Checking Brad Stevens' offseason to-do list, and a sample summer

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Forsberg: What lies ahead for Brad Stevens this summer originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said this week that his team must improve to “get in the mix” with legitimate title contenders. Team owner Wyc Grousbeck suggested it could be a busy July as Stevens tinkers with the roster.

But what avenues do the Celtics actually have to adding impact talent this summer? Is there a road map to adding the sort of players that could truly aid Boston’s quest towards title contention?

The path to adding a new third star alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is prickly and could require the team to be patient with the way it constructs a roster in the near term. And Stevens himself acknowledged it’s a tricky puzzle to put together.

Mannix: There is a really good market for Marcus Smart

“The goal is to get in the mix, right? I think we have to get better to get in the mix. So we have some work to do this summer to do that. And we have, as [head coach] Ime [Udoka] mentioned several times, we've got a great foundation. We've got some people that are proven for sure. But I think, at the same time, we have to get better. And so that's the challenge. 

"There are some things that we have to navigate from a financial perspective. With our limited ability to sign in free agency. We're gonna have to be creative, we're gonna have to continue to work, and we're gonna have to continue to see what's out there. But, listen, the competition is real. And being in the mix in the NBA is really difficult. And so that's our task, that's our goal. And this, by no means -- the first three weeks have been non-stop, they have been constant, and I don't see that changing any time soon. I think we're just gonna keep working at it and see what we can do.”

Here are a few of the avenues -- outside of a big-splash trade -- that Stevens can navigate to bolster this roster and the pitfalls that come with them:

Non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($6 million)

Even with the savings from the Kemba Walker-for-Al Horford swap, the Celtics still project as a taxpaying team and, short of renouncing their rights to free agent Evan Fournier, are likely limited to utilizing the non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

That $6 million won’t go far, at least when trying to compete for the more attractive veteran names on the open market, especially when others will have the $9.7 million non-taxpayer midlevel to chase the same players. Could Udoka work his previous relationships and lure Patty Mills here on the cheap with the promise of a robust role?

Unless the Celtics can snag a title-chasing veteran on a sweetheart of a deal, we’d assume Boston is more likely to use smaller chunks of the non-taxpayer mid-level to add end-of-the-roster talent. For instance, Boston could use the exception to sign both 2020 second-round pick Yam Madar and whoever they snag at No. 45 in this year’s draft to longer-term deals than the typical two-year minimum that most second-rounders sign for.

NBC Sports Boston Illustration/Getty Images

Could 2020 2nd Round pick Yam Madar make the roster?

This simply protects Boston if either player pans out. The 6-foot-3 Madar has played professionally in his native Israel since 2018 and could add deep point guard depth behind Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard.

Trade exceptions

The Celtics are swimming in trade exceptions with the most notable being the $11 million remaining on the Gordon Hayward exception and a new $6.9 million exception generated from the Walker trade.

Here’s the tricky part: Boston cannot take back a player in a sign-and-trade this summer without invoking the hard cap, which would limit the team to spending to the apron. That wouldn’t be ideal both because of salary committed this year and because it could complicate the path to adding a third star if a desirable trade became available.

Boston’s ability to use those exceptions would likely be limited to acquiring players currently under contract. Here’s one example to consider: Could the Celtics engage the Chicago Bulls on veteran point guard Tomas Satoransky, who is on a partially guaranteed $10 million deal this season? The Bulls could use some financial flexibility and Boston could take Satoransky back into the remainder of the Hayward exception while adding some needed size and experience at the point guard spot.

Boston might desire to chase a higher grade of talent with its exceptions but the long-term quest for star talent complicates any short-term pursuit. For instance, the Celtics could engage the Cavaliers on Larry Nance Jr.’s availability with the goal of utilizing the rest of the Hayward TPE to nab an impact player at a position of need. But the Cavaliers would likely be seeking draft capital in return and Boston cannot sacrifice first-round picks without hindering potential deals for a third star.

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Can the Celtics add a veteran with one of their many trade exceptions?

Tristan Thompson's expiring deal

With the addition of Horford and Moses Brown, and the fingers-crossed hope that Robert Williams can stay healthy next season, the Celtics should have motivation to move off Tristan Thompson’s $9.7 million salary.

The question, though, is whether there’s any way to utilize him as a positive asset that, again, wouldn’t require sending out draft capital in order to move. The Celtics had to spend a late first-round pick last season to get off Enes Kanter’s final year.

In the absence of a deal, it might be better for Boston to ride out the season with Thompson on the roster as deep depth. But the desire would certainly be to move him to a team that needs a veteran big with hopes of adding at a position of higher need (and, ideally, at a lower cost). The Celtics could always fill out the big-man depth chart with a bruiser or floor-stretcher on a minimum deal (maybe Aron Baynes is available if Toronto elects to punt on the non-guaranteed second year of his deal).

ProFile: Tristan Thompson's first year in Boston a mixed bag

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Paying to keep their own players

The next big domino for Boston this offseason is Fournier. The Celtics have his Bird rights and can splurge to retain him but there should be limits in what they are willing to spend -- or at least how long they are willing to spend.

The Celtics can potentially put themselves in position to sign a third star with cap space in the summer of 2023 but it would likely require the team to be prepared to move on from both Fournier and Smart by the end of the 2022-23 season.

Mannix: Celtics would have to consider trading Jaylen for these two players

Boston could pay a heftier price tag with hopes of enticing Fournier into a two-year pact that would put him back into free agency at age 30. Or, if Boston is convinced the path to a third star will certainly require a trade, they have a bit more flexibility to sign players to longer-term deals that could make the price tags a bit more digestible.

In that instance, Boston could bring back Fournier on something like a four-year, $72 million pact. It could engage Smart about an extension with potential to tack as much $77.2 million over four years onto the final year of his current deal. The Celtics could also try to lock up Robert Williams on a rookie extension that could be a value play if he stays healthy and blossoms in the starting role this season.

The Celtics would then move forward with a whole bunch of desirable players on modest pacts that would give them increased flexibility in chasing any big star that comes onto the market, all while getting an opportunity in the short term to see how the current parts work together in a more normal season.

So what could the summer actually look like?

Let’s finish this exercise by dummying what a potential busy-but-not-a-lot-of-big-waves summer might actually look like:

Over the next few months, Stevens and the Celtics …

  • Re-sign Fournier

  • Extend Smart and Robert Williams

  • Sign Madar and the No. 45 pick using mid-level exception

  • Trade for Satoransky using Hayward TPE

  • Trade Thompson and Carsen Edwards without taking back guaranteed salary

  • Sign Baynes (or center of his ilk) to minimum salary deal

  • Waive Jabari Parker’s non-guaranteed salary

Here’s what Boston’s depth chart would look like in the aftermath:

  • Ball-handlers: Smart, Satoransky, Pritchard, Madar

  • Wings: Tatum, Brown, Fournier, Nesmith, Langford

  • Swings: Grant Williams, No. 45 pick?

  • Bigs: Horford, Robert Williams, Aron Baynes, Brown

The Celtics would be committed to roughly $145.6 million in salary -- about $13 million above the tax line, a digestible number for ownership with potential to wiggle down if Boston wasn’t a surefire contender at the trade deadline -- and would have two 2-way slots to fill.  

A breakdown of 2021-22 salaries … 

Jayson Tatum

$28.1

Al Horford

$27.0

Jaylen Brown

$25.3

Evan Fournier

$18.0

Marcus Smart

$14.3

Tomas Satoransky

$10.0

Romeo Langford

$3.8

Robert Williams

$3.7

Aaron Nesmith

$3.6

Grant Williams

$2.6

Aron Baynes

$2.4

Payton Pritchard

$2.1

Moses Brown

$1.7

Yam Madar

$1.5

45th pick (2021)

$1.5

The glaring need in this demo is adding a more surefire option at the 4, something the Celtics sorely lacked last season. Yes, Horford could play some power forward in double big lineups but Boston either needs Grant Williams to figure out how to thrive at that spot or upgrade (they could also retain Parker instead of Williams and hope they tap into his unfulfilled potential). Madar could also stay overseas one more season if the Celtics were content with their point guard depth but his desire to make the jump could force Boston’s hand. 

The road map to making more impactful summer moves that doesn’t involve roster players from last season is a bit more challenging -- at least, again, without using first-round picks that could compromise chasing star-caliber talent further out.

Boston’s brain trust has to get creative with its trade exceptions. Otherwise the Celtics are left hoping they are an attractive enough team to snag intriguing veterans on below-market deals. In the absence of that, the team might be left pondering the Gorgui Diengs and Ish Smiths of the world to otherwise fill out the roster while banking on a more normal season and internal development will thrust this team forward.

But maintaining flexibility is vital if the end game is, sooner than later, adding a legitimate game-changing third star next to Tatum and Brown.