In a year defined by injury and illness, the Boston Celtics’ lack of depth was repeatedly exposed this past season. On almost a nightly basis, Brad Stevens was forced to go deeper into his bench than he likely desired and the product on the court was as inconsistent as the play he got from those at the back end on Boston’s depth chart.
This wasn’t just a young player problem. The veterans who Danny Ainge signed in the offseason likewise struggled to consistently impact winning. The confluence of that, along with COVID woes and perpetual bites from the injury bug, doomed Boston to a .500 record and, ultimately, a first-round playoff exit.
In his new role as president of basketball operations, Stevens faces the challenge of overhauling the back end of a flawed roster. Stevens will undoubtedly yearn to deliver to first-year coach Ime Udoka a roster filled with players he can lean on with confidence.
Every roster move the Celtics make moving forward revolves around the question of how it aids the core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Adding more serviceable depth could alleviate some of the stress on a duo that routinely has been asked to steady reserve lineups.
Here is Stevens' challenge: There are limited resources with which to immediately improve the bench. The Celtics have a whole bunch of money committed to players at the top of the roster, including Tatum, Brown, Al Horford, and Marcus Smart. Boston will have to further splurge to retain the services of trade-deadline acquisition Evan Fournier.
The quartet of Robert Williams, Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, and Payton Pritchard are on team-friendly rookie pacts. (Williams is extension-eligible this summer but his deal wouldn’t kick in until next summer.) Beyond that, it doesn’t feel like anyone else’s spot is guaranteed. Boston just traded away the 16th pick in this year’s draft to move Kemba Walker, leaving one less player who might develop into low-cost talent.
Moses Brown, acquired with Horford in the Walker swap, should get a chance to continue his development in Boston. Jabari Parker has a nonguaranteed deal (and a late July deadline for Boston to decide his future). A pair of 2019 draftees — Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards — haven’t blossomed the way the Celtics might have hoped to this point.
Boston must decide the futures of two-way players Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall and we’d suggest it’s time to utilize those spots on players more likely to develop into NBA talent. Midseason addition Luke Kornet could be a victim of the sudden center bloat while Semi Ojeleye seems unlikely to be back.
Stevens should have the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel to add an experienced player. The Celtics also have a handful of trade exceptions available, most notably the $11 million remaining on the Gordon Hayward TPE that helped bring Fournier to Boston. There’s also a newly generated $6.9 million exception generated from the Walker deal.
Ainge whiffed a bit last season on his veteran additions. He splurged to add Tristan Thompson, who had encouraging moments later in the season but wasn’t always the ideal fit with Boston’s core players. Jeff Teague wasn’t the experienced ball-handler the team needed at the point guard spot.
So how can Stevens tinker? Let’s examine Boston’s depth by position.
Smart seems poised to elevate to starting point guard. When he commits to playmaking and defense, he can be an extremely impactful player. Entering the final year of his current deal, the Celtics have to ponder his future in green, which adds a layer of uncertainty at that spot. Pritchard should have a sizable role given his solid rookie shooting.
The Celtics likely need a veteran option here. Could they call Chicago and inquire about Tomas Satoransky, whose nonguaranteed $10 million salary could be absorbed into a trade exception? Maybe the Celtics call the Kings and inquire about whether Delon Wright is available. With Udoka taking over, Boston could pursue Patty Mills in free agency, though he might be outside their price range, and receiving any player in a sign-and-trade would hard-cap the Celtics.
Drafting a big point guard whose primary skills are playmaking and spot-up shooting wouldn’t be the worst swing with any pick the team ultimately utilizes.
When healthy, the Celtics appear well-stocked, especially with All-Stars Tatum and Brown topping the depth chart. If the Celtics re-sign Fournier, he’ll eat up a bunch of minutes here, too. Aaron Nesmith should get more time after the strides he showed at the end of last season and Romeo Langford, if he can ever stay healthy, will get time based on his defensive impact alone.
You can never have enough wing depth in the NBA but Boston has potential to thrive on versatility with their in-house wings alone.
This may be the area of greatest need this offseason, as the Celtics leaned far too heavy on Ojeleye and Grant Williams at this spot last season. Yes, Boston can roll with three wings, a point guard, and a big, which limits the need for a 4 at times. But they clearly need more reliable options at that spot. So whether it’s a big wing who can shimmy up to the 4 and confidently defend that position, or a big man with versatility to play the power forward role, this has to be a focus this summer.
Could Horford play some 4 in double-big lineups? Sure. But Boston would be well served to again ponder a trade for Larry Nance Jr., or sign a Rudy Gay-type veteran who can give the team even more versatility at the 4.
If Robert Williams and Horford can stay healthy then Boston has a potential 48-minute tag team at the center spot. History suggests that’s unlikely so Boston needs to add another low-cost bruiser — someone in the Aron Baynes mold — or consider carrying Thompson again this season.
The team can try to develop Moses Brown but he’s likely deep depth. One of Parker or Grant Williams — if either sticks around — can play some small-ball center as well.