Whether you want to believe it or not, the Boston Celtics are in Year 3 of their rebuild. Yes, they’re coming off a playoff appearance and should at least be a postseason contender this season, but they aren’t where they truly wish to be yet. There are still positional gluts, holes on the roster and questions about which players are going to be part of their future.
Fortunately, the Celtics have the entire 2015-16 campaign to assist them in gauging how the next couple of years are going to look.
While Boston is attempting to win games this year, it is certainly thinking of the big picture. The team has some key free-agent decisions to make next summer, and those upcoming determinations are going to impact (and be impacted) by how this season plays out.
Let’s start with Evan Turner.
The Celtics signed Turner to a two-year contract prior to 2014-15, so this is the final year of his deal. Now I’m not inside the mind of C’s general manager Danny Ainge, so I cannot tell you exactly what he’s thinking, but logic dictates that Ainge probably saw Turner as nothing more than a stopgap when he first signed him.
After all, at the time, Boston had Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley in the backcourt. It also had drafted Marcus Smart with its first selection in the 2014 draft. Of course, Ainge ultimately dealt Rondo, but he then traded for Isaiah Thomas at last year’s deadline. Taking that into consideration, it’s pretty easy to come to the conclusion that Ainge probably didn’t think Turner factored much into Boston’s future.
That became even clearer when the C’s selected Terry Rozier at No. 16 this past summer.
That leaves the Celtics with Smart, Bradley, Thomas, Rozier and Turner all fighting for minutes. Of those five players, Turner is the one with the least upside, and he doesn’t do any one thing particularly well.
On the surface, Turner appears to be a versatile guy, but he’s inefficient, not a good shooter, sloppy with the ball, not a very good defender and he doesn’t really have a true position. Plus, he averages just .045 win shares per 48 minutes over the course of his career while also being a net negative on both ends of the court.
It seems safe to say that Turner should be — and probably will be — the odd man out, as all he’s really doing is taking minutes away from Boston’s young guards and stunting their growth.
Due to the fact that he’s an unrestricted free agent next summer, Turner is definitely tradeable. There are no strings attached for potential buyers, and it’s not like they would have to surrender much in return.
The best course of action for the Celtics would be to shop Turner at the deadline to see what they can get for him. If they don’t trade him by that point, then they could simply let him walk in the offseason.
Some C’s fans like Turner, but when you have young and talented guards like Smart and Rozier on the come-up, you cannot block them with an inefficient tweener.
Now let’s look at Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller.
This is where things get a little tricky.
Sullinger and Zeller are restricted free agents next summer, meaning the Celtics can match any offer that’s proposed to either player. Naturally, you wouldn’t think that Boston would retain both guys, as they already have a logjam up front as it is.
That probably means one or the other, or neither at all.
Sullinger may very well be the biggest wild card on the roster.
The 23-year-old is almost certainly the Celtics’ most talented big man. The problem is that he has an injury history and issues with his conditioning, so the C’s would be taking a risk in matching any long-term offer Sullinger receives.
That’s why the 2015-16 campaign is vital for the big man.
If Sullinger can remain healthy and play extended minutes without getting winded, he’ll be in great shape (no pun intended) for his next contract, and Boston would likely be more amenable to a long-term deal. Of course, his production also matters, but the prevailing thought is that Sullinger’s production will be just fine if he can stay on the floor and display better endurance.
After all, Sullinger boasts career averages of 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while also demonstrating great passing ability and a high basketball IQ.
We’ve all seen what he’s capable of when he’s engaged. Celtics fans will probably remember his 31-point performance against DeMarcus Cousins about two years ago:
Everything was on display in that outing. Footwork, touch, strength, savvy, toughness, you name it.
Here’s something to keep in mind, too: if the Celtics feel that Sullinger is going to end up being too expensive next summer, they could try and move him at the deadline. Assuming he’s playing well, he’ll absolutely have some value, and there will surely be plenty of teams interested in a 23-year-old with double-double potential.
Remember: Tristan Thompson got a five-year, $82 million deal from the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Sullinger almost certainly won’t get that much, he will use that deal as a barometer to set his value on the open market, and something near that price could end up being too rich for Ainge’s blood.
Zeller won’t be as daunting.
While he’s a restricted free agent as well, he simply doesn’t have the sheer talent and potential of Sullinger.
That’s not to say that Zeller is a bum, because he’s a skilled big man with the ability to finish around the basket and hit the mid-range jumper, but he’s not nearly as versatile.
Barring any drastic developments, Zeller will assuredly come cheaper than Sullinger, meaning he’d be a more realistic candidate for the Celtics to retain.
The thing with Zeller is that we all pretty much know what he is by now. He isn’t ever going to be putting up big numbers, nor is he ever going to be a consistent force on either end of the floor.
Does Boston really want to commit long term to a guy who will likely be nothing more than a solid big off the bench? Ainge and Co. might find it more efficient to cash in on Sullinger’s potential while letting Zeller go.
Ainge could definitely trade Zeller at the deadline. There will probably be some contenders in the market for backup centers, and the seven-footer could perhaps fetch a late first-round pick or a couple of second-rounders.
While Sullinger has talent and potential on his side, Zeller has durability and affordability, and some teams would rather take the safe route and go with the latter rather than gamble on the former.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that neither player returns to the Celtics next season.
Boston has Amir Johnson under contract through next year, and youngsters like Kelly Olynyk and Jordan Mickey are on board, too. Plus, if Boston ends up with two top 10 draft picks (a distinct possibility seeing as how it owns the first-rounders of the Brooklyn Nets and Dallas Mavericks, the latter being top seven protected), it could opt to select one or two big men to mitigate the potential losses of Sullinger and Zeller.
All of this depends on how this season plays out. If Sullinger finally realizes his potential, then the Celtics may be more open to keeping him for the long haul. If he doesn’t or he fails to stay healthy, it’s hard to see him in a C’s uniform in 2016-17. If Zeller performs at a high level, he could serve as attractive trade fodder, or Ainge could choose to keep him aboard by matching any offer made to him over the summer.
There are so many routes Boston can go here, and you can be sure Ainge will explore all avenues. He’ll probably gauge the trade market on Turner, Sullinger and Zeller regardless of what his offseason plans are, and if he can get a great deal for any of them, he’ll take it. None of them are untouchable.
When you’re a rebuilding team, your job as a general manager is to assess the young talent and determine which players could serve as cornerstones, which could serve as trade bait to land a star and which ones won’t belong.
Ainge is still in the process of doing that, and he isn’t going to let the 2016 playoffs stand in the way. If he feels he can make a move for the betterment of the future, he’ll do it, even if that means sacrificing a postseason berth.
Even if you don’t like hearing it, the Celtics are still in rebuilding mode, and the way the 2015-16 campaign unfolds is going to be a significant determining factor in the franchise’s direction.