Make Up or Break Up: Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics weren’t supposed to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. They certainly weren’t supposed to push the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink of elimination in a seven-game series to get to the Finals. After losing Gordon Hayward less than five minutes into the 2017-18 season, most had the Celtics as a middle-of-the-pack team that would have to claw its way to a playoff seed; instead they won a second-best-in-the-East 55 games and a second seed. Losing Kyrie Irving 10 days before the start of the playoffs meant the young team would get a nice but brief taste of the postseason; instead they knock off two East come-ups in Milwaukee and Philadelphia to get to the East Finals. As the old cliché goes: That’s why they play the games.

Boston’s deep playoff run was far more surprising than their regular season success where they had Kyrie for most of the year. But injuries to their two best players allowed a rookie and a second-year player to make a name for themselves in League while gaining valuable playing experience, making Boston even more dangerous going into next season fully healthy.

GM Danny Ainge and the Celtics faithful can feel proud of the season they had this year and no one can blame them if they truly feel they’re on the cusp of winning an NBA Championship very soon.

What’s Wrong

Outside of injuries, the Celtics don’t have a whole lot of problems. A healthy Irving and Hayward most likely would have been enough to get Boston to the Finals if their replacements in the starting lineup was good enough to get the team within a game of the championship round.

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Some could look at that as a testament to Brad Stevens and his coaching ability, which wouldn’t be incorrect. However, the growth and maturation of Rozier and Tatum in roles they wouldn’t have been in hadn’t Boston’s two stars gotten hurt, can’t be ignored.

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Another player also went down to injury this season, Marcus Smart, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. But according to reports quoting Smart directly, he’ll be back in Celtic green come next season and the foreseeable future. His primarily-off-the-bench numbers might not pop out (10.2 PPG on .367 percent shooting, 4.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG), but if you watch Celtics games—especially in the playoffs—you’ll notice that Smart is always around the ball making positive plays. His energy and versatility makes the second unit dangerous and his defense keeps him on the floor during pivotal moments.

That being what it is, the core of this team is set. Boston’s other free agents, Greg Monroe, Aron Baynes and Shane Larkin, will all be unrestricted free agents, and only Baynes, who started 67 games in the regular season and 12 in the playoffs, seems to be the most likely to return (as long as it’s the right price, as cap flexibility is paramount to Boston’s ethos).

Smart will certainly see a substantial jump in his $4.5 million salary, but the rest of the roster is locked in for at least one more season. That’s not a bad spot to be in. If there is a problem area on this team, it’s the lack of interior presence. Baynes starting at center moved Al Horford to the power forward spot, and because Stevens used Monroe sparingly, Boston didn’t have a lot of depth in the frontcourt. A minor issue that the coach easily worked around, but it would be nice to have a reliable and serviceable big in the fold that can be called upon when needed.

How to Fix Things

Boston doesn’t figure to be major players in free agency this summer because they don’t have to be. In fact, the only interesting chatter coming out of Beantown of late is the hypothetical trade for Anthony Davis. Sadly, that is not happening, as it would certainly gut the Celtics of their strengths: youth, draft assets and a friendly payroll.

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But other than that, the only “fix” that Boston would need to employ is the hope that they can keep their stars healthy for the duration of the season to make an eventual run at a title. Unfortunately, injuries aren’t something that any team can predict or prevent. If Stevens does have a challenge in the coming months, it’s how to figure out his rotational minutes situation. Does he lighten the load on Irving and Hayward during the first 82 games of the season to give Tatum and Rozier the court time they need to continue developing and improving? Or does he ride his two superstars as hard as he can and revert his promising young players into true backups? Either way you slice it, all of these are good problems to have on a team that is ready to push for Eastern Conference supremacy as LeBron James’ more than a decade of dominance seems to be winding to a close.

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The Celtics are rumored to be intrigued in Mohamed Bamba in the upcoming draft. The Texas product is a fascinating prospect who has moved up the draft charts based on his raw combine numbers: a 94-inch reach—that equates to his outstretched arms being longer than the height of famous tall NBA players Yao Ming, Manute Bol and Gheorge Muresan—which set a combine record. That, coupled with his developed instincts would make for a terrifying defensive anchor (Longhorns opponents scored just 89.6 points per 100 possessions when Bamba was on the floor during his freshman year). Boston could ostensibly let Bamba intern under Horford for a season (much like what Jaylen Brown did as a rookie) before throwing him into the fray. But before getting ahead of ourselves, getting Bamba would require parting with Brown or Rozier (or even both), plus a draft pick to move up from their current draft spot of 27 to the top-five it would take to call Bamba’s name.

Ainge is a calculated front office executive and you can always count on him to be assessing his teams needs in the present and future. But looking at his roster now, you can bet he’s pretty pleased with what he’s put together.

“I like this group of guys, and we’re not looking to make changes other than just small tweaks here and there,” he said during the team’s exit meetings. “We really do like this core group of guys, and we have all year.”