When the clock strikes midnight this evening, the smartest move the Celtics can make is the most straightforward: Sign talented free agents.
It doesn’t need to be Kevin Love (although he’d be nice) or Greg Monroe—both talented big men in their mid-20s who would immediately be the alpha dog on this team. If the Celtics walk away with a couple of guys who are ranked —oh, say 25 and 38 on top free-agent lists—it’s a good thing regardless of the contract amount or the contract years.
Despite being a playoff team, the Celtics only had two players who would’ve been in an eight-man rotation on a championship team: Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. It’s likely that Marcus Smart’s improvement will make that three next season, but they’re still five guys short. Sure, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller have shown sparks at times, Evan Turner can hit some big shots, and Jae Crowder can energize the entire arena with his defense—but none of them are rotational players on a title team. And that’s OK because the Celtics can be patient enough to see if any of them will take the next step. But aside from developing their own players—which coach Brad Stevens and his staff been great at during the past 24 months—this team just needs talent.
Two years into the rebuild, the Celtics have no other way to get better in the foreseeable future than signing free agents, regardless of whether they’re max-contract guys. They’ve been down the other roads, and none of them led to surefire talent. In Year 1 of the rebuild, they tried “tanking,” only to have the lottery balls bounce against them once again. With two years under his belt as an NBA coach, it’s now inconceivable to envision a Stevens-led team winning fewer than 30 games in a season. So we can officially shut the door on the tanking path.
Last week, the Celtics went another route in the rebuild—try to package as many of your picks as possible for the best available asset. After two years of hoarding picks, they offered six picks to Charlotte for Frank Freaking Kaminsky (well, actually to pick Justise Winslow). After Charlotte said no, those picks are officially worth less than the ninth pick in the draft. So, the idea that the Celtics might be able to later trade these picks for something of value seems farfetched.
The other route is to lure a big free agent to Boston, but LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan seemingly have no interest in playing for the Celtics, while LeBron James, Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard and Love (yes, even Boston vacationer Kevin Love) are rumored to stay with their current teams. So the Celtics must settle for the next tier of players, many of who are restricted: Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green. All these guys likely will sign for the mini-max contract (4 years, $60 million) and will have that contract matched by their teams. But all of them would instantly be the best player on the Celtics. Two other players closely linked to the Celtics in rumors are Robin Lopez, the rim protector the Celtics need, and Tobias Harris, the scoring swingman the Celtics need. Even at about $15 million per year for each of them, they still represent the Celtics’ best chance for improvement as a team and organization.
A lot of the reasonableness of those deals has to do with the skyrocketing salary cap, whereby a $15 million contract in two years will look like a $7.5 million contract from 2013. But it also has to do with the basic concept of talent. In the worst-case scenario, those guys—and about 30 others like them—are free agents who give the Celtics more assets for trade talks this season or next. If you’re the Sacramento Kings looking to trade away DeMarcus Cousins next offseason, what’s a better haul: Tobias Harris, Marcus Smart and the 2016 Brooklyn pick or Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart and the 2016 Brooklyn pick. In the best-case scenario, this guy is right about Harris, and neither player is traded.
It’s simple: the Celtics can’t afford to be picky in free agency. They need to get as much talent as possible. For an asset accumulator such as Danny Ainge, that shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Forget about what tier the free agents are in, there’s dozens of free agents who can upgrade the Celtics roster. There’s no reason to shy away from them.