Four key questions facing
Team has work ahead
The juxtaposition wasn’t lost on Brad Stevens as he sat at a podium early Thursday afternoon at the Auerbach Center.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals was roughly eight hours away. But instead of getting ready to head to TD Garden for it, the president of basketball operations was taking questions about a failed Celtics season.
“We were 48 minutes away from doing our pregame shootaround press conference today in the Finals,” Stevens said. “So there was a lot that went right and we can’t lose sight of that. But we also are always going to be thinking about how to best move it forward and pursue what we’re all trying to pursue.”
The typically mild-mannered Stevens, expectedly, wasn’t overreacting to a season that fell short of expectations. Certainly, a lot went right for the Celtics this season as they finished on the doorstep of the NBA Finals. But there is certainly work to be done this summer as the Celtics continue pursuing a championship.
Will there be major changes for this team? Likely not. But there is plenty to evaluate and retool for a championshiplevel roster to better position it for a championship next season and some key questions to answer for now and the future as this franchise moves forward. A look at some of the pressing storylines facing the Celtics this summer:
1. How will the coaching staff look?
This is likely where the biggest Celtics shakeup will be. It’s no secret that Joe Mazzulla was thrown into the deep end and struggled at times in his first season as a head coach. The C’s remain confident in him being the leader of this group moving forward but they know he needs more support, too.
Mazzulla’s coaching staff was depleted this season after Ime Udoka was dismissed, Will Hardy left, and the mid-season departure of Damon Stoudamire. The lack of veteran help on the bench seemed to be costly during critical moments of the playoffs. That will be addressed this offseason, as Stevens said the C’s will pursue a veteran assistant, and Mazzulla will have full say on that choice. It could be more depending on other departures. With a full season of head coaching experience under Mazzulla’s belt — not to mention a full summer to plan — and a fortified coaching staff, the Celtics should be in much better shape coaching-wise next season.
“Joe’s experience now, you could probably measure in dog years, right?” Stevens said. “Because now he’s been in three Eastern Conference Finals and a Finals. And he’s been now the head coach throughout one of those runs. I mean, that’s an experience in and of itself. I tried to prepare him for what it was going to feel like after each game win or lose. And I know how that feels for those guys. That’s one of the reasons why I always talk about how much I respect Jaylen (Brown) and Jayson (Tatum) because the same thing, right? After every game that doesn’t go your way, they’re going to be dissected. And the further you go, the more it is.
“And so you know that you could have a great regular season and when you’re
playing when no one else is playing, everyone is watching. So the more that we can, again, be there to support.”
2. How does the Celtics’ future look if Jaylen Brown accepts a supermax extension?
Reading between the lines of Stevens’ presser, it seems likely the Celtics will offer the supermax extension to Jaylen Brown after July 1. Brown, fresh off the Celtics’ Game 7 loss, was unsure what to expect with the extension but it would be stunning if he rejected the five-year, roughly $295 million extension if it’s offered. No other team can offer him nearly that much if he opts to hit unrestricted free agency next summer.
If the Celtics and Brown do agree on the extension, key decisions about the
franchise’s future will come into focus. It’s expected that Jayson Tatum will receive a supermax extension that’s worth roughly $318 million when he’s eligible next summer. That would mean that more than $600 million will be committed to Boston’s two stars. And, assuming the league’s new collective bargaining agreement becomes official soon, that may eventually create challenges for Stevens to build a championship roster around them, given new salary cap restrictions.
Those tougher decisions would come down the line, though. There are still two more seasons before both Tatum and Brown’s extensions would factor in at the same time — and accordingly take up nearly 70 percent of the salary cap — which buys Stevens time to assess a Celtics future led by Tatum and Brown, who could certainly lead them to a title by then.
“Every team’s going to have to make tough decisions every year, right?” Stevens said. “But at the end of the day, we love our foundation, we love our core and that’s really our focus and priority.”
3. Will Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard be back?
The futures of the Celtics’ 2019 and 2020 first-round picks in Boston are certainly murky as the offseason begins. It’s hard to predict Grant Williams, who is a restricted free agent this summer, and what his value may be after falling out of the Celtics’ rotation during the second half of the season before re-emerging in the playoffs and showcasing his ability as a valuable 3-and-D player during the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics can match any offer that Williams receives this summer, but it’s unclear how much the forward will command after such a turbulent season.
The C’s certainly value Williams’ role as a versatile wing off the bench, but how far would they go to retain him?
“He is a good player who was on a really deep team,” Stevens said. “And with that, with the addition of (Malcolm) Brogdon last year, that was going to require that guys that had gotten a little bit more opportunity weren’t going to get as much. And that obviously hit a few of our players, Payton (Pritchard) included, and Grant was another one of them. But everybody around the league knows that Grant can add value to a winning team.
We know that.”
Pritchard is an interesting case. The guard still has one season remaining on his rookie contract, but he was vocal this season about his desire for a bigger role after being buried in the backcourt behind Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Brogdon. Pritchard remained professional throughout a challenging situation and performed well when given the opportunity. He’s beloved by his teammates and the Celtics like him as a player.
But if they bring back the same backcourt, it seems likely they would explore a trade with Prtichard this
summer to do right by him in his career as he seeks a second contract.
“Everybody loves basketball. It’s a hard job. You get paid a lot to handle those situations, but I really feel for a guy like him because there are guys that work at it and there’s guys that are obsessed with it,” Stevens said. “He’s obsessed with it. That’s kind of his personality. He works at it. He’s a really good player. As I’ve told him many times this year, everybody knows you’re a really good player, not only in this building but around the league. They understand your circumstances that we have Derrick White,
that we have Marcus Smart, that we have Malcolm Brogdon. That in the playoffs, you only go seven or eight deep in a lot of cases.
“But we don’t know how that’s all gonna shake itself out moving forward. I’m a big Payton fan, I believe in him, and everybody here does and we’ll see how everything shakes itself out again. But he’s a good player.”
4. How will the Celtics fortify frontcourt and rest of roster?
After playing in just 35 games in the regular season, Robert Williams stayed healthy and didn’t miss a playoff game. He was key to turning the second round around when he was reinserted into the starting lineup and he showed flashes of what made him so good last season.
“He’s a huge part of our opportunity to be great,” Stevens said. “I think that’s obvious.”
Going forward, though, the Celtics may need to add some more reliable reinforcements to their frontcourt. Al Horford had a good season, but he’s not getting any younger. He turned 37 on Saturday and after resting on the second night of back to backs all season, he performed exceptionally well against Joel Embiid and the 76ers in the second round but seemed to run out of gas in the East finals. Robert Williams did play every playoff game but has an injury history. Can the Celtics count on him to be available?
Luke Kornet was a serviceable backup big during the regular season but didn’t crack the rotation in the playoffs. Danilo Gallinari is set to return next season after missing 202223 with a torn ACL but he turns 35 in August and the Celtics could stand to get some youth in their frontcourt both for the future and to help spell Horford and Williams.
The Celtics could benefit from adding a player who can provide some toughness — both mentally and physically — after they suffered from lapses of focus and intensity throughout the playoffs, something they know they need to address. The Celtics hold the No. 35 pick in this month’s draft, and maybe they can use that in a trade package to bring in another quality bench player. Either way, Stevens has no shortage of decisions to make as he fills out the roster and evaluates ways he can bring the Celtics over the top next season.