Brad Stevens will have some tough calls to make when it comes to his Boston Celtics roster this upcoming season. They have a lot of quality young talent playing similar positions that’ll be fighting for playing time, and before the season even starts, president Danny Ainge needs to dump somebody. The Celtics currently have 16 guaranteed contracts on the roster, and they need to cut that number to 15 before the start of the regular season, meaning either trading or waiving somebody.
If the Celtics want to trade a player away for draft picks, they may find the process difficult. Any team dealing with Boston would recognize its need to unload a player, causing the Celtics to be negotiating from a position of weakness. Trying to get under the roster limit isn’t the time to cash in on a potential asset like a Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk.
It’s more likely that Boston ends up waiving someone in the coming weeks and taking the hit on the salary cap if no one picks up the player (they’ve actually already waived Zoran Dragic to cut the roster to 16). 10 players on the Celtics roster currently have only one more year of guaranteed money on their contracts, and thus could be waived without taking up space on Boston’s cap next offseason.
Of those players, we can eliminate the guys they acquired or signed this offseason (David Lee, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko), as well as young players still on their rookie deals the team has invested time in (Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller and James Young). That leaves Evan Turner and Perry Jones. I expect Jones to be the one to get the ax given that Turner is still just 26 and was productive last season. Jones has talent, but he just hasn’t shown enough in the NBA.
The Celtics really do have a lot of quality young players, but there’s a problem: the team has a ton of solid guards and power forwards who don’t really stand apart from each other, and there are only so many minutes to go around. With the additions of draft picks Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter, the team now has eight guys who can play guard. The ability of Turner and Jae Crowder (and perhaps Young and Hunter as well) to play small forward helps smooth out the logjam somewhat, but eventually Boston will need to pick which of its guys are the answers moving forward at the guard positions. Do they back short-term success in guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Turner, or do they give younger guys like Smart, Young and the draft picks more opportunities to prove themselves and develop?
Power forward is a bigger headache as I see it. The two oldest guards are Turner and Thomas at 26 years old, so either of them could still be playing for the Celtics five or six years from now at a serviceable level. Boston’s power forwards are a different story; the new additions of Lee and Johnson are 32 and 28, respectively. This could be the shot in the arm the 23-year-old Sullinger needs to live up to his potential, but fighting both of those guys for minutes isn’t going to help him prove he can be an every day starter at power forward.
Moving one of the power forwards over to center will also cut into the minutes of Zeller and Olynyk, two guys who could also use more development and NBA minutes. Jerebko has effectively been relegated to the small-forward position, but the Celtics may want to occasionally go small with him at the 4, taking more opportunities for playing time away from the young bigs (2015 second-rounder Jordan Mickey is also in place at power forward). With only so many minutes to go around, Boston needs to decide if it wants to focus on winning now or the development of its younger players.
Ultimately, I think the Lee trade and Johnson signings are indicative that the team will move on from Sullinger, probably early in the year, and likely for much less than his true value. I expect the Celtics to stash their new draft picks in the D-League and have a similar minutes distribution as last year for their backcourt, with Smart seeing a good chunk of time. They’ll see if Young can play well on the perimeter in the NBA, and if not, look for a more promising answer on the wing.
In the meantime, they’ll probably make the playoffs without contending for the title and be in the scrum of teams with cap space fighting for free agents next offseason, trying to find that superstar player to help vault them into contention.