By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — “We have a lot of good players, but we need some great ones.”
That much is evident after to Celtics president of basketball ops Danny Ainge (and Celtics fans everywhere) after the team was dealt a reality check by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. But after that sour taste from the five-game ousting subsides, the Celtics will still find themselves in a truly unique spot, built to compete now while also building for the future.
Armed with the first overall selection in next month’s NBA Draft and enough cap space to add a marquee free agent, Ainge has plenty of options this offseason. That’s a good thing, because he has a lot to do if he wants to inch this current roster closer to taking that next step. There’s also the small chance the Celtics take a step back, opting to build for the future rather than maximizing the present in a basketball world that is owned by teams with a LeBron James or collection of super stars.
But the options are there, and Ainge has to pick which path he wants to lead the franchise down. He has an ownership group willing to spend and the right leader in Brad Stevens, and they’ll all be there to provide an assist in the decision-making process. Here are some of those decisions that Ainge will have to make this summer:
Fireworks On The Free Agent Front?
Many are fawning over Gordon Hayward, and he would be a great upgrade for the Celtics over Jae Crowder at the three (it should be noted that Crowder is signed for three more years on an extremely team-friendly deal). Alongside Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, Hayward could give the Celtics enough firepower to compete against the Cavaliers in the East — and by compete we mean they may actually win two games and not lose every other tilt by 30 points in the conference finals.
The 27-year-old’s solid fit in Boston goes much deeper than his Butler ties to Stevens. Hayward, who averaged a career-high 21.9 points per game on 40 percent shooting for the Jazz last season, would provide the scoring and shooting the Celtics need on their roster to help them take that next step forward in the East. If he opts out of his deal (he owns a player option for $16.7 million), then all it would cost Boston is money, making Hayward an enticing option on just about every level.
But there remains a chance (and a good one at that) that Hayward will return to the Jazz after a promising 2016-17 season for the franchise. There are other options for Boston should Hayward opt to remain in Utah this summer, including oft-injured big man Blake Griffin, who has a $21.3 million player option with the L.A. Clippers. Whether Griffin opts out of his deal or the Clippers revisit rumored trade talks, he is a player that will likely be on Boston’s radar this offseason. His extended history of injuries are worrisome, but Griffin would certainly help in both the offense and with Boston’s glaring need on the defensive glass.
If Ainge is looking for a win-now type upgrade at small forward and strikes out on Hayward, Danilo Gallinari is another intriguing option. The 28-year-old has a player option for $16.1 million with the Denver Nuggets, so he could be available on the free agent market or Ainge could swing a deal for Gallinari and have him play for a contract while in green. Gallinari can create his own shot which would give the C’s some more flexibility on offense, though they’d have to weigh his defensive deficiencies against those offensive capabilities.
While Al Horford burst that “No free agent wants to sign with Boston” bubble last offseason, there’s a chance Ainge will have to find his star player on the trade market. If that’s the case, expect the rumors around Jimmy Butler and Paul George to fire back up, with that 2018 Brooklyn pick the prized possession this time around.
And since possible opt-outs seem to be popular in this section, it should be mentioned that Kevin Durant has that option as well. But chances are he’ll stick around in Golden State as the Warriors are getting set for their third straight NBA Finals appearance. We don’t need to go through that whole weekend in the Hamptons again this summer, anyways.
To Pick, Or Not To Pick?
Ainge will no doubt continue to receive quite a few phone calls leading up to draft night, and with that top overall selection, the Celtics can pretty much dictate how the evening plays out on June 22.
Markelle Fultz is the consensus top pick (and it seems like he’d be pretty pumped to play in Boston). Lonzo Ball follows, though he’s already told the Celtics he won’t be working out with them ahead of the draft. Both are point guards, which is one position the Celtics are pretty set at for right now. But for the future, either could be a franchise-changer.
Fultz appears to have all the talent needed to be a franchise player. He’s a 19-year-old who can create his own offense, plays well in the pick-and-roll as a scorer or passer, and has the size to be a solid defender at the NBA level (he sports a 7-foot wingspan, which is one of those attributes that gets people all excited around draft time). But he couldn’t do much to help an abysmal Washington team finish better than 9-22 during the season, so there are plenty of big-picture questions surrounding what Fultz could do at the next level.
It’ll be up to Ainge to determine if Fultz, Ball or someone else is the player to build around (or “build around” until a star player asks off of their team) or if the best move is to trade the pick before draft night and build on a team that won 53 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17.
Who Won’t Be Back?
The Celtics will have to denounce the rights to some players if they want to sign that big money free agent this summer, which really shouldn’t be very hard for Ainge to do.
Amir Johnson, Jonas Jereabko and James Young are all restricted free agents, and it’s very likely none of them are back next season (unless Jerebko takes a team-friendly deal). Gerald Green will also hit the open market, but may be back on another low-cost one-year deal.
Tyler Zeller has an $8 million non-guaranteed contract, and unless he’s tossed into a trade as salary filler, there’s a very good chance the Celtics say farewell to that contract.
Kelly Olynyk is a restricted free agent, and will likely get overpaid by someone on the market after that monster Game 7 he had against the Wizards. The Celtics can let him walk away, but their roster isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with quality bigs, and very few can shoot and stretch the floor like Olynyk.
Ainge will have to think about that when Olynyk brings a restricted offer sheet back to Boston, but if the money gets really outrageous (and it will), that should make the decision an easy one for the Boston brass.
How About Those Stashers?
It seems like every year, there’s one young player who hasn’t gotten the opportunity to play for the Celtics that Boston fans are clamoring for to get his shot. It’s been Jordan Mickey the last few years, a 2015 second-round pick who hasn’t been able to crack the roster but is just some playing time away from being a 15-rebound-a-night kind of performer (or so says callers into sports talk radio, over and over and over and over again).
Get ready, because there are a pair of draft-and-stash players about to shove Mickey out of that spotlight this summer — if they haven’t already.
Guerschon Yabusele (drafted 16th overall last year) and Ante Zizic (23rd overall pick in 2016) both spent last season overseas to give them some time to grow and hone in on their skills. One or both could crack the 2017-18 Celtics roster if they can prove themselves over the summer and in training camp.
Yabusele, whose nimbleness at 6-foot-8 earned him the nickname “The Dancing Bear,” had a great year in China, posting 20.9 points on 52.7 percent shooting with 9.4 rebounds per game for the Shanghai Sharks. Those numbers dipped a bit in his five game stint for the Maine Red Claws of the D-League, with Yabusele putting up 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as he dealt with a foot injury that will keep him sidelined for the upcoming summer leagues. But the talent is there with The Dancing Bear, and the Celtics could certainly use some rebounding help.
It’s likely that Yabusele will remain overseas or with the Red Claws for another year (freeing up space for that max deal the Celtics hope to give out this summer), but the 6-foot-11 Zizic has a good shot at making the club. The 20-year-old played in Croatia and Turkey last year, putting up 12.5 points and 6.4 rebounds between the two stops, and recently declared himself ready for the NBA. We’ll see if Ainge agrees with that assessment come October, but if he can’t find a reasonably-priced center to plug in next to Horford, Zizic could easily replace and exceed what Amir Johnson brought to the table.
And just in case you want another draft-and-stash to clamor over, Abdel Nader put up some tremendous shooting numbers for the Red Claws last season. He was the D-League Rookie of the Year after averaging 21.3 points on 45 percent shooting to go with 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He also shot 35 percent from downtown, so you know the Celtics would welcome him to Boston to jack up a couple of threes every night.
Will either of those three make it to the NBA this fall? That is still to be determined and relies heavily on how they play over the summer and in training camp. But there’s a good chance you’ll hear each of them mentioned a few hundred times over the next few months.