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Boston Celtics face difficult task to upgrade beyond 2019-20 season

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Mark Deeks, Sky Sports NBA analyst

Thursday 13 February 2020 16:23, UK

Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker and the rest of Boston's starting five pictured before tip-off in Sacramento
Image: Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker and the rest of Boston's starting five pictured before tip-off in Sacramento

Beyond this season, the Boston Celtics face a difficult task in upgrading their roster as their staggered player timelines will necessitate a tightening of the purse strings, writes Mark Deeks.

By any measure, the Boston Celtics are a good team. Their 37-16 record is good enough for third place in the Eastern Conference behind only the elite Milwaukee Bucks and the white-hot Toronto Raptors, and is also good for fifth in the entire NBA currently.

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Also ranking fifth in the league in offensive rating, third in defensive rating, generally coming through in clutch situations and operating much more harmoniously and balanced than last season, the Celtics are a well-put-together unit with few obvious flaws.

Still, nobody's perfect. Professional nitpickers out there, myself included, can always find areas to improve a team. It is quite a long list, too, if you try hard enough.

Kemba Walker controls possession against Oklahoma City 3:12
Isiah Thomas says Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown's leadership is what is driving the Celtics to their current success

Perhaps they could use one truly quality center so as to not have to rely on the fragile platoon of options that currently mans the position. Perhaps they could use an extra bench scorer. Perhaps their extremely young bench, as we looked at earlier in the year, might be too young. Perhaps they could do with adding players specifically well-suited to defending Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, as they will have to go through those two to win the East.

Perhaps they could do with some more rim protection. Perhaps their bench could use a Bogdan Bogdanovic-type. Perhaps Daniel Theis could foul less. Perhaps they do not have the innate physicality within their current playing rotation to compete in the playoffs.

Perhaps Gordon Hayward will leave. Perhaps he will never pair optimally with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Et cetera, et cetera.

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A list this long can be made about any team, even Milwaukee. The understandable pursuit of perfection should not however obscure how good the Celtics have become.

However, there is the spectre of long-term legitimate concerns when it comes to the construction of the Celtics beyond this season. Not because of anything they have done wrong, necessarily, but because of an inevitable and unavoidable numbers game that is going to render it difficult for them to make any of these required upgrades.

Jayson Tatum scores at the rim against the Hawks
Image: Tatum scores at the rim against the Hawks

The Celtics' roster as constructed exists on two timelines. Brown and Tatum are young and not yet in the prime of their career, while Hayward and Kemba Walker, the other two of their 'Big Four', are either entering or just leaving their primes.

This in itself is not a problem, and staggering players' timelines in this way can help to keep the championship window open for longer, while also helping to alleviate the type of hierarchical problems that plagued the Celtics last year.

Kemba Walker celebrates Boston's victory over the Lakers
Image: Walker celebrates a Boston victory over the Lakers

Furthermore, in Walker and Hayward, two exemplary team-mates by any standard, the fact that the Celtics are simultaneously growing yet established with this core is an asset.

What it will do, however, in the near future is cause a tightening of the purse strings. Every team experiences this at some point; teams with their stars on more commensurate timelines (such as Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland) already have to operate around the margins of their own payroll concerns.

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It is a cruel irony that it is simultaneously considered to be a requirement of championship team-building that teams have at least four stars on the roster, yet the very same rules that teams operate within seek to prevent that, or at least make it very difficult.

This has not yet been a concern for the Celtics, but it is about to be. The acquisition of Walker and the extension given to Brown over the past summer were both good value and highly logical deals for quality players, yet they also meant Boston have now spent up almost all the salary cap they had.

Marcus Smart rises to shoot against the Phoenix Suns
Image: Smart rises to shoot against the Phoenix Suns

Along with Tatum inevitably getting a maximum-value contract in an extension next summer, plus the eight-figures owed annually over the next two seasons to Marcus Smart, the margins on everyone else are about to get tight.

The salary cap and luxury tax thresholds for next season are not currently known for certain, as they will not be fully calculable until July. However, the NBA periodically releases updates to its teams based on its up-to-date calculations. Both of these thresholds are calculated as a percentage of the overall figure known as Basketball Related Income that the league takes in, and while that number is enormous, it is also volatile.

Jaylen Brown celebrates a three-pointer against the Cleveland Cavaliers
Image: Jaylen Brown celebrates a three-pointer against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Salary cap amounts have increased exponentially in recent years, fuelled most notably by the one-time game-changing spike in 2016 that was driven by the huge revenues in the new TV deal, but also increasing by $8m this season over the last year without any single such contributing factor. And at one point, next year's cap figure was projected by the NBA's own official figures to be at $118m, up significantly on the $109.14m this year.

However, in part due to the partial loss of the China market following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweets, the NBA has now revised that figure down to $115m. Accordingly, the luxury tax threshold is now projected at being $139m, a significant increase on the $132.67m of this season but also down on the $141m projection teams once thought they would be operating within.

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And with $142.6m committed to 14 players already next season, it looks inevitable that Boston will have to contend with this as much as anyone.

If they are prepared to pay the tax to keep this team together and contend for a title no matter what, that is one thing. Being over the tax however does reduce roster flexibility beyond mere expense, as will the length of the contracts the Celtics have given out. Tatum will inevitably soon be tied down until 2025, Brown already is until 2024, Walker until 2023 and Smart until 2022. Those are four of their big five salary slots taken up already for at least two-and-a-half more seasons, and that quartet does not include Hayward, who may well enter free agency this summer via his player option.

Gordon Hayward high-fives team-mates during Boston's win in Miami
Image: Gordon Hayward high-fives team-mates during Boston's win in Miami

The threat of losing Hayward is real, and it would leave a much bigger offensive hole on the team than perhaps we realise. As mentioned above, this Celtics team could already use an infusion of extra shooting, and losing an incredibly versatile scorer will only compound that. At the same time, Hayward is something in an awkward fit on the current roster, his presence implicitly demanding that the team play three wings in crunch time, and his contractual situation now threatens to become a burden. Paying him what he is worth means filling up the remaining salary cap and tax flexibility just to run back what they have, before any significant adjustments. Not paying him means opening up a giant hole.

Big deals do not lend themselves well to trades, especially if they are not expiring. Retaining Hayward beyond this season would mean five big deals to the Celtics, four of which are not especially tradable (mostly because the team will not want to trade them), and it also means committing to a line-up of players that may not have enough on their own.

Kemba Walker celebrates a basket during Boston's win in Dallas 1:47
Kemba Walker scored a game-high 32 points to lead the Boston Celtics to a 109-103 road win over the Dallas Mavericks

Good though they indisputably are, Boston still need to close the gap to the top. If Tatum is not going to become best-player-on-a-contending-team calibre, then no one on this roster is. And whatever they add, with Tatum's max coming up, it will have to be done fairly cheaply.

The good news in this respect is that for a contender, the Celtics have a plethora of draft picks coming up in short order, much more so than their peers. In the 2020 Draft alone, they look likely to have five. The important context to this, though, is to note that the volume of assets is not matched by their quality - none of the picks will be lottery picks, and this Draft appears not to have much depth in it.

Kemba Walker celebrates a basket during Boston's win in Dallas 1:47
Kemba Walker scored a game-high 32 points to lead the Boston Celtics to a 109-103 road win over the Dallas Mavericks

The Celtics thus have a lot of picks with few roster spots; the young bench they put together for this season already takes up much of the space, and the downside to the aforementioned (and fairly successful) center platoon is how much room it all takes.

To make a significant upgrade trade is very difficult to do with all the highest salary slots filled. To use all the draft assets means a roster crunch. To get better means to drop rather than add salary. To avoid the punitive penalties is to ease off the aggression.

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The Celtics are in an overall favourable position whereby they have a blend of youth and experience, good results behind them and assets to work with, yet although they are fifth in the league, there is a distinct gap to first. And that gap still needs bridging beyond just waiting for Tatum.

Antithetical as it may be, then, to a Boston brain trust that so thrives on pushing the envelope and eking assets out of situations it has no right extracting value from, the answer might lie in overpaying in a deal.

Jayson Tatum protects the ball against Orlando 1:54
Jayson Tatum poured in 33 points to lead the Boston Celtics to a 116-100 success over the Orlando Magic

Target a young center on a timeline with Brown and Tatum, but with a couple of years of cheap team control. Someone who can be the next Al Horford from within. Package up the picks with the Robert Williams and Romeo Langford types, and overpay to get it done.

Easy? Absolutely not. But then, nor has any of the journey been so far. The Celtics are close, and they have options. But with their top salary spots already accounted for and a roster already full of guaranteed deals, trading a quantity of youth for a quality individual might be the best way to bridge the gap on both of their timelines.

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