The Boston Celtics have cemented Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as their pillars and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has repeatedly suggested it is his job to find the right pieces to put around them.
Stevens started an overhaul this summer with an obvious goal of generating the flexibility that might soon allow the team to chase impact talent that could elevate the ceiling.
The lingering question: Who exactly should the Celtics target?
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Over the summer, we put that question to former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. He pondered for a bit and then offered up his suggestion.
“Kevin Garnett,” said Ainge with a laugh.
To be fair, it certainly worked the last time the Celtics needed a third piece to pair next to a pair of high-scoring All-Star wings.
But watching the Celtics struggle with focus and intensity the past two seasons, it’s fair to wonder if motor and drive is as important to the next player as the overall talent level.
It would help to find a player with a combination of both. Maybe a pass-first point guard whose relentless motor doesn’t allow teammates to take possessions off, or a floor-stretching 4 that ensures a championship-or-bust mentality based on previous failures.
The question is top of mind not only because of Boston’s early season struggles this year but because the Celtics are in the midst of a home-and-home with the Washington Wizards. With Bradley Beal and Tatum sharing the court twice in four days, the speculation about whether they might someday desire to pair up is bound to percolate again.
Beal, who has pledged heavy allegiance to the Wizards and can ink a five-year maximum salary deal next summer, is an intriguing fit beyond his relationship with Tatum. His ability to create for himself and others would pair nicely with the Jays. However, a monster usage rate, his defensive woes, and a declining 3-point shot, fly counter to what might be ideal to pair alongside a Tatum/Brown core.
It might be a moot point. The path to delivering Beal to Boston, as has been well documented, is filled with hurdles. It would necessitate Beal either pulling an Anthony Davis-like power play to generate a trade -- even then the Wizards would dig in for maximum return -- or force the Celtics to trim to bare bones in order to pursue him on the free agent market should he elect to opt out of the final year of his contract (and likely be willing to leave money on the table to sign outright with Boston).
There are less prickly paths to adding talent to Boston’s core. How Stevens chooses to navigate likely hinges heavily on how key pieces on this team pair with the Jays this season.
For instance, is Marcus Smart the long-term answer at point guard? After inking Smart to a four-year, $77 million extension, the Celtics must determine if he’s the ideal quarterback for this team. His defensive talents and knack for big plays in big moments is unquestioned. The jury is still out on his willingness to throttle down his shot attempts and embrace a combination of playmaking and defense.
The Celtics could benefit heavily from a point guard with north/south tendencies who can crack a defense and consistently generate quality looks for Tatum and Brown. That guard also needs to be able to knock down open 3-point looks because Tatum and Brown are going to have the ball in their hands a whole bunch and draw so much attention on their own drives.
Boston could also benefit from an infusion of shooting at any spot on the floor. One of the most glaring struggles early this season has been poor floor spacing and inconsistent shooting from players getting open looks when Tatum and Brown pass out of drives. An example: Tatum generated 17 potential assists in an overtime win in Charlotte but finished with only eight assists overall. Now, those eight assists were a big number for him and generated 21 points (including 5 3-pointers). But better shooters could help inflate Tatum’s assist totals and relieve stress on the Jays because defenses can’t cheat off those shooters as much.
The two most likely paths to adding more talent are:
1) Utilizing upwards of $20 million in cap space next summer to supplement the core of this team. That’s not enough to chase the Beals of the world but it might allow the Celtics to make an impact addition. Think how Chicago plucked Lonzo Ball this past summer. The Celtics could preserve a core of Tatum, Brown, Smart, Robert Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith in that instance, but would have to otherwise trim salary, including the final, partially guaranteed year on Al Horford’s contract.
2) A trade that utilizes some combination of current roster talent and future draft picks to fetch desired pieces. The flexibility that Stevens has created will allow the team to put together competitive packages for disgruntled stars, or entice teams that yearn to go in a different direction.
Now, path 2 likely requires developing young talent beyond their current levels. The Celtics have to give Pritchard, Nesmith, and Romeo Langford the opportunity to emerge as core pieces of this team, or at least inflate their trade value. Boston doesn’t have a treasure trove of draft picks like the past and enticing teams will not be as easy.
So grab a list of potential 2022 free agents and start daydreaming. Will there be Ball-like options that Boston can make a run at? Is the team willing to gut the roster to bare bones in order to make a play for a bigger ticket free agent?
Ultimately, it depends on how Tatum and Brown blossom this year, and how the current pieces fare around them. But it’s undeniable that talent is king in the NBA and even having two young All-Stars might not be enough to truly compete with the league’s elite.