Five offseason questions Brad Stevens and Celtics have to answer

The Boston Celtics are in a great position to keep fighting, but fighting won’t be good enough. Now that they are within reach of a championship, there is still a litany of immediate future issues that the front office must address.

Is Boston a destination after an NBA Finals run?

Brad Stevens has done most of his early stint as general manager in the trade market, but he has a little cash to spend this offseason. Last year he snagged Dennis Schroeder from a failed personal free agency market for the now Rockets point guard. With a projected $6.3 million taxpayer mid-level (MLE) exemption, can Stevens recruit a desirable free agent below his open market value with the promise of a fight?

Stevens clearly needs a goalscorer off the bench that he can trust. So could someone like Danilo Gallinari be persuaded to accept a cheaper offer to finally win a title, especially if he’s bought out after being given a bigger guarantee to make a deal with Dejounte Murray?

This pitch is more than just saying Boston was there last season. The selling point isn’t where they’ve been, but how they got there and how that can propel them even further next season. Have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown inspired enough confidence across the league that they can deliver a ring? Is there any confidence that this offense can work itself out in the postseason?

The Celtics have a strong playing field, with Tatum and Brown earning enough Q-ratings to at least make a convincing recruiting call. They should have the power-ranking advantage because, other than a perfectly healthy Milwaukee, there’s nobody in the Eastern Conference planning to threaten them for the top spot more than what we just saw in the spring. Brooklyn could be a threat with Ben Simmons back and Kyrie Irving The Athletics Shams Charania he stays. The Miami Heat could have won the series if Jimmy Butler had been perfectly healthy, but perhaps this was their best shot. The Sixers are praying that James Harden will be rejuvenated somehow and maybe Chicago or Toronto can make some big moves in the next few weeks.

But Boston appears to be operating from a position of strength, with its core still young and Marcus Smart and Derrick White in their prime. With the Nets seemingly sticking together, Kevin Durant and Irving may have the conference’s most recruiting cachet, but the Celtics should be more competitive when it comes to attracting discount veterans than they have been since the Big 3 were in town a decade ago were.

Can this offensive scheme win a championship?

The Celtics built the type of offense that most teams with Star Wings use these days, where the point guard takes the ball to Tatum or Brown with first action and then the selected Jay creates main action from there. After an NBA Finals where its offense failed, the organization must decide whether to continue that momentum or veer off course.

There could be some changes in store anyway, which wouldn’t mean abandoning the two-wing offensive. However, the scope of the changes can range from more playmaker depth, to reducing some second-unit lineups that put everything on the Jays, to a major swap to replace one of the key playmakers in the starting lineup.

Coach Ime Udoka incorporated more actions into the system throughout the season, most notably using guards’ Iverson cuts to create ghost pick-and-pop actions from the main stars. This meant a guard would cut from elbow to elbow while running past Tatum or Brown’s defenders to attempt to force a defender to switch or double down, leaving that cutter open to receive a swing pass and attack the open space.

This was a much more effective way for Tatum and Brown to be isolated than to get out of forced post-ups, as they could achieve their goal of hitting doubles but faced the basket and were more comfortable reading. Can Udoka expand the playbook to have more of these dynamic actions that allow offense to develop more organic diversity? If Tatum and Brown become efficient enough to win a championship, they’ll need to engage their teammates in more reading-ready situations.


Payton Pritchard. (Sarah Bull/Getty Images)

How is the TPE used?

This section could be titled “The Future of Nesmith and Pritchard,” but the curiosity surrounding Evan Fournier’s $17.1 million Traded Player Exception (TPE) stems from the Celtics’ confidence in Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard in the next take a step forward in the season. If Stevens and Udoka don’t think Pritchard can become a consistent playmaker and Nesmith becomes a rotary caliber goalscorer, they can opt to overturn that exception to pick two players rather than just go for one goalscorer.

Ironically, the depth of the Golden State Warriors eclipsed Boston’s, which seemed like a surprise considering how well White, Grant Williams and even Pritchard had made it to the NBA Finals. But Golden State could go nine or ten deep with useful contributors who brought a greater variety of playoff-caliber skills than Boston’s bench and become one of the key edges that decided the championship. Stevens saved the trade exception rather than manage to hold Josh Richardson down until deadline to sacrifice the nine-man veteran’s two-way depth, but he could decide to bolster the back end of the squad even more this time.

While Boston has some TPEs in the $6 million range, the $17.1 million TPE can be split evenly to bring them closer to $8.5 million per player. Boston may prefer to bring in two well-qualified ninth men rather than spend it all on an eighth man when trying to lengthen seventh man Williams by a number that could be in the mid-teens.

But between the flexibility of the big TPE and the MLE, the Celtics can beef up the roster enough that Pritchard and Nesmith would be pushed to the back of the active roster. There are several options that attract good rotary players and this will surely test owners’ resolve to dip into the luxury tax.

How do you build depth around another Williams?

Rob Williams was simply never healthy for an entire season and struggled with two straight lower-body injuries going into the playoffs. Stevens provided good depth with Horford starting alongside him and Daniel Theis coming in for deadline day. Grant Williams can play small ball fives in a pinch, but the Celtics have usually done their best when a center plays over the rim.

With Udoka struggling to trust Theis in the playoffs and Horford continuing to test Father Time with every post-season triumphant run, does Stevens need to reshuffle the center rotation? What worked so well last season was Horford essentially serving as a backup five for Rob Williams with the way he staggered the rotation, so it’s not like they need someone new to fill Williams to keep minutes low. But the two main questions will be: Can Horford continue to handle those minutes and do they need to replace Theis with someone who can stay in the playoff rotation?

The investment in Theis was intended to help ease Rob Williams’ minute load to avoid wearing him down and then serve as a high-level emergency backup to play a similar role. That didn’t quite work, as Theis’ athletics have dwindled to the point where he’s a liability in the later rounds of the postseason.

One approach they could take is to win someone like Mo Bamba, Nic Claxton or even Javale McGee at the mid-level exception and try to tuck another big athlete behind Williams to take his impact as much as possible to repeat. Bamba’s qualifying bid is right around the taxpayer’s MLE number, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Orlando matched an bid at that number, while Claxton has the potential to do more than that, too. You could always throw a minimum at someone like Serge Ibaka trying to get his career back on track from injury, or 7-foot veterans like Dewayne Dedmon, Gorgui Dieng or Robin Lopez. There are plenty of household names out there to get on board rather than players cycling in from Maine.

Do the Celtics need to be shot?

For years, the only thing the Celtics could do was shoot. Danny Ainge loved designing athletes with intangibles and guts that he believed could develop a shooting swing down the line. From Brown to Terry Rozier to Grant Williams, the bet has paid off multiple times, even if it didn’t work out for Romeo Langford or Aaron Nesmith.

Early in the season, when they lost games because Smart and Schröder bricked wide-open 3s in crunch time, it felt like they needed more shooters. But even after trading one of their best shooters in Josh Richardson for a stone-cold white, they ended up being a decent shooting team, getting 40.8 percent of their shots from downtown in the NBA Finals.

With Grant Williams rising as a corner spot-up shooter and White finding his shot in the playoffs enough to add offense positively in swaths of the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, they’ve got it enough shooting to be good. But will Stevens use his exceptions this offseason to finally field a sniper? Now maybe it’s time.

(Top photo by Danilo Gallinari: Troy Taormina/USA Today)

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