Between the summers of 2013 and 2017, the agenda for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was to restructure a team both young and skilled enough to beat an opponent led by LeBron James.
Now, after taking the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before ultimately falling short 87-79 in the deciding contest, the Celtics have reestablished the ability to accomplish such a feat.
As of now, they are considered throughout the basketball world as a worthy, yet still unproven adversary for the East throne. Unproven based on the idea that if James remains in the Eastern Conference, his team would more than likely be picked by Vegas to go to the Finals for the ninth straight season. But worthy in a sense that if James takes his talents to the Western Conference this summer, the East would be open for the Celtics to claim.
The Celtics were one win away from their first finals appearance since 2010 — without the services of two of their three best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Jayson Tatum, their 20-year-old rookie, dropped 24 points in that deciding seventh game, and put an exclamation point on his first year as a pro with a poster dunk over LeBron. The Celtics have all the potential to be the best team in the East for years to come.
It is more critical than ever for Ainge to continue to work his composed and carefully calculated magic to prolong this team’s window for as long as possible. How much money the team pumps into this backcourt within the next few off-seasons could determine whether the Celtics become a two to three year flash in the pan, or a seven-to-eight year juggernaut.
And it all starts with what they plan to do with Marcus Smart in the coming weeks before the start of free agency on July 1.
Per ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, Smart believes he is worth north of $12-$14 million. Throughout his career with the Celtics, the backup point guard’s presence has proven to be vital to the team on the defensive end. While Smart was out with a torn tendon in his thumb through March, the Celtics’ defensive rating sat at 103.3. The team had a league-best 99.8 rating with him active. At one point during Smart’s absence the Celtics had fallen to 20th in opponent three-point percentage, another defensive stat the team held the top spot in the league in prior to his thumb injury.
His value on the defensive end may prompt the Celtics to offer him just above $14 million and settle at $15 million, but his lack of offensive numbers may force them to let Smart walk if the price were to jump any higher. The 24-year-old was second to last on the team (minimum of 50 games) in field goal percentage, shooting 36 percent from the floor. His three-point shooting, at 30 percent, was also second to last on the team.
At this stage of the game, after electing to pass on offering Smart a new deal last preseason, it would be realistic to think that Ainge will not extend the team’s wallet all that far beyond $14 million for the sixth man. Though the situation isn’t identical, the Nets offered Otto Porter a max deal last July, and the Wizards insisted on matching it. The Wizards now have a $24 million, 14 point per game wing player in Porter for three more years. There’s a chance the Celtics at least use this instance as a cautionary reminder moving forward.
The Celtics will be dealing with a similar scenario at the end of next season, when Terry Rozier is scheduled to become a restricted free agent. If Rozier can duplicate the late season success he enjoyed this year, his camp will surely be looking for a contract fit for a starting guard, if they aren’t already. If the team can resign Smart, it is hard to see it also presenting a significant contract to Rozier. Even if Smart isn’t on the roster come next summer, the Celtics likely won’t pay significant money to Rozier if Kyrie Irving is still the starting point guard, simply because it would be a lot of money coming off the bench.
This brings us to the Irving side of the dilemma. Irving has been a perennial All-Star in the NBA who has averaged 25 points in his last two postseasons played. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Irving’s knee prevented him from seeing the floor during the playoffs in his first season in green.
There’s speculation early on during Irving’s Celtic tenure that issues with his knee will be consistent through the rest of his career. And based on how quickly he grew tired of being second fiddle to LeBron there is also the prospect of there being no guarantee he sticks around in Boston. This being especially if the Celtics are unable to come up with the money needed to sign him to another contract. If there is enough uncertainty surrounding these two factors, Ainge can always try trading Irving away for a player like Kawhi Leonard or Karl-Anthony Towns.
This would all circle back to what the Celtics decide to do with Smart and Rozier. If the team spends its money wisely, and refrains from the new contract of one of them becoming too hefty, it may give them the crucial financial flexibility down the road to resign either Irving or whichever star it receives back in a Kyrie deal. Furthermore, if the current money between Smart, Rozier, and Irving’s contracts are managed well, the money currently being paid toward Hayward and Al Horford, once off the books, can be turned over to Tatum or Jaylen Brown if the two young guns improve enough to deserve a max deal.
After five years of waiting, the Celtics’ window to retake the East is finally open. This offseason will begin the challenge of keeping the team morale stable and maintaining the team’s core as best as possible.
But not everyone will be able to stay.
Full article @ Kyrie Irving headlines trio of guards Celtics will need plan for in coming offseasons to turn promising core into dynasty
Source: GreenStreet Blog