After making the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, the Celtics need to retool to stay in contention in a competitive Eastern Conference.
The Boston Celtics made it through a competitive Eastern Conference to reach the NBA Finals this year, led by a young-but-experienced core with Jayson Tatum as the headliner. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart added the fervor and tenacity needed to overcome trailing in two postseason series, while the return of veteran bigs Al Horford and Daniel Theis solidified their frontcourt.
Despite being favored to win the Finals over the Warriors after taking Game 1, Boston fell short. However, those odds spoke to the perception that the Celtics are both title contenders now and in the near future. But like every team heading into the offseason, there needs to be tinkering and retooling around that core to ensure the best possible chance for Boston to repeat as Eastern Conference champions — and ultimately win the whole thing.
Priority 1: Acquire a Player who Can Protect the Ball
Smart is the Celtics’ on-court pulse. His energy is infectious and it spurs their defensive tenacity. Smart was the best defender on the NBA’s best defensive team, and as such earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. But sometimes, Smart’s hustle and energy works against him. Turnovers plagued the Celtics and part of that is due to them not having a player who is adept at playmaking without giving the ball away.
To be fair, the Celtics have tried to address this issue in recent years. Boston traded for Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, but neither of those moves proved fruitful. Even by trading for Derrick White this year, it still didn’t quite fit what Boston needed — White is more of a scorer than a distributor.
This isn’t all on Smart. Tatum (4.2) and Brown (3.1) averaged more turnovers per game than he did (2.5). But it does highlight not having that player who can manufacture good offense, especially against a team like Golden State, which thrives off opponents’ mistakes.
It feels as if Boston recklessly let go of at least a couple Finals games due to its own unforced errors. Of course, those players need to cut down on their turnovers, themselves. But adding a player who relishes the responsibility of efficiency helps Tatum, Brown and Smart remain closer to who they are as players instead of sharing a heavy load still outside their primary skillsets.
Priority 2: Acquire Backup Wing Depth
Boston’s leading trio of wings is phenomenal together, but they can’t play every minute of every game.
Wing depth is another need the front office has tried to address, drafting players such as Aaron Nesmith and Semi Ojeleye; Ojeleye was allowed to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks in free agency and the team picked up Nesmith’s option for next season back in November.
While filling this need doesn’t require a star player, there is no one currently on the roster who spells them with even close to a similar build. Grant Williams fits more as a bruising forward than a wing and White is a more traditional guard. Someone as tall as Jaylen Brown with perimeter ability would add even more versatility to a team that already has tremendous size all over the court.
Priority 3: Get Younger Inside
Horford and Theis rejoining the Celtics bolstered their interior presence. While defensive stalwart Robert Williams dealt with nagging injuries throughout the regular and postseason, the two vets provided much-needed rebounding and rim protection.
But age is undefeated. Theis is 30 years old, but Horford’s age is of more concern. At 36, Horford was productive in ways most his age are not required to be. It’s not statistical reliance, it’s the minutes. Horford averaged 29 minutes per game for the Celtics, and while that is consistent with his career numbers, fewer minutes could have helped curb any inconsistencies Horford may have with that statistical production. After scoring 26 points in Game 1 of his first ever Finals, Horford managed just 30 total points in the next four games. Yes, he had 19 points and 14 rebounds in Game 6, but that game was relatively decided by halftime.
The center position has evolved in the past decade. Today’s bigs are required to have the mobility and athleticism needed to be threats on both ends of the floor. So while Theis had been solid in his role as a backup big, and Grant Williams is a decent supplementary piece, the Celtics will need to continue to adapt to the current demands placed on centers and find another interior presence more similar in age and skill to Robert Williams.