Celtics' Danny Ainge and Co. have a tricky puzzle to piece together

Celtics' Danny Ainge and Co. have a tricky puzzle to piece together

The idea of Kemba Walker in green is undoubtedly tantalizing. 

In a summer in which one All-Star point guard is set to walk away from the Boston Celtics, replacing him with another All-Star with a similar on-court skill set — and a more revered locker-room manner — is undoubtedly appealing. But this is not exactly an even swap when you consider the losses the Celtics would be enduring to simply generate the cap space necessary to sign a player of Walker’s ilk.

The decision for the Celtics to offer Kyrie Irving a max-contract extension would have been a no-brainer, in part because of the ability to keep many of the pieces of the team around him. The pursuit of Walker — or any max-contract player via trade of free agency this summer — is complicated by the fact that Boston would essentially be unable to recoup full value for departing assets while simply trying to open the necessary cap space to sign Walker.

In order to get to $34 million in cap space, the Celtics would need to renounce their rights to nearly all of their free agents, including Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier. Even if Boston plans to move on from each of those players, they all have a varying degree of value as potential sign-and-trade assets that could recoup value as they depart. Alas, sign-and-trade avenues are difficult and would often require Boston to take back salary that would prevent it from generating the desired cap space.

If the Celtics were to sign Walker, the team would be left with a top-heavy depth chart that’s noticeably bare on frontcourt depth. The Celtics have already agreed to a deal with Phoenix that will send out center Aron Baynes, who started 84 games the past two seasons, many of which came alongside Horford. Even if you pencil Jayson Tatum in as the Celtics’ starting 4 in a small-ball lineup next season, there’s a clear need for a big man up front.

All of which makes it likely that Boston would need a supplementary move to address frontcourt needs. That could be a simple as using the team’s midlevel exception — or a minimum salary — to attract a low-tier big man. What’s maybe more likely in a scenario that adds Walker is packaging some combination of picks and young talent to land a complementary impact big.

The Celtics, with a tough financial decision looming on Jaylen Brown in the coming summers (he’s extension-eligible this year and a restricted free agent next summer), might be tempted to package the fourth-year wing and some of Boston’s future draft picks to attract, say, one of Indiana’s big men (assuming that the Pacers eventually come to grips with having to move one of Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis).

In aggregate, the Celtics would essentially be moving Irving, Horford, Brown, Baynes, Rozier, Morris, and draft assets in exchange for Walker and a big man. That’s a steep price to fill your needs at the 1 and 5 spots. It's intriguing if you believe that Gordon Hayward is poised to return to All-Star form and that Jayson Tatum is ready for a Season 3 leap. It simply leaves you thin on depth and leaning on unproven young talent to fill backup minutes at the big spots. This path ultimately hinges on whether you plan to pay Brown moving forward and what draft assets you can retain in the pursuit of a big man.

The least prickly path in filling the holes at the 1 and 5 spots might be targeting a lower-cost big man and using your rights to re-sign Rozier at a stomachable salary. Boston can get to roughly $26 million in salary by moving on from Irving, Horford, and Morris, while still tendering a qualifying offer to Rozier. There’s some additional maneuvering the team could do to get a bit more space and Boston could offer someone like Orlando All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic a deal a bit south of his max value. 

Boston would then match any reasonable offer for Rozier — let’s guess it’s something in the $12-15 million range — and roll the dice that he finds the form that made Scary Terry a household name in the 2018 playoffs. In this instance, Boston is able to retain all the pieces of its young core and its draft stash, giving the team the assets to put together a potential trade package when a new star becomes available. What’s more, Rozier remains a tradable asset at a reasonable price even if he doesn’t emerge as the team’s point guard of the future.

The Celtics could do a similar scenario with someone like Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams. While not quite as good of a fit given the way Brad Stevens utilizes big men, the Thunder are desperate to shed salary and could offer draft picks in order for Boston to absorb Adams’ hefty salary. This path would seemingly suggest a longer-term vision, one that seeks to maximize the future assets at a time when Tatum is closer to his prime.

There are some intriguing possibilities in restricted free agency but those come with built-in obstacles in terms of committing money and having to wait to see if rivals will match. That’s a delicate dance. 

The Celtics could extend a hefty offer sheet to Milwaukee point guard Malcolm Brogdon — say, something in the $20 million range — and force Milwaukee to further bloat its salary if it desires to retain him. Boston could still hang onto Rozier in that instance and hope to find sign-and-trade possibilities that might aid their quest to add more talent. But it’s simply hard to see the Bucks not matching anything within reason, even as they brace for the possibility of paying both Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton to keep their title contender status at full strength.

The bottom line is that the Celtics have options and both Danny Ainge’s defiant players are “dying” to play in Boston stance, coupled with the Walker rumors, confirms the team plans to be aggressive in whatever is next. But the departures of Irving and Horford still complicate the path to keeping this team immediately competitive, even if the cap space is a nice benefit.

A Kemba splurge makes finding a big man trickier. A big-man indulgence means riding with Rozier if the team yearns to hang onto prime assets. The Celtics might have to make a decision on one of those moves without certainty in a corresponding decision.

It’s a puzzle that Ainge and his staff are trying to piece together on the go, and last year’s headshaking season shuffled all the pieces the team thought it had in place.


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Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

The Kemba Walker-Kyrie Irving comparisons are unavoidable, and they're something the new Celtics guard will have to hear about throughout his first season in Boston.

But Walker certainly doesn't seem all that concerned. During the former Charlotte Hornets star's media availability on Thursday, he was asked about replacing Irving while possessing a playing style and skillset eerily similar to the Brooklyn Nets guard's.

“I don’t think about it,” Walker said, as transcribed by WEEI. “That’s not something that I really care about. Kyrie, he’s a hell of a player. He’s one of the best in the world.

“We are pretty similar in playing style and stuff like that. That’s not something I think about. Of course, I see everybody . . . it just is what it is. It’s just obvious. It’s going to come up.”

While Walker and Irving's playing styles share plenty of similarities, their personalities and leadership qualities couldn't be much more different. It's no secret Irving's presence played a role in the Celtics' lack of chemistry during their disappointing 2018-19 campaign. That's exactly why the C's brought in a guy like Walker, whose character is held in high regard by his former coaches as well as both his former and current teammates.

Will that change in leadership make all the difference for the new-look Celtics as they turn the page on the Irving era? We'll find out soon enough. The season tips off Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. vs. the 76ers in Philadelphia.

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The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

BOSTON — Practice was over and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was nowhere in sight. 

The 6-foot-9 forward headed straight to the weight room immediately after the team’s post-practice huddle broke up. 

Trying to bulk up a little bit, huh? 

“Something like that,” Tatum said with a grin. 

It makes sense for Tatum to try and get bigger in what many anticipate will be a really big, breakout-type season for the third-year forward. 

And while much of the attention Tatum has drawn in the past often focused on his scoring, Tatum’s improvement defensively may be what takes his overall game to another level this season. 

While no one expects Tatum’s defensive rating in the preseason (69.1) to hold up once the regular season starts, it is clear that he’s focused on elevating his play at that end of the floor akin to what we saw during his rookie season. 

Acquired via trade with the Sixers on draft night in 2017, Tatum’s penchant for scoring was evident from Day One. 

But with a roster that included Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford in addition to Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, Tatum wisely figured out early that scoring was not going to get him on the floor as a rookie. 

So the only way he would see time, was to prove his worth to head coach Brad Stevens as a defender, which Tatum readily admits was a bit of an adjustment for a variety of reasons. 

“It’s a lot of things you have to learn,” Tatum said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Boston. “It’s a whole new system, new terminology, a whole new way to guard …  everybody in the NBA is so much more talented, so you have to pay attention to the scouting report. It’s a different ball game when you come from college. you really have to focus and pay attention to all the details.”

It certainly worked for Tatum during his first year in Boston.

“Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in 2017, Tatum’s rookie season. “He’s very savvy. He’s very long. He uses his length; his arms are out and he gets his hands on balls, deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. So, I think he’ll continue to get better and better.”

He was one of just three rookie forwards (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers were the others) in 2017 who averaged at least 30 minutes of court time, with Tatum’s defensive rating of 100.8 being the best among the group. 

But last season, one in which Tatum was being looked upon to be significantly more of a scorer, he averaged more points (15.7 compared to 13.9 as a rookie) but saw his defensive rating slip to 105.1.

Part of Tatum’s process now when it comes to improving as a defender, is to improve his strength. 

Since arriving in Boston, Tatum estimates he’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle and now weighs 215 pounds. 

We have seen the added strength at work during his time with Team USA as well as what he has done in the preseason with the Celtics. 

But that added weight will also benefit him as a defender, with Tatum likely to play both forward positions this season and potentially some center depending on the opposing team’s lineup. 

“I’m trying to be the best player I can be,” Tatum said. “Just trying to make a bigger jump from year to year and be a better version of myself.”

Indeed, Tatum’s statistics improved in several categories last season. In fact, most of his numbers were similar to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season. 

But Tatum’s play last season, while better statistically in a number of categories in comparison to his first season, was roundly criticized in many circles and viewed as underachieving in others. 

Tatum has said on more than one occasion that he didn’t play his best basketball a year ago, and is determined to make amends for that with what he and Celtics Nation are hoping will be a breakout system.

And the best way to do that is to make strides towards becoming a more complete, two-way talent for Boston.  

“I want to be one of the best players on both ends of the court,” Tatum said.

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