The signing of Al Horford amounts to what will probably be the biggest move made by the Celtics during free agency. Recent statements by Danny Ainge saying the Celtics aren’t done making moves for the summer is promising for fans hoping for another star, but star trades are tough and a deal for Jahil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, or Demarcus Cousins may not materialize. Regardless, the Celtics need to go through the non-sexy part of free agency – filling out their roster with role players and bench warmers.
As of right now, the Celtics depth chart seems to go as follows:
Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier
Wings: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Jonas Jerebko, James Young, R.J. Hunter
Big-men: Al Horford, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Jaylen Brown, Jordan Mickey
That’s 13 guys, one more than Boston can dress on a given night. Now, based on past performance James Young, R.J.. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey probably won’t get too much run this year. Mickey is the most impressive of the bunch but is stuck behind a front court rotation full of power forwards. Young and Hunter may get spot minutes, but for a team looking to be competitive neither will have much of a chance. This will probably be the make-it-or-break-it year for Young, entering his third season, as his development has seemingly stalled (his D-League stats actually took a drastic dip in his second season) and he’s shown no signs he will be able to compete at the NBA level.
Boston may sign a couple second round picks to fill out their roster, but as a team with high expectations I would venture they’ll look to sign a veteran player instead, unless one of those second rounders absolutely blows them away.
A true center is the biggest need for Boston, and they happen to have two guys, including last year’s starter, floating in the ether of restricted free agency. Both Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller were extended qualifying offers at the beginning of free agency but neither has signed an offer sheet with another team or re-upped with the Celtics. Both players are flawed (I’ve killed Sullinger on this site multiple times), and Zeller is coming off of a strange season that saw his playing time cut drastically, but both players are solid fourth big men. With the market thinning out, some team will throw Zeller, or more likely Sullinger, a good chunk of cash. Boston is still looking to maintain flexibility for the future and will try to have the least money possible on their books after the 2016-17 season.
Singing either Sullinger or Zeller to a large one-year deal using bird rights would be a wise move that would ensure a deep bench. A one-year $15 million deal for Sullinger may be more appealing for him than signing for three years $30 million somewhere else. Zeller could probably be had for less. Taking this route would make it unlikely the chosen player would last past next season as the Celtics would have to renounce their cap hold to clear the requisite cap space to pursue a top-tier free agent in 2017.
Another back up wing wouldn’t hurt as well: Smart, Crowder, Brown, and Jerebko all project to be the sort of player that can switch effectively on defense and provide some modicum of spacing. Finding another player like that for cheap may be valuable for the team so if someone gets hurt, or Brown proves completely unready, Boston won’t have to change their defensive principles on the fly.
Chase Budinger or former Celtic Brandon Bass could make for solid bench warmers. Taking a flyer on Terrance Jones would also be a good upside move. Jones was horrible last season –but showed a lot of promise previously — Coach Brad Stevens may be able to turn his career around and make Jones into a weapon. Willie Reed, Robert Sacre, and Tyler Hansbrough could also serve as stopgap bench warmers. Reed would be the best option of the group as he’s still young, has upside, and is probably the best player right now. He may be out of Boston’s price range though.
Boston will most likely opt to resign one of their restricted guys, but if Zeller and Sullinger care more about years than dollars, the Celtics should just let them walk.
Filling out a roster is often tedious and rarely flashy but the Finals taught us that guys like Richard Jefferson and Leonardo Barbosa can prove to be invaluable.
Ainge may want to keep as much cap space open as possible to facilitate a trade but trades often destroy depth (just ask Carmelo and the Knicks) and signing a Reed here or Budinger there could prevent Boston from depth chart hell.