The Boston Celtics still have plenty of work to do but Danny Ainge delivered an emphatic clothesline to anyone that was dancing on Boston’s grave amid the start-of-the-offseason news that Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were headed out of town.
On draft night, Ainge struck a defiant tone, particularly when he declared, "We have a very attractive franchise to play for, and there’s a lot of people who would be dying to come play here.”
Kemba Walker, it turns out, was one such person. The Celtics were pegged “stealth” suitors for Walker on Tuesday and, within 48 hours, it felt like both sides felt good about a deal getting to the finish line. Now reports suggest Walker will travel to Boston on Sunday night at the start of free agency and the sides will move quickly to finalize the parameters of a four-year, $141 million pact.
Ainge won’t have much time for a victory lap. There is still work to be done to rebuild a frontcourt that remains painfully bare with the anticipated departures of Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris.
The Celtics, should they elect to sign Walker into the cap space they can eventually generate, would have only the $4.8 million room midlevel exception to chase big-man talent. Will that be enough to hook the likes of Robin Lopez or Kevon Looney or Joakim Noah? Boston’s biggest selling point isn’t salary but the chance at big minutes on a team with a desire to contend.
It’s been suggested in this space that Boston must consider moving one of its younger players or picks if there’s an option to chase a high-quality big man. You don’t sign Walker to replace Irving and then just shrug your shoulders about the void up front.
But early indications are that Boston desires to get a look at the Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum combo and gauge exactly what this team might need in order to emerge as a legitimate threat this season. Some of that might hinge on how the East looks — does Kawhi Leonard head west? — and availability of impact big men will be key as well (league sources have suggested that Indy is in no rush to move a big man like Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner, even with their glut of frontcourt bodies).
The Celtics should be OK with that. They can use the midlevel to get a starter-caliber 5 that can play alongside some combination of Walker, Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. Boston should give early minutes to the likes of Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye, and first-round pick Grant Williams, if to simply gauge what they can give you. Maybe Guerschon Yabusele deserves a longer look, too. There’s an opportunity here to see what these players can give you. The team can play the long game with top pick Romeo Langford given their wing depth and the fact that he’ll be rehabbing from thumb surgery.
Can Williams be a rotation big and eventually compete for starter minutes? Can Ojeleye be a consistent 3-and-D guy who plays steady minutes and is commonly dispatched to bang with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo in a Horford-less frontcourt?
If those younger players are ready to step up, it diminishes Boston’s needs up front and might allow the team to cobble together a plan on its limited budget. The team can take inventory of its entire roster closer to the trade deadline and see if tougher decisions need to be made.
Despite the overall flurry of news on Saturday, there was nothing particularly unexpected that emerged from Boston’s vantage point. A few thoughts on the non-Kemba news:
* The Celtics were able to tender Daniel Theis a $1.8 million qualifying offer without impeding their path to max cap space. The Celtics can clear around $34 million in cap space by renouncing their rights to Irving, Horford, and Morris, and completing the trade that will send Aron Baynes to Phoenix. Roughly $32 million of that will go to Walker, giving the team just enough room to tender Theis, a stretch 5 who gives the Celtics at least a little bit of experience up front. League sources have indicated that Theis, who spent the early portion of his pro career in his native Germany, is open to a return to Boston and the team is hopeful to retain him.
* The Celtics extended a $4.3 million qualifying offer to Terry Rozier, making him a restricted free agent. A Yahoo! Sports report suggested that the team will soon renounce that offer, making Rozier an unrestricted free agent. But Boston doesn’t need to rush that, as there is virtually no risk for the Celtics (outside of Rozier impossibly signing the QO and sacrificing possible millions on the open market). Before Walker puts pen to paper, the Celtics can explore possible sign-and-trade avenues that might recoup assets for the former 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Celtics’ options might be limited, however, as they cannot afford to take back salary if they desire to maintain cap space for Walker.
* Boston’s decision to not extend a qualifying offer to Brad Wanamaker is not all that surprising. While Brad Stevens often gushed about Wanamaker’s professionalism, the addition of Walker, combined with drafting two potential depth point guards in Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, made it harder to see a path to keeping Wanamaker. What’s more, limited resources conspired against Boston extending a qualifying offer for Wanamaker.
* Al Horford caused an internet flareup when he followed Zion Williamson and Jrue Holiday on Instagram. The New York Times reported that New Orleans isn’t the mystery suitor ready to throw huge money at Horford and no one around the league seems to know for sure where Horford will land. Beyond maybe only Kawhi Leonard, Horford’s next team is the most fascinating mystery of the summer. Whispers persist that the Celtics made a very strong offer to retain Horford but it appears his camp is pretty certain there’s an even more valuable four-year offer on the table … somewhere.
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