Celtics

What's next as Celtics emerge as front-runners for Kemba Walker?

What's next as Celtics emerge as front-runners for Kemba Walker?

What comes next for the Boston Celtics amid an ESPN report that the team has emerged as the frontrunner to sign Kemba Walker when free agency opens on Sunday evening? Some thoughts and reaction: 

CLEARING THE WAY TO MAX CAP SPACE

The easiest path to $34 million in cap space for the Celtics is for the team to:

* Renounce their rights to Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Brad Wanamaker, and Jonathan Gibson. The team could hold onto Semi Ojeleye ($1.6 million nonguaranteed deal) and, potentially, Daniel Theis if they are worried about big depth.

* Finalize the deal sending Aron Baynes and Ty Jerome to Phoenix in exchange for a future first-round pick.

The Celtics, however, don’t have to rush into those moves. The team could still extend a qualifying offer to Rozier by Saturday’s deadline. The only danger would be Rozier signing the offer — virtually impossible — and impeding the path to max space but, more likely, Boston would eventually rescind that offer and allow Rozier to wade into unrestricted free agency if it couldn’t otherwise generate assets for him before formally inking Walker.

Boston’s brainy front office will explore all avenues to generate assets for outgoing players before it formally inks Walker. There is, also, the potential for complicated sign-and-trade options that would deliver Walker and help the team recoup value of outgoing assets but they become cumbersome quickly.

Ultimately, the renounce path is the path of least resistance.


NEXT ON TO-DO LIST: FIND A BIG

While adding Walker fills Irving’s shoes, the team is essentially also sacrificing frontcourt stalwarts Horford, Baynes, and Morris to make it happen. The Celtics would have a handful of options to add a big:

* If Boston ultimately signs Walker into cap space, they will be limited to the room midlevel exception, or roughly $4.8 million. With the possibility for a market flooded with serviceable bigs, that might be enough to attract a decent center but not necessarily the type of impact big man a team with hopes of competing for a title. Would Boston be willing to sacrifice draft assets to acquire Walker via sign-and-trade with the Hornets if it generated a larger midlevel for them? That likely hinges on the price tag to otherwise acquire an impact big.

* The Celtics would have to give serious thought about moving a player and/or draft assets to acquire a higher-tier big man. With the prospects of extending Jaylen Brown as early as this summer — and restricted free agency looming next year for the fourth-year wing — the team has to at least gauge the market for what he could bring in return. Would the Indiana Pacers be willing to move one of their bigs — Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis — for what Boston could offer? That could be Brown, Marcus Smart, and/or draft picks. 

* Similarly, is there a deal to be made with the Rockets for Clint Capela? Absorbing his $16.4 million salary is tricker after signing Walker and would likely mean moving Smart or Brown (and do the Rockets even want those sort of pieces if they’ve got their eyes on picks to offer Philadelphia in a potential sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler?)

* In the absence of a bigger deal to land an establish big man, the Celtics will still have options with a glut of bigs in free agency. Some are tricker — like finding a deal for a restricted big man like Willie Cauley-Stein. Boston could ponder the likes of Joakim Noah (who had an encouraging 42-game stretch with Memphis) or Nerlens Noel (depending on the market he finds if he opts out in Oklahoma City).

There will be other familiar names like Robin Lopez and Enes Kanter available, and no shortage of veteran bigs looking for an opportunity with a contender. Alas, if you’re going to splurge on Walker, it seems more likely that Boston should be aggressive in the pursuit of a complementary big man.

DEPTH CHART RESET

Assuming Boston goes the cap space route, before they seek a big, the depth chart looks something like:

BALL-HANDLERS: Walker, Smart, Edwards, Waters (2-way?)

WINGS: Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Semi Ojeleye, Romeo Langford

BIGS: Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, Grant Williams


DEFIANT DANNY, BAYNES TRADE MAKES MORE SENSE

Maybe we know now why Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been so defiant since draft night, boldly suggesting that others are “dying” to play in Boston even as a couple of All-Stars prepare to depart. If the Celtics thought they had a chance to immediately rebound with a top-tier free agent, then this was more than just projecting confidence as two star players prepared to depart.

Boston’s draft-night maneuvering to ship Baynes to Phoenix makes a lot more sense now, too, with the team eager to put itself in position to easily get to max cap space if and when it needed to do such to formally ink a top-tier player.


BRAD STEVENS LOVES KEMBA … EVEN IF HE BROKE HIS HEART

I keep coming back to this quote from Brad Stevens in November, where he gushed about Walker and joked about how UConn beat Butler in the national title game:

"He is, having spent a little bit of time with him at the All-Star game, despite the fact that he’s responsible for one of my biggest heartbreaks in my life, I think that certainly he’s a special guy. And it’s fun to see a guy like that have that kind of success. He’s got a good vibe, works hard, good teammate, all that stuff."

ONE THING JUST TO KEEP IN MIND BEFORE SUNDAY

The Celtics typically operate under a cloak of secrecy, which makes the very public nature of the past few days a little suspicious. What happens if the Hornets suddenly pivot and (begrudgingly) offered Walker the full five-year, $221 million super max deal before the “formal” start of free agency on Sunday night? Maybe that ship has sailed if Walker feels disrespected that that offer wasn’t on the table from the start. But it’s fair to be a tiny bit leery that Walker’s situation became public if his camp wanted to put some pressure on the Hornets.

KEMBA, HAYWARD TOGETHER … FINALLY

Kinda ironic that the Hornets tried to pair Walker and Hayward in 2014 when Hayward agreed to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet in restricted free agency. The Jazz eventually matched and dashed those plans (and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland squashed the first time Kyrie Irving and Hayward had a chance to play together). Maybe Kemba and Hayward finally get their chance in 2019.

If Hayward drops a, “It’s about to be crazy, K,” at any point this summer, it’ll melt the internet.

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These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

BOSTON — The story of Jaylen Brown’s NBA career is always seemingly intertwined a bit with Jimmy Butler.

You know the backstory by now: Celtics fans booed when Boston used the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft on Brown instead of dealing it for a more established veteran such as Butler. The two players shared a trainer a few years back and they held summer workouts together in Mexico. Brown yearned to extract all he could while working with the ultra-competitive Butler.

So, it seemed particularly noteworthy watching Brown cap his 31-point outburst Wednesday night at the expense of Butler. After Brown’s 15-point third-quarter explosion helped Boston separate a bit, it was Brown twice shaking Butler and hitting a pair of long jumpers over his old pal — including one lucky 27-foot banked 3-pointer — as the Celtics finished off a 112-93 triumph over Butler’s Heat at TD Garden.

Butler had a big night of his own, singlehandedly trying to keep Miami afloat while playing the second night of a back-to-back after a spirited overtime win in Toronto on Tuesday. He was sensational while putting up a game-high 37 points on 12-of-18 shooting in 37 minutes.

But the student more than held his own with the teacher. Brown shrugged off a quiet first half to score 22 second-half points. His loud third-quarter culminated with back-to-back 3-pointers in front of the Miami bench and Brown playfully suggested afterward that he blew a kiss to former teammate Kelly Olynyk after the second triple.

All those Celtics fans that grumbled when Brown was drafted are blowing kisses his way now. All those that groaned when he inked a four-year, $115 million extension in October are professing their love for the deal.

Brown nearly matched his career highs for both the regular season (32 points) and postseason scoring (34) on Wednesday night. It feels like he’ll eclipse both soon. Brown is averaging 19.9 points per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 38.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc, and a career-best 71.8 percent at the free-throw line. Add in career-highs at 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

It all looks very similar to what Butler is doing in Miami, where he is averaging 20.1 points, 6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.

Brown has undoubtedly heard his detractors and still finds motivation in them. While being playfully peppered about his kiss blowing, he was asked about similar incidents in the past.

"I guess when people like to say I’m a non-shooter and then I make it, that’s my gift to them,” said Brown.

When the Heat blitzed Kemba Walker after his early scoring exploits, it often left Boston shooters open when the Celtics swung the ball across the court. Brown feasted on open looks but sometimes it didn’t matter if he was blanketed. On the first of his two consecutive late-third-quarter 3s, Brown was being smothered in the corner by Justise Winslow (the 2015 draft desire that Boston could not pry away from the Frank Kaminsky-craving Hornets). Even after the Heat had cut their deficit to single digits in that third quarter, Brown calmly squared up to the basket, moved the ball around to create a tiny bit of space, then pulled up over Winslow’s outstretched arm for a triple.

He gazed briefly at the Miami bench but saved his air-peck for the next trip down when he made another corner 3 (this time an open look as Olynyk scrambled out). It might as well have been a curtain call on a night where Brown took center stage in the second half.

"When [Brown] has it going, he definitely gives us a lot more options,” said Walker. "He’s been playing well all year. I’m excited for him. He’s put in a lot of work each and every day, and it’s showing on the court.”

It’s not just the big scoring night but how Brown did it. He hit a lot of jump shots but also had instances where he bullied his way to the basket against quality defenders such as Bam Adebayo and muscled home tough finishes around the basket. Brown also got to the line a team-high eight times, accounting for a quarter of Boston’s total free-throw attempts.

At a time when Boston’s offense has slumped while Gordon Hayward rehabs a broken hand, Brown has tried to pick up some slack. In the 12 games without Hayward, Brown is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s adding 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.

With the win, the Celtics took down another of their primary East rivals and shuffled into a second-place tie with Toronto. Milwaukee is three games ahead but Boston is one of their three defeats this season. With 20 games and nearly a quarter of the season in the rearview, the Celtics own a .750 winning percentage. That’s a 61.5-win pace though the level of competition ahead should reel that win total in a bit.

For now, Boston is 8-0 at home and has typically won the games it should this season. They didn’t look particularly crisp early but a bench effort led by Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams helped crank the defensive intensity and Brown elevated his play as the Celtics surged ahead.

It’s fair to wonder how it’ll all look when Hayward is healthy enough to come back and it appears he’s trending towards a December return while already resuming a bit of contact activity this week. Can a Walker/Tatum/Brown/Hayward quartet find enough shots for one another?

If everyone buys into looking for the best shot and exploiting the biggest mismatches, there should be. Brown is feasting when teams put their energy into slowing Walker and Jayson Tatum. Hayward’s return will really force teams to pick their poison.

Brown is making teams account for him. The only thing clogging his path to All-Star consideration is Boston’s depth. Still, the strides Brown made this summer have forced the rest of the league to take notice of how far he’s advanced.

He’s come a long way since fans booed the pick. He’s come a long way since working out with Butler. The best part for Boston fans is that there’s still a lot of room for growth. And a lot more kisses to be blown in his direction.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

BOSTON -- Marcus Smart was nowhere to be found on the floor Wednesday night for the Celtics, but make no mistake about it... 

...Smart’s presence, even when he’s not in the building, is still felt by his teammates and opponents, to a lesser extent. 

No Smart (illness) meant the rest of the Celtics had to collectively step up their game defensively. 

Did. They. Ever. 

The Celtics delivered one of their better defensive performances this season as they pulled away for a 112-93 win over the Miami Heat. 

It’s not that huge a surprise until you realize that the Celtics defense delivered on a night without Smart, a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago which validates his reputation as one of the league’s top defenders. 

The Celtics (15-5) began their surge defensively in the second quarter. Facing an eight-point deficit (28-20) after the first quarter, they took control over the next three quarters as they outscored the Heat, 92-65.

They were getting deflections, hustling down loose balls, diving on the floor…basically making a bunch of Marcus Smart-like plays.

Following the win, Celtics players were quick to acknowledge not having Smart forced them all to pay closer attention to their individual and team assignments defensively, well aware anything less would surely spoil their perfect home record (8-0) this season. 

“No question, no question you can’t replace Smart,” said Semi Ojeleye. “The intensity that he brings on every possession and the energy and just the plays he makes. He sees what is coming before everybody else does. So we knew we had to bring extra talk in his absence.”

Among the most vocal players was Ojeleye, who played every minute of the second and third quarters in a stretch where the Celtics outscored the Heat, 62-41. 

Placing an even higher emphasis on doing a better job at the “little things” defensively, takes on greater importance on nights such as Wednesday when the team’s defensive leader - Smart - is unable to play. 

“Smart is one of the best defensive players we have in this league,” said Kemba Walker. “He’s our defensive anchor. And when you don’t have him, you have to try your best to make up as much as possible. He is a huge part of what we do, so yeah, you have to be that much more locked in and that much more on point to try and make up for the things that he does for us.”

That involves making smarter plays defensively; the kind that their defensive anchor  Smart makes night-in and night-out. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.