WALTHAM, Mass. -- For each of the last three years -- culminating in 53 wins, a No. 1 seed and the Eastern finals two months ago -- the Boston Celtics have improved under coach Brad Stevens. Danny Ainge is expecting more of the same for next season.
"We're a better team," the Celtics president said Friday, shortly after free agent Gordon Hayward had been signed to a four-year maximum contract. In order to create the necessary space for Hayward, Boston renounced Kelly Olynyk, waived Jordan Mickey and dealt impending free agent Avery Bradley with a second-round pick to Detroit for Marcus Morris -- which means they essentially "traded" Bradley's expiring contract, restricted-free agent Olynyk and G Leaguer Mickey for four years of Hayward and two years of Morris.
They also added No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum, the recent star of Summer League, and 20-year-old Ante Zizic, a lottery-worthy rookie who will be asked to help shore up their rebounding. French power forward Guerschon Yabusele, who like Zizic was stashed overseas after being picked in the first round in 2016, is expected to be in Boston next season.
Hayward insisted Friday that he and his new teammates are focused on winning a championship in their first year together. "That's our goal," Hayward said. "That's something that I'm working on right now, so I can be a better player to help the Boston Celtics get that accomplished."
Is it realistic? The remaining difference that separates Boston from the championship contenders has everything to do with superstar talent. For all of their improvements, the Celtics still cannot match up to Kevin Durant and Steph Curry at Golden State, LeBron James at Cleveland, Kawhi Leonard at San Antonio, or even to the new pairing of James Harden and Chris Paul at Houston.
The promising news is that Boston has yet to approach its ceiling. Hayward, at 27, is coming off his first All-Star season. Two-time All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas is 28. Big man Al Horford is, at 31, the only Celtic to have peaked.
But their days of free-agent spending appear to be done. The anticipated re-signing of Thomas next summer is expected to guarantee $90 million altogether to him, Hayward and Horford in 2018-19. While the Celtics will be capped-out, they will still have many options thanks to their ownership of Brooklyn's upcoming and unprotected first-round pick, as well as either the Lakers' pick next year (provided it is 2-5) or the Kings' pick in 2019.
They'll be entering next season with two longterm options: (1) Package several young players with those two picks for a franchise star, if one should be placed on the market at the February deadline or approaching the draft; or (2) Hold onto both picks in order to deepen their rotation with high-end lottery talent on cost-efficient rookie contracts. Imagine a second wave of four potential stars (beginning with Tatum and second-year swingman Jaylen Brown) that would enable the roster to keep improving organically long after all of the money has been locked up.
Throughout the NBA, frightening salaries are now being guaranteed to stars well into their 30s because the teams have no better option. But the Celtics' access to high draft picks has provided them with an unprecedented opportunity to develop an in-house backup plan even as they pursue title contention. The competition for minutes and the intensity of competing for the NBA Finals -- a reasonable goal in the weakened East -- should bring out the best in their younger players, which could help the Celtics to not only approach future contract negotiations from a position of strength, but also investigate an endless variety of trade opportunities that are rarely available to capped-out teams.
For now, they are the only contender that is still under construction -- even after the signing of Hayward, whose scoring has improved annually since leaving Butler (and Stevens) as the No. 9 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. Last year Hayward led Utah with 21.9 points, ranked second on the Jazz with 3.5 assists, shot 39.8 percent from the arc and contributed a career-best 5.4 rebounds. Hayward, Thomas and Horford are all versatile playmakers who can score as well as create -- and that ability to pass across the board gives them another nuanced advantage over Cleveland.
"Being a playmaker, trying to make some plays to get other people shots to help us spread the attack around," said Hayward of the strengths he'll bring to Boston. "I think I'm a versatile player offensively and defensively, and that will help us to have guys playing multiple positions. I can start the offense; I can play with the ball, without the ball."
Hayward spoke of his "familiarity and comfort" with Stevens, with whom he reached the NCAA championship game in 2010, losing to Duke when Hayward's final shot from halfcourt banked off the rim. The warm memories of his college recruitment flooded back when he and his wife were met at the airport in Boston by Stevens and his wife Tracy. "That was a really cool feeling to be doing it over again, this time at the next level," Hayward said. "Talking with Brad about where he sees me fitting in, how they're going to use me, how I can be a better player, the different steps to win a championship -- those things are what really stood out for me."
In many ways the Celtics will be developing a new team around their myriad roster changes. Can Marcus Smart build upon his strong shooting in the playoffs to become a reliable replacement for Bradley? Will Brown have a breakout year? How will Stevens find meaningful roles for everyone while spreading minutes among Hayward, Morris, Brown, Tatum and Jae Crowder?
Most important -- if contention is the immediate goal -- who will emerge as Boston's leader at the defensive end? Last year the Cavaliers showed little interest in defending, and their ambivalence is unlikely to change as they pursue a fourth straight NBA Finals without major changes to their roster. There is an opportunity for the Celtics to exploit their youth and depth to defend around the clock in wave after wave. They may not be able to match the firepower of James and Kyrie Irving - but can they wear down the Cavs defensively?
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