By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The current offseason plan of the Boston Celtics is pretty clear: Don't mess up next offseason. It's a plan that carries plenty of risk for 2021-22, but may bring a huge reward for the summer of 2022.
While brighter days may be ahead in the future, this approach really doesn't make the present very promising for the Celtics.
Boston's summer playbook is apparent after the team wouldn't go above and beyond to bring back Evan Fournier, who is going to be a New York Knick for the next four years for roughly $20 million annually. That's not a bad contract to pass on, but the Celtics are now down a No. 3 option behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown next season.
Instead, Brad Stevens has opted to bring in players who may help in 2021-22, but will likely help a whole lot more when they are off the Celtics' ledger next summer. That has been the big trend with Stevens' deals in his first offseason in the Boston front office.
Stevens gave up a first-round pick to rid Boston of Kemba Walker and his massive contract. He'll eventually give up Tristan Thompson as soon as the Celtics, Kings and Hawks finalize their three-team trade that will bring Kris Dunn and Bruno Fernando (and potentially others) to Boston to add depth/not eat any cap space next summer. Stevens also brought in Josh Richardson and his $11.6 million expiring contract, a versatile player who may help a bit in 2021-22, but even more so when that contract is off the books.
If the C's make any more moves this summer, they'll reportedly be "on the margins" according to Mark Murphy of The Boston Herald. That means anyone added the rest of the way will be on an expiring deal so that Boston can keep as much financial flexibility as possible for 12 months from now. They may even take on a "bad contract" if it means adding a draft pick, just so long as that bad contract is off the books by next summer.
None of that bodes well for an exciting bounce-back season for the 2021-22 Boston Celtics, especially with other teams in the East improving their chances next season. The Bulls added Lonzo Ball to Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic to inch closer to relevancy in the Eastern Conference, and the Miami Heat got a whole lot better by adding Kyle Lowry to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. While Philadelphia is a bit of a mess, the Bucks and the Nets remain atop the conference.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have done more money shedding than talent adding this offseason, and many are pointing at Stevens and accusing him of "punting" on this offseason In a way, he certainly is. He clearly isn't going above and beyond to give Ime Udoka the most talented group around Tatum and Brown in his first season as an NBA head coach. Seems like Stevens is doing what Danny Ainge did to him in his final season on the Boston bench, though at least there appears to be a master plan behind it this time around.
And this may be Stevens' best move for the future, even with the risk that it carries for the present. Boston has only $72 million on the books for the 2022-23 season, and that could shrink even more if the team moves on from Al Horford after the current season. Stevens will eventually have to figure out if he wants to extend Marcus Smart and Robert Williams, either before this season or next, but the team should have room on the books to do that and potentially bring in a third star for Tatum and Brown. Those dreams of a Bradley Beal-Tatum team-up could actually come true next summer after years of speculation.
But of course, there is a whole lot of risk in waiting a year to make any relevant moves. Perhaps Beal isn't around, traded to an acceptable destination by the Wizards during the season before he hits free agency. Maybe Stevens and company have someone other than Beal on their radar, and Stevens will be more open to making a trade for a star player than Danny Ainge was, should the next James Harden-like opportunity arise. But there is no guarantee that such a situation will ever come to fruition, and the C's could be kept waiting.
And we all know that the team's track record in free agency hasn't been pretty as of late, for a slew of various reasons. Maybe Stevens will be better at choosing the right talent, but we won't know until it actually happens. It doesn't seem like we'll have any idea on that front until next year.
The biggest risk going into this season after sleepwalking in free agency is that the Celtics won't be very good when the season tips off, and potentially even worse than they were during a frustration-filled 2021 season. Boston is banking on Tatum and Brown playing above and beyond their 2021 levels to keep the team relevant. There's good reason to believe that both rising stars will be pretty damn good in their fifth and sixth NBA seasons, respectively, but that would also put a lot on guys like Smart (now the team's starting point guard), Horford, Williams, and unproven players like Romeo Langford Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith. From a talent standpoint, the current roster is even worse than last season. Barring a shocking run as plucky underdogs, the Celtics are not going to be anywhere near the conversation as an Eastern Conference contender next season.
If the reward for that is a major splash in free agency next summer, then waving the white flag on next season may be worth it. With limited ways to navigate free agency and add a legit third star to Tatum and Brown this summer, it may be the only way to get back to relevancy in the near future.
It just doesn't feel great wasting another year of Tatum and Brown, and if things really go south, the risk of those two pondering their future elsewhere grows. Hitting in free agency next year could lead to a quick turnaround, but it's going to be a long road to get there.
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