This is the longest post on this website to date so I won’t bore you with some long introduction.
You all know the steaks. This is a crucial offseason for the Boston Celtics and Danny Ainge has many different ways he can attack it. With endless possibilities, this is the one where Boston winds up coming out with the best possible 15-man roster.
Draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick
The first step to a great offseason is an easy one, start things off by drafting Washington point guard Markelle Fultz. Going from the Huskies to a team coming off a deep playoff run will likely be welcomed by the teenager after spending his lone year in college playing for one of the worst power conference teams in the nation. Fultz did lead the Pac-12 in scoring last year, but Washington went 9-22 with a miserable 2-16 mark in conference play. This puts him in similar shoes as last year’s number one overall pick Ben Simmons, who played for an LSU team that flat out missed the NCAA tournament as well with his teammates around him doing almost nothing.
Fultz is like Isaiah Thomas – another former Washington standout himself – in a number of ways. He’s a point guard that looks to score first and primarily gets buckets that he created for himself. One of them is going to need to improve on playing off the ball if the two are actually going to work well together, which could take a lot of time to figure out should Ainge wind up beginning next season with Fultz and Thomas on his roster. The plus side to Fultz is that he won’t turn into a defensive liability. While there has never been an issue with Thomas’ effort on the defensive end of the floor, his size simply limits him to the point where he’s easily the defensive weak link on the Celtics entire 15-man roster. Fultz is a lot bigger – standing at 6’4″ with a massive 6’9″ wingspan – and he’s a well rounded defensive player who averaged 1.6 SPG and 1.2 BPG last season.
Draft an experienced NCAA big man in round two
There is a lot of hype surrounding the first overall pick and rightfully so. But the Celtics also own the 37th, 53rd and 56th overall picks as well and they could be more important then their late picks in pervious years. Because Boston has been built on depth, it’s been tough for late second round picks to make an impact with the team. This is why we saw guys like Abdel Nader, Colton Iverson and Marcus Thornton all get stashed and not sign with the team right away while Ben Bentil was even released after training camp last year before ever playing a regular season NBA game.
People expect the Celtics to attack the open market in free agency this summer, which could cause them to lose some depth on the backend of the roster. Boston simply won’t have the money to resign guys like Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko if they reel somebody in on a max deal, so they’ll be down quite a few big men and the 37th overall pick is where they could find somebody that already has a good amount of experience that isn’t too much of a project and would be ready to play NBA minutes if needed.
It’s hard to find a star with a high ceiling in round two, but there are plenty of big men in play who have logged multiple years of college ball and could already be close to whatever ceiling they have. Veteran NCAA forwards such as Oregon’s Jordan Bell, Baylor’s Johnathan Motley and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan are all good options, but Valparaiso big man Alec Peters is an under the radar guy who might be the Celtics best bet.
Peters was a standout player over his entire four year career and he was rewarded with Horizon League Player of the Year honors this past season by averaging 23.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG and 2.2 APG. He has the ability to stretch the floor – shooting 41.6% from three over his college career – and he’s also a smart player who is rarely in foul trouble. While a stress fracture caused him to miss all postseason action and didn’t give him the opportunity to play a tournament game against a power conference opponent, he showed that his stats weren’t a fluke of watered down mid-major competition in non-conference play. Peters scored 24 points in a games against Oregon and Alabama this season while also adding a 23 point performance against Kentucky.
Sign Abdel Nader
Boston has already waived their draft rights on Iverson and it seems like Marcus Thornton is a longshot to ever make the NBA, but Nader is one of Ainge’s second round stashes that does appear to have some sort of future with the team. He was the 58th overall pick out of Iowa State last June and he signed a D-League contract with the Maine Red Claws over the summer, but because his contract wasn’t with the Celtics it meant he was owned fully by Maine and he couldn’t be called up to the team during the season or even participate in training camp and any preseason games.
But Boston was able to keep a watchful eye on Nader and they loved what they saw! He was named 2017 NBA D-League Rookie of the Year and also earned Second Team All-D-League honors by constantly stuffing the stat sheet with averages of 21.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG and 0.8 BPG. The black mark on his game was the fact that he led all qualified players in the league with 3.7 turnovers per game and it’s still pretty hard to see the Egyptian born wing player as a regular in the Celtics rotation next year. But even if he isn’t a regular, Nader has earned a spot on the back of this roster and should be a cheap way to get talent on the team.
Sign Gordon Hayward
Fans have had Hayward’s name on their mind ever since Brad Stevens was hired, and now Danny Ainge finally finds himself with a very realistic shot to land the All-Star small forward. He averaged a career high 21.9 PPG last year and was very efficient in doing so, shooting 47.1% from the floor and 49.8% from three. When you remove rookie point guard Demetrius Jackson – who appeared in only five regular season games – that overall shooting percentage would have put him only behind big men Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Tyler Zeller on the Celtics and his three point percentage would have lead the team by a big margin.
Hayward seems to be just entering his prime at 27-years old as he continues to become a better NBA player. He’s increased his scoring average in each year he’s been in the league. While we know he can score, the former Butler star also brought in a career high 5.4 RPG while also dishing out 3.5 APG. Turnovers had been a bit of an issue for him for a few years, but after averaging 2.7 per game between the 2014-15 season and the end of last season, he cut the number down to just 1.8 this past season. Hayward has also proven to be a capable defensive player. The Jazz have had the number one ranked team defense in terms of opponent points per game in two of the last three seasons, finishing second during the 2015-16 campaign. Hayward has averaged at least one steal per game in each of the last four seasons.
Trade Thomas, Crowder and the 2018 BKN pick to the Knicks for Kristaps Porzingis
This bold move might not go over well with a lot of fans, but it comes under the cliché “best move for the team” category. Make no mistake, Boston is a better defensive team without Isaiah Thomas on the floor. Opponents averaged 112.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor this season and just 102.2 when he was off the floor, while the team’s steals and rebound totals also improved with Thomas on the bench. The big issue with losing Thomas is purely offensively, but Ainge will have already made other moves this offseason to ensure this isn’t an issue.
Boston would be replacing Amir Johnson – arguably the team’s worst offensive player who was a regular in their rotation this year – with a kid who averaged 18.1 PPG as a team’s secondary scoring option last season. He’ll have just turned 22-year old at the start of training camp and Porzingis still has two full years left on his rookie scale deal, which will pay him a grand total of $10.2 million over the remaining life of the deal. The Celtics will also be upgrading the vacancy left by Jae Crowder with Hayward, a 27-year old All-Star who has increased his scoring total in each of his seven NBA seasons so far. Fultz is also coming into the fold to as an offensively gifted point guard to help as well, but the additions of Porzingis and Hayward will ensure that the top pick of this year’s draft has no pressure to carry the scoring load in his first year.
And let’s be honest about the Knicks needs for a second. Sure, Porzingis is a guy they can probably build around but after skipping his exit meeting it’s pretty clear that he isn’t happy in New York. Carmelo Anthony’s no-trade clause will make it almost impossible for Phil Jackson to get market value for him, so here’s a window to actually get a solid return and help your rebuild. Thomas and Crowder are both very good players on great contracts and that 2018 Nets pick along with whatever their own pick turns out to be will give them two solid picks in the next draft. The Celtics also own the 2019 Clippers pick and the 2019 Grizzlies pick – plus all of their own firsts going forward – so they can easily give New York another pick or two if they need to.
Sign Zizic and Yabusele, let Olynyk walk
Letting Kelly Olynyk walk isn’t going to be easy, but to make everything work cap wise while also setting the team up to have flexibility down the road this is something that has to be done. It was cool to see him become a game seven hero by dropping 14 points in the final frame against the Washington Wizards, but even outside of that the guy just continues to evolve. The Canadian big man did see his three point percentage dip a good chunk below his career average this season but he still made so many strides on the offensive end this past season, shooting over 50% from the floor for the first time in his four year career and dishing out 2.0 APG; that assist total is very impressive for any backup center averaging only 20.5 minutes per contest. While his rebounding often gets ragged on, he still snagged more boards per 100 possessions than Al Horford, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko this past season. He’s only a restricted free agent and Ainge has the right to match any offer that a team makes Olynyk, but there will be a team out there willing to give Olynyk a massive pay raise over what he currently makes and it just wouldn’t be reasonable for Boston to match.
Luckily for the Celtics, they have a pair of prospects who can help make up for the loss of Olynyk in the team’s frontcourt in Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele. They were both first round picks in 2016 and had great years overseas, but the best thing about these two big men is the fact that Boston gets to bring them in on four year, cost controlled rookie deals.
Yabusele – the 16th overall pick from last June – averaged 20.9 PPG and 9.4 RPG with the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association last year and was named an All-Star. The 6’8″ French power forward then joined up with the Maine Red Claws after his season in China was over, averaging 14.2 PPG and 6.7 RPG between the final weeks of the regular season and Maine’s playoff run.
But as great as Yabusele was, it was Zizic – the 23rd overall pick from the same draft – who really turned some heads. The 7’0″ Croatian center started off the season by absolutely dominating with KK Cibona – a lower tier team in Europe – so he was quickly moved to play with the Darussafaka Dogus in the EuroLeague, which is the most competitive basketball league in the whole world outside of the NBA. Zizic continued his strong play with Darussafka, averaging 9.0 PPG on 64.9% shooting to go along with 6.7 RPG as the team’s starting center in EuroLeague play. His play was so impressive that one scout told Sporting News that if Zizic had waited just another year to declare for the draft, he would have become a top ten pick instead of winding up in the twenties where the Celtics stole him.
Resign James Young
This one might confuse a lot of people, but there are many reasons why it would be a smart move. The rotation is basicially set at this point with a starting five of Horford, Porzingis, Hayward, Bradley and Fultz with a bench rotation that can roll up to five deep with Zizic, Yabusele, Brown, Smart and Rozier. This still leaves five open spots at the end of the roster and with a handful of players already leaving (Thomas, Crowder, Olynyk, Johnson, Zeller, Jerebko, Green) it could be smart to at least give one spot to a guy who has already been with the team. Bringing back Young probably won’t cost you too much money either.
Another option would be to resign Gerald Green, but a lot of people forget that Young is still just 21-years old and there’s still reason to believe that he can be at the very least a solid depth player on an NBA roster. Despite wrapping up his third season with the Celtics, he’s still the second youngest player on the team and is even two weeks younger than Kristaps Porzingis. Because Boston limped into the All-Star break pretty banged up, he was briefly in the rotation and averaged 7.5 PPG on 60.0% shooting while playing 14.7 MPG over the four games heading into the break. There is proof that he can come in when you need him and he can ball out on an emergency basis, and that’s all he’ll need to be on next year’s roster.
If another general manager sees something in Young, he’s not worth getting in a bidding war over and you could always bring back Green. He went unsigned until Boston scooped him up in very late July last summer and just had arguably his worst season since his rookie campaign with the Celtics back in 2005-06 despite finding a little personal success in the playoffs, so he might be unsigned once again pretty deep in the offseason and just be there to pick up if Ainge needs an extra body.
C Al Horford
PF Kristaps Porzingis
SF Gordon Hayward
SG Avery Bradley
PG Markelle Fultz
Think about this for a second. Avery Bradley has been the Celtics second leading scorer during the regular season in three of the last four years; he was third in the 2014-15 season but Jeff Green was one of the two players ahead of him and he wasn’t even on Boston’s roster at the end of the season so you can even go as far to say he’s been their second leading scorer in each of the last four years.
Even though Thomas is gone with this new look lineup, Bradley is suddenly dropped to the third scoring option thanks to the additions of Hayward and Porzingis because you’ve found ways to add offensive firepower despite trading your leading scorer. The best thing is that you don’t even have a drop off after Bradley because you have Horford – who was a huge offensive weapon this past season by averaging 14.0 PPG and 5.0 APG – in there at center along with the number one overall pick in Markelle Fultz – who lead the Pac-12 with 23.2 PPG as a freshman – at point guard.
It’s always been clear that Boston becomes a better defensive team just by not having the 5’9″ Isaiah Thomas on the floor, but it’s always been impossible to justify sitting him for long minutes because you need him out there in order to score points. Now you’ll have less issues scoring while also playing entire 48 minute games without his defense slowing you down.
Rotational Bench Players
C Ante Zizic
PF/SF Guerschon Yabusele
SF/SG Jaylen Brown
PG Marcus Smart
PG Terry Rozier
Not having Olynyk in this group will hurt a little bit, but Amir Johnson only averaged 20.2 minutes during the regular season as the team’s starting power forward last year and having Porzingis being able to top 30 minutes will ensure that Stevens isn’t relying on rookies like Zizic and Yabusele too much. Both big men have tons of potential and could even be better players than Olynyk down the line, but they’ll be rookies next year and it’ll be reasonable to project them to have many highs and lows throughout the season.
Jaylen Brown just had a season that showcased all the highs and lows that a rookie can have, but this deep postseason experience he just received on top of a full offseason should have him ready to make an even bigger impact during his sophomore campaign. Second year point guard Terry Rozier also had a very up-and-down season after not getting much playing time at all his rookie year, the team will look for him to take strides as well and become a more consistent player.
On top of all that, you still have Marcus Smart. Smart will once again be the Celtics biggest workhorse off the bench and he might even average more minutes than Fultz. There will be some people who want to see him in the starting lineup, but the other players in this second unit will enter next season with a combined three years of NBA experience and it will be beneficial to have somebody who has carried the “sixth man” load before with this group.
This second unit will bring a ton of energy to the floor while also giving them one of the better bench defenses in all of basketball. While inconsistency has often slowed them down, everybody has seen a ton of defensive potential out of Brown and Rozier in their young careers while enough can’t be said about how great a defensive player Smart already is. Zizic is seen as a physical old school center with tons of rim protecting ability and Yabusele already has a gritty – and slightly dirty – reputation from his play in other leagues.
End of Bench
PF Alec Peters
PF Jordan Mickey
SF/SG James Young
SF/SG Abdel Nader
PG Demetrius Jackson
None of these guys are really going to factor into the lineup unless there’s an injury or two that open up some doors. Peters and Mickey will compete in camp for the Tyler Zeller role of “occasionally play emergency minutes when somebody gets into foul trouble” but outside of that you’re looking at guys who will only play in garbage time and when others are injured.
You’d almost like to see Peters win that battle to justify him getting drafted, but this battle will give fans a reason to keep watching through the fourth quarter of preseason games. You could make the argument that Young and Nader wind up with some battle for Gerald Green type minutes from those stretches of the season where Green wasn’t a full member of the rotation, but Rozier and Brown could also take any of those by simply boosting their minutes averages.
Jackson will probably spend a good chunk of next season with the Maine Red Claws – just like his rookie year – and Nader might spend some time there as well, the only difference is that he’ll be under Celtics control this time around.