will be big players in neither the draft or free agency, but they’ll still be on the lookout for 2-3 players that can contribute immediately. After successful deals to bring in Al Horford and Derrick White last year, Stevens will again target players that fit in Udoka’s now defined system, style, and mindset.
Consider what Stevens dealt away at the trade deadline last season to bring in Derrick White and Daniel Theis. To bring in White, the Celtics had to pay a hefty price: Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, their 2022 first round pick, and a potential pick-swap in 2028. Reuniting with Theis was more addition by subtraction with Dennis Schroder, Enes Kanter, and Bruno Fernando heading to Houston. Of the five players that Stevens sent out, Richardson was the closest fit to the Udoka mold. The seven-year vet was a tweener that could play both sides of the ball — not necessarily a great shooter/playmaker/one-on-one defender, but in the grand scheme of Boston’s switching defense and ball movement, a plus plug-and-play cog. The others were all specialists (read: ball-stopper, a traffic cone in the pick-and-roll) of some sort.
As CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith points out, Stevens has two substantial tools to supplement a team that’s already 9-10 deep: a handful of TPE’s, including a $17.1 million TPE from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade last summer, and the $6.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception. MassLive’s Brian Robb reported yesterday that ownership wants to “significant expand Boston’s payroll” to a team that had a 2-1 Finals lead and late quarter leads in Games 4 & 5.
So, while Stevens has options and management is seemingly motivated to exhaust them, any additions will have to fit on the floor as much as they do the salary cap. To play for Udoka, the key is defense. The Celtics defense isn’t best in the league without each player to a man being able to defend their position. Payton Pritchard doesn’t see minutes in The Finals if he can’t hold his own against players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. Despite a cold spell three-point shooting-wise in the later rounds, Grant Williams was still Boston’s first big off the bench for his switchable defense. We’ll preview potential targets here at CelticsBlog as we near free agency on the June 30th, but as we all start making our wish lists, make sure those players check off Udoka’s.
But as important as D is, the Celtics stumbled in The Finals because of
turnovers a lack of offensive firepower. Smith identifies three areas of need: 1) a vet wing to play next to and spell Tatum and Brown, 2) another big, and 3) a “pure point guard.” After losing the aforementioned Richardson (and Langford to some extent) in February, the Celtics never really replenished their wing depth and instead either played big with Grant Williams as a swingman or small with some combination of Smart, White, and Pritchard in the backcourt. Considering Robert Williams’ health and Al Horford’s age, adding an experienced big falls somewhere between necessity and luxury; the smaller TPE’s ($6.9 million and $5.9 million) could come in handy in-season if a need arises. The same can be said for the ever elusive vet PG. There is an easy argument that can be made that Brown and Tatum could use more catch-and-shoot and secondary action opportunities to ease their offensive burdens, but CP3’s don’t grow on trees.
Whether we’re talking about a young player who could be sitting at the end of the bench and shuttling between Boston and Maine or a ten-year vet looking to chip in on a chip, finding players to fit into a locker room might prove to be as difficult as trying to build one last summer.