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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Boston-bleeding Marcus Smart ready for whatever's next for Celtics

Boston-bleeding Marcus Smart ready for whatever's next for Celtics

BOSTON — Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he won’t begrudge Kyrie Irving and Al Horford if they elect to depart this summer but he was staunch in suggesting that Boston remains a destination for championship-seeking players.

Smart, decked out in a Celtics-green cobra shirt and a black bandana, met with reporters Tuesday during a break in his annual youth camp on the campus of Brandeis University and went to bat for the city when asked about the notion that players might not want to come here.

"I think it kind of speaks for itself. We’ve got the Patriots, we’ve got the Bruins, we’ve got the Red Sox, we’ve got the Celtics. You name me another city that’s got four teams in different categories like that that’s all known for winning championships,” said Smart. "It gets no better than that. 

"I don’t know who is saying that, or why they’re saying it, who knows? But, for me, being here and experiencing it for myself, Boston is definitely a place you want to be, especially if you’re trying to compete for a championship.”

Smart said he’s talked with Irving since the end of the season but steered clear of basketball topics. He admitted Irving’s potential departure, and that of Horford, did catch him by surprise a bit, though he’s become numb to change during his time in the NBA. Smart is focused on what he can do to get Boston back on track after a maddening year.

"I see my role as bigger than ever now,” said Smart, who started alongside Irving much of last season but could slide into the first-unit point guard role depending on how Boston’s offseason plays out. "Just because, once again, being that longest-tenured Celtic, going into my sixth season and really understanding [coach] Brad [Stevens] and this organization, and the system that he likes to run, and just, that’s who I am. 

"And I’ve got to be that times 10 now, because we are going through some things. We did have a bad year. We’ve just got to keep everybody on the same track.”

Smart said he’s bullish on Boston’s outlook moving forward.

"I'm excited. We're excited. As competitors, you have a season like we did last year and it leaves a funny taste in your mouth,” said Smart. "We use that as our motivation and to keep going. We're very excited. Whatever team or whatever people or whoever is on the board or whoever is on this roster with us, we're excited to have them to go out there and fight.”

Smart praised Boston’s quartet of recent draftees, which included a pair of backup point guards in Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters. He said he’s unlikely to meddle in free agency, letting Danny Ainge and his staff handle that, but offered to make a pitch if needed.

Reflecting on last season, Smart hinted that the tensions reported in Boston’s locker room might not have been as catastrophic as suggested. Right after the season, Smart went to bat for Irving when it was suggested he caused much of Boston's issues this season.

"Even in the regular season, it wasn't a disconnect,” said Smart. "It was just a lot of people kind of got in and -- it was like a telephone game. You tell one person this and by the time it gets back to you, the whole narrative had changed. That's kind of how it goes. Like I said, you can only control what you can control. You focus on what you can focus on. As a player, you focus on getting into the gym, getting yourself better and you let the front office handle the front office stuff and you do what it is you need to do for the team."

Still, Smart sounds eager to wipe the slate clean and start a new season.

"Hey, the thing is, the Raptors just won the championship, right? But they’ve got to start back over from the beginning just like we do,” said Smart. "So we all start back over at the starting line, we all start at zero, and we all get a chance to do it. So everybody’s starting over, regardless if they have the same team or not, they’ve all got to start from the beginning. 

"That’s how we take it. We take it as we come in, and we have an opportunity to do something special, and we get another chance to do it.”


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Celtics rookies show immediate chemistry with video games and late-night FaceTiming

Celtics rookies show immediate chemistry with video games and late-night FaceTiming

BOSTON — Someone get Gordon Hayward’s number for Grant Williams immediately.

As Boston’s quartet of recent draftees arrived in the city late Sunday night, Williams texted the others hoping they could huddle at the hotel for some video games. The others weren’t quite as eager — though the four of them did eventually engage in a group FaceTime to plot outfits for Monday’s introductions — and Williams' video game excitement became a bit of a running gag as the players met with the media.

And Williams didn’t back down from the barbs.

“Oh yeah I’m a nerd and a goofball and that's where I think we all get along,” Williams said of the good-natured video game ribbing from his new teammates. "We’re all pretty goofy in this group of guys. We’re trying to get Romeo [Langford] out of his shell, though. We gotta work on that.”

Williams tried to explain his desire for late-night gaming.

“I was playing Catan on my Switch. I’m a huge Catan guy, so the fact that they made it available on the Switch where you can play multiple player and single player… the fact that they have a single-player mode, they should have never done that,” said Williams. "I spend too much time on it.”

The others seemed a bit confused about what exactly Williams wanted to do.

“We were talking on FaceTime, and I had just gotten into Boston, and [Williams] was like, ‘Do you want to play games?’” explained second-round pick Carsen Edwards. "And I’m like, ‘Dude, I just got here.’ He’s like, ‘I play board games, too.’ It’s just stuff you don’t expect but he’s a really good dude. And I’m excited to be around him and get to know him more as a person.”

Later, Edwards added: "I don’t know. It was like 11:30. He just kept asking, ‘Should I pull my game up?’ Like, he was asking, but he was really hoping [the other rookies would say yes].”

Second-round pick Tremont Waters detailed how, after getting denied on the video game request, Williams came up with the idea for the group FaceTime. The four rookies showed obvious chemistry during their first foray with the media. 

Admitted Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge: “These guys seem to have a pretty good bond.”


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