Chris Forsberg

As Bradley Beal joins Suns, is Celtics' third star already on roster?

Perhaps there's a reason the Celtics didn't pursue Bradley Beal.

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Bradley Beal is headed West. That might just be the best possible outcome for the Boston Celtics, as another Eastern Conference All-Star has relocated to Phoenix. You can wait to obsess about having to play the Suns and their vaunted new Big Three in the NBA Finals when that pairing looks like more of a reality.

Boston’s more immediate reality is that it didn’t have the sort of big-money expiring deal that could have made the Wizards swallow hard like they did as Beal and his no-trade clause steered him to a title contender. The Celtics didn’t have a brash new owner willing to tempt the fate of the incoming second apron by adding another max contract. Time will tell if Beal was truly the sort of all-in move that could elevate a team to a title.

The Celtics are simply trying to plot an agreeable path forward with two soon-to-be max players with hopes that smaller tweaks can deliver them back to a championship stage.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a full run-it-back outcome that some seem to dread. In his two seasons as president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens has rarely sat on his hands. He has repeatedly spent draft capital to bolster Boston’s supporting cast and now must figure out how to strengthen that supporting group under the constraints of a soon-to-be suffocating new collective bargaining agreement.

For the Celtics, that could mean an offseason that looks more like a reallocation of assets than the sort of splurge that occurred last summer. The NBA’s new CBA does not easily allow for the surplus of guards the team carried last season and Stevens already hinted that the team will examine ways to better balance the roster.

That almost certainly means that at least one of Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Payton Pritchard will not be on the roster next season. The Celtics have motivation to trim some salary and bolster their frontcourt, and a backcourt overhaul is the easiest path to that new reality.

It’s frustrating for Boston because -- as we wrote in last week’s CBA series -- the Celtics spent years building towards the sort of all-in roster that the previous CBA allowed as long as teams stomached a bulky luxury tax payment. The new CBA, which will ease in this season before wrapping its tentacles around the league, is forcing Boston to more cautiously pick its path.

If you’re frustrated the team didn’t work harder to secure Jayson Tatum’s buddy Beal, we get it. The price doesn’t seem prohibitive from afar. The Wizards basically salary-dumped an All-Star and got some potentially intriguing draft assets. Alas, Boston would have really complicated its long-term outlook by adding a player that does not definitely change a team's title status.

So much of this team’s ceiling reverts back to what’s in house. Does Tatum eliminate some inconsistencies and shuffle closer to legitimate MVP contender? That’s the most surefire path to winning a title. Does Jaylen Brown shore up his ballhandling and make his typical offseason progress? If Robert Williams III stays healthy for a good chunk of the season, then you’re in an even better spot. More coaching experience has to help, too. 

Given the road map to building a title contender under the previous CBA, it’s understandable if you yearned for a third star. We'd make the case that your team has a Beal-like presence already on the roster, and one who is younger and won't hinder the defense-first identity that got the team to a title stage in 2022. 

We just spent an entire season in which Derrick White often carried the tag, "third-best player on the team." In his first full season with Boston, White blossomed from high-level bench contributor to uber-reliable starter whose consistent contributions to winning forced the team to actually move away from the double-big lineup that delivered them to the Finals stage.

Is White the sort of consistent playmaker and scorer that Beal has been throughout his career? No. But there’s a season and a half trend of him making Boston’s best players better. One of the easiest pathways to the Celtics being a more consistent team might simply be leaning even heavier into White.

A logjam, especially late in games, limited White’s total floor time this season. By season’s end, Joe Mazzulla (finally) started playing White more and was rewarded (particularly in Game 6 of the East Finals).

Here's a look at Boston’s lineup data when Tatum, Brown and White were mixed and matched last season, per data: 

What does the data tell us? Good things happen with White on the court, regardless of which Jay he was paired with. White was among the NBA leaders in net rating overall, finishing at +11.0 points per 100 possessions over 2,319 minutes. Only Nikola Jokic (+12.5) and Aaron Gordon (+12.1) of the title-hoisting Nuggets were higher among qualifiers.

How did Boston’s other guards fair when paired with Tatum and Brown? Let’s take a look at Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon: 

Having Tatum on the floor certainly helps everyone’s numbers. But only White helped the Celtics maintain those numbers when paired with the stars. It should be noted that the White, Smart, Brown, and Tatum lineup was +11.5 in 573 minutes together, too, which shows how much success that most common starting group had together, with a particularly eye-catching 125.6 offensive rating.

Why do we highlight the success with White? Again, there’s a much more agreeable pathway to keeping White a part of this core long term than there was to paying someone like Beal into his mid-30s. There are certainly a handful of high-priced players the Celtics would have to think long and hard about adding to this core and tempting the fate of the new CBA. Phoenix needed to push all-in; the Celtics did not. 

At least Beal didn’t end up in Miami or Milwaukee.

Banking on incremental growth isn’t nearly as fun as trading for an All-Star. It’s even harder to embrace that less sexy path after a disappointing finish to a season with championship expectations.

Stevens’ to-do list starts with balancing the roster and exploring potential trade options in advance of Thursday’s NBA Draft. Boston holds the No. 35 selection -- the highest pick of the Stevens era -- and finding someone who could immediately slot at the back end of the roster could help a team with a slowly ballooning payroll. Or maybe that pick can help facilitate a deal that patches some holes in the frontcourt.

Beal won’t be the only superstars who becomes available this summer. Like every instance before this, the Celtics will have hard conversations about the most prudent path forward.

For now, the goal remains the same: Find the players most capable of accentuating the talents of Tatum and Brown. Adding someone like Beal, particularly given his relationship with Tatum, had to be tempting. But there were simply too many variables that prevented it from being a reality.

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