Al Horford will be returning for the second season of his four year, $113 million contract. That’s about all we know at this point.
Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko are unrestricted free agents, Kelly Olynyk is a restricted free agent while both Tyler Zeller and Jordan Mickey have team options. Any of them could realistically return to Boston next season because both Johnson and Jerebko will likely have smaller salaries wherever they wind up and the other three are still under some sort of team control, but it’s also possible that any or all of them could be playing basketball in a different city next year.
It’s safe to say that at least two of these guys will be gone with 2016 first round picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic set to sign NBA contracts after successful seasons overseas.
Yabusale – the 16th overall pick from last June’s draft – averaged 20.9 PPG and 11.0 RPG for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association, playing in the league’s All-Star Game as he helped the team finish with the second best regular season record; they were upset in the first round of the playoffs. The French power forward then joined the Maine Red Claws for their playoff run, scoring 12.8 PPG and bringing in 5.4 RPG as he helped them get past the first round and into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Zizic – the reigning 23rd overall pick – began the season playing in his home country of Croatia but he started to absolutely dominate the lower tier European league that he was playing in and by December he had been moved to the Darussafaka Dogus on the Euroleague, which is arguably the most competitive professional league in the world outside of the NBA. He averaged 9.0 PPG on 64.9% shooting and 6.7 RPG while playing just 21.9 MPG. Zizic was so impressive after his jump to a far more competitive league that one general manager told Sporting News that he would have been a top ten pick in the much deeper 2017 draft had he just waited an extra year to declare. The 6’11” center finished second in the voting for the Euroleague’s Rising Star trophy behind Slovenian point guard Luka Doncic, an 18-year old who is already projected by many to be the top pick of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Both men look ready to make the jump to the NBA and neither of them will be tasked with leading the frontcourt because of Horford’s veteran presence will still be there. Like Jaylen Brown did this season, they’ll each have some highs and lows along the way during their rookie year and the hope would be that they’ve essentially got it figured out by the time the playoffs roll around.
Adding to the group, Boston would love to have Kelly Olynyk back but that might not be possible if they wind up inking a high priced free agent such as Gordon Hayward this summer. He started this season off slow once he returned from his offseason shoulder surgery and averaged just 7.6 PPG on an ugly 43.9% mark from the floor through his first 30 appearances, but things turned around after that and he wound up shooting over 50% from the field for the first time in his NBA career. The seven foot Canadian also averaged 2.0 APG during the regular season, which is a really impressive number for a backup center who is averaging just 20.5 MPG. His development from a catch-and-shoot stretch big to a more complete offensive player who can pass, shoot, post up and drive the lane himself really showed this year and if another team throws a sizable offer sheet at the 26-year old, it could be hard for Ainge to match because he’ll likely be targeting some more expensive All-Star talent.
With Olynyk possibly out of the fold, the Celtics would still likely want another veteran in their frontcourt rotation to avoid having rookies as their second and third guys behind Horford. Boston could always wait out Johnson to see if he remains unsigned before scooping him up in late July or early August, allowing him to come back and play his 20 or so minutes each night while fitting into the team’s budget. The market is also full of veteran bigs who could come at a low cost while also providing value to the rotation. These players include JaVale McGee, Nene, Zaza Pachulia and David West among others.
A completely different approach would be to make a run at Blake Griffin. This would make it very hard to slip Hayward under the cap as well, but Griffin and Horford would make a great starting frontcourt to go along with your two good looking rookies on the bench. It would also allow you to keep Jae Crowder and his steal of a contract, while the only player you’d have to look into trading would be one of your guards with Markelle Fultz coming in via the draft. This would be a huge pull for the Celtics because Griffin is a 28-year old All-Star caliber talent who can do everything. He can score, rebound and has even averaged 5.1 APG over the past three seasons.
You can make the argument that Griffin would actually be more of a help to Boston than Hayward, but it would also be harder to lure him away from the Clippers and that’s the risk you take in going all in for him. Griffin will also likely get a big offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder – his hometown team – and going back there to play alongside Russell Westbrook could wind up making the Celtics his third choice. If Ainge does make a big run at him, Hayward could have resigned with the Utah Jazz by the time Griffin makes a decision and you lose out on both. This makes the Griffin thing more of a pipe dream than something that could actually happen over the summer.
One very interesting name on the free agent market is past pal Brandon Bass, who could be a great filler for the back end roster spots that were occupied by Jerebko, Zeller and Mickey. He averaged 5.6 PPG and 2.5 RPG over 52 appearances with the Los Angeles Clippers this past season while shooting a career high 57.5% from the floor. The 12-year NBA veteran has seen his minutes, scoring and rebounds all drop over each of the past four seasons – dating back to his days with the Celtics – and he would be a great fit for this team in a Gerald Green like role. Green spent this past season constantly jumping in and out of the rotation, often getting minutes in games when guys like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier were showing their inexperience and just weren’t having good nights. Because it looks like two rookies will occupy rotation spots for you, having that veteran such as Bass who is okay with taking a smaller role just to help out when needed could go a long way.