The 18-19 season for the Boston Celtics didn’t go as planned. The hope was Boston was adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a roster that had advanced within a game of the NBA Finals the season before, and that the Celtics would roll through the regular season on their way to being a title contender. Instead, the team never meshed, infighting and unhappiness took over as players couldn’t figure out their roles and Boston was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round after a string of blowout losses to the Milwaukee Bucks.
As much as last offseason saw limited change for the Celtics roster, this summer promises to be the exact opposite. Kyrie Irving, as expected, opted out of his contract and became an unrestricted free agent. That was the plan from the time the Celtics acquired him in 2017, as it allows Irving to maximize the amount of money he can make. What wasn’t expected, after his preseason declaration that he would re-sign with Boston if they would have him, was Irving’s potential change of heart. As the Celtics season went south, it seems so did Irving’s desire to return. It now seems likely that Irving will be playing elsewhere next season.
Al Horford also opted out of his contract, which was also somewhat expected. The assumed plan was that Horford would re-sign with Boston on a deal that added years to his contract, but lowered his average annual salary. Much like with Irving, it seems that things have changed on that front as well. Horford reportedly is expecting at least one offer, and potentially more, from teams for four years and in excess of $100 million. That’s too rich for the Celtics to match at this point in Horford’s career arc and Boston’s timeline. That may cost the Celtics their versatile big man.
At the draft, Danny Ainge traded back a couple of times. One of these trades saw him trade out entirely for a future pick down the line. This was expected, as Ainge had said he had no desire to add three first round rookies to the roster. What wasn’t expected was that trade also seeing Boston send Aron Baynes to Phoenix as well.
In a regular season and now offseason that hasn’t gone the way the Celtics could have imagined, this leaves Ainge to shift course with what's left. After the initial shock of likely losing their All-NBA point guard and their big man tandem wears off, it’s not so bad for Boston. They still have developing young players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. All-Defense first teamer Marcus Smart is still around as well. Gordon Hayward will returns, and showed in the season’s last month that he looks confident and productive. The Celtics also added intriguing talent at the draft in Romeo Langford and Grant Williams to go with last year’s exciting young big Robert Williams.
Most importantly, Boston has a ton of cap flexibility as they move forward. If the Celtics let all of their free agents go, they’ll have over $34 million to spend in free agency. The hope remains that some of that could go to bringing back Horford, but Ainge likely has pivot points built in if not. The Celtics have been linked to Nikola Vucevic from Orlando, and his inside-outside game would fit in quite well in Boston. Ainge could also re-sign Terry Rozier and hope that with Irving gone that a bigger role will have Rozier looking like the player he was in 2018 versus 2019.
Along those lines, look for Boston to be linked to more bigs than just Vucevic. Expect Julius Randle, Robin Lopez, DeWayne Dedmon and probably some undervalued players who aren’t often talked about. Keep an eye on Europe as well, as Ainge likes to bring over a European prospect from time to time, a la Daniel Theis two years ago.
At the point guard spot, if Rozier isn’t brought back, the Celtics will be in the market for someone to pair with Marcus Smart. Kemba Walker and D’Angelo Russell are often clamored for, but seem to be out of Boston’s price range. Boston could craft a large offer sheet for Malcolm Brogdon and force the Bucks hand on matching. The Celtics have also been linked to Ricky Rubio as having mutual interest. This free agent class is deep on solid point guard options, so Boston should be able to come away with a good rotation player.
This summer is going to be one of change for the Celtics. Instead of adding pieces around the edges to fill out the rotation of a title contender, Boston will seemingly take the less is more approach. This should have the benefit of helping to clarify roles, which was a major issue last season. This probably all results in a momentary step back, but could actually result in addition by subtraction. Expect the Celtics to look very different when next season starts. Not necessarily worse, but definitely different.
Guaranteed Contracts (6): Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams III, Guerschon Yabusele
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Semi Ojeleye
Potential Free Agents (9): P.J. Dozier (RFA – Two-Way), Jonathan Gibson (RFA), Al Horford (UFA), R.J. Hunter (RFA – Two-Way), Kyrie Irving (UFA), Marcus Morris (UFA), Terry Rozier III (RFA), Daniel Theis (RFA), Brad Wanamaker (RFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($92,857): Demetrius Jackson
First Round Draft Pick(s): Romeo Langford, Grant Williams
Maximum Cap Space: $38.9 million
Projected Cap Space: $34.1 million