The Boston Celtics have a lot to figure out after falling short of the NBA Finals, but the foundation remains strong.
The Boston Celtics‘ season was like any good mystery novel, full of unexpected twists and maddening turns. With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown cemented as one of the best duos in the NBA, many expected the Celtics to contend. And, frankly, they did.
But chalking up Boston’s season as a worthy effort that came up short probably undersells just how strange the season was. It started in the summer when head coach Ime Udoka was suddenly dismissed for an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. Udoka was widely respected in the locker room and renowned for his coaching acumen, especially on the defensive end.
The Celtics named 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla as interim head coach with only three years of NBA assistant work under his belt. He eventually shed the interim tag, signed an extension, and finished top-3 in Coach of the Year voting.
Boston once again dominated the regular season, winning 57 wins. That’s six more than the season prior under Udoka. Jayson Tatum was prevalent as a fringe MVP candidate, Jaylen Brown ascended to second-team All-NBA, and the supporting cast was deeper than ever. Derrick White made second-team All-Defense; Malcolm Brogdon won Sixth Man of the Year.
The Celtics were, on paper, more ready to contend than ever.
Lurking beneath the pristine surface, however, was enough turbulence to send the season crashing down, Yellowjackets-style. The players never quite got over Udoka’s departure. The Celtics’ talent level and sheer depth was enough to overwhelm lesser teams, but the once daunting defensive juggernaut of yesteryear was suddenly far more prone to nights off.
Once the postseason arrived, the Celtics were complete frontrunners. Dominant with their backs against the wall, but far too willing to coast and regroup in the next game when the other team was fighting from behind.
The No. 7 seed Atlanta Hawks pushed them to six games and almost made it seven. The Philadelphia 76ers, notoriously inept on the big stage, were up 3-2 with a fourth-quarter lead at home in Game 6. The Celtics fought back, however, and made it to the conference finals.
That’s where the No. 8 seed Miami Heat, everyone’s favorite plucky underdog, awaited them. It was a rematch of last year’s conference finals, which the Celtics won. Now Boston was the heavy favorite, the obviously better team on paper.
The Heat jumped out 3-0, before the Celtics — again with their backs against the wall — reeled off three straight wins, some closer than others. On the doorstep of history in Game 7, Boston fell apart at the seams. Jayson Tatum hurt his ankle 20 seconds into the game, Jaylen Brown imploded on an atomic level, and the 44-win Heat sent the 57-win Celtics packing for the summer.
For a team built around a 24-year-old and a 26-year-old, a second consecutive conference finals berth and a seventh-game exit is largely respectable. The Celtics showed a lot of fight and there’s no denying the talent up and down the roster. But that’s the thing: Boston was way too talented to lose that series, and the Heat shined a bright neon light on the Celtics’ myriad flaws. And now, with the new CBA looming, it will get harder and harder to keep all that great talent around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
An important offseason looms.
Boston Celtics outgoing free agents
The Celtics have mostly expendable veterans set to come off the books, with a couple noteworthy exceptions.
- Danilo Gallinari, 34, F (Player Option)
- Mike Muscala, 31, C (Club Option)
- Grant Williams, 24, F (RFA)
- Blake Griffin, 34, C
- Mfiondu Kabengele, 25, C (RFA)
- J.D. Davison, 20, G (RFA)
One has to expect Gallinari to opt into his roughly $6.6 million player option. The veteran spent all of last season sidelined by a torn ACL. The Celtics will obviously hope for a swift return to form. When healthy, Gallo can still provide value as a floor-spacer in the frontcourt.
Mike Muscala is a credible third center who similarly derives his on-court value from shooting. He’s also a good locker room vet, as evidenced by his time in OKC. The Celtics need guys to keep the locker room together and Moose’s services are fairly inexpensive.
The big name here is Grant Williams. The Celtics will be able to match any offer sheet Williams signs as a restricted free agent, but he was in and out of Joe Mazzulla’s playoff rotation. Another team will likely see value in his heady defense and consistent 3-point stroke — Boston could get outbid here.
Blake Griffin is another locker room vet the Celtics could conceivably keep around for cheap. Kabengele and Davison are two-way contracts who didn’t factor in much for a contending team.
Boston Celtics trade targets
The Celtics do not have many holes on paper. There’s talent at every position. The defensive personnel is world-class; the offensive fulcrums are already in place. It’s really a matter of how much Boston wants to shake things up after their rocky performance in the conference finals.
Jaylen Brown is going to be involved in trade rumors because of how bad he was in Game 7. The obvious connecting of dots would pinpoint Brown as a potential trade target for the Portland Trail Blazers, who can build a package around Anfernee Simons and the No. 3 pick in June’s NBA Draft. Another potential trade suitor is Houston, who recently hired Ime Udoka.
Assuming the Celtics keep Brown around for now, any movement in the trade market will be marginal at best. There has been chatter around Marcus Smart as a potential trade candidate, but trading the former Defensive Player of the Year just to change things up feels short-sighted. The Celtics run the risk of solving problems that don’t exist with any major move.
Of note is the recent trade request from Payton Pritchard, who could net a decent draft pick or another rotation piece from the right team.
Boston Celtics free agent targets
Boston has several big contracts on the books already and will be operating over the cap. With the new CBA soon to take effect, Boston will face severe challenges in building out the roster any further. In fact, it will be borderline impossible to keep everyone in the years to come if the team extends Jaylen Brown.
That’s really where all the free-agent focus will be for Boston. Brown is eligible for a supermax extension worth $285 million over five years after making an All-NBA team. His uneven performance in the playoffs — capped by an especially egregious performance in Game 7 with his star teammate hobbled — has led many to question whether Brown deserves that money.
For now, Boston appears eager to keep Brown. If there’s any discount for the team that drafted him, it won’t be much. A big-time bag for Brown will essentially prevent the Celtics from acquiring any free agents of significance.
The veteran minimum market is where Boston will have to look to fill out the roster, a la Blake Griffin last summer. Think names like Wes Matthews or Will Barton.
Boston Celtics NBA Draft targets
The Boston Celtics don’t own their first-round pick, but they do own the No. 35 pick early in the second round. There is absolute value in such a pick. While it’s unlikely a second-round pick would crack the rotation as a rookie, the Celtics would be wise to target another source of shot creation on the perimeter with Payton Pritchard seemingly on the way out.
Names to watch: Terquavion Smith, Marcus Sasser, Amari Bailey.
Check out The Step Back for more news, analysis, opinion and unique basketball coverage. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to our daily email newsletter, The Whiteboard.