NBA free agency: Celtics, Brad Stevens appear to be playing long game

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Forsberg: What's the endgame for Brad Stevens and Celtics? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics still have a couple avenues to making some offseason ripples but, after sitting out Day 1 of a frenetic free-agent period and watching Evan Fournier sign with the New York Knicks, it appears the green are banking heavy on flexibility with hopes of chasing a bigger prize down the road.

New president of basketball operations Brad Stevens is walking a bit of a tightrope here. The Celtics have a developing road map to adding an impact talent -- either via trade, or by clearing potential maximum cap space as early as the summer of 2022. But both paths have pain points. Chief among them: Barring some crafty maneuvering, it feels like the Celtics will enter the 2021-22 season as something less than a surefire contender.

If the Celtics elect to simply tinker on the margins, then they are banking heavily on the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to keep the team afloat.

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Maybe that further accelerates their development into star talents, but it also leaves open the potential that Boston is punting a bit on one of the few guaranteed years with that Tatum/Brown core. By not being a true banner threat, and with no guarantees on when exactly impact help might arrive, there is always the chance that the Jays start pondering their own futures.

To be fair, Stevens inherited a bit of a shoelace knot here and there are no scissors to accelerate the detangling. Boston’s draft pick treasure chest, once overflowing, is largely bare beyond the team’s own future first-rounders. Stevens started the process of overhauling the pieces around the Jays by trading Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City, but that cost a first-round pick.

The Celtics will eventually complete a deal that sends out Tristan Thompson after one forgettable season, but it won’t cost a pick to get off his money. That deal might even expand in the coming days to deliver additional goods. Boston can absorb the known incoming pieces -- Kris Dunn and Bruno Fernando -- into available trade exceptions and generate a modest TPE for the future. Or Boston could try to take on expiring salary from a cap-clogged team with hopes of gaining future draft assets.

There is also the possibility that Boston could land a helpful player with a salary somewhere in the $9.7-$15 million range, but if the ultimate goal here is flexibility, then Boston would be limited to taking on only expiring deals.

In sitting out the Fournier sweepstakes -- he signed a four-year, $78 million pact with the Knicks that reportedly includes a fourth-year team option -- the Celtics could flirt with the idea of using the full value of the midlevel exception to hunt what remains of the free-agent crop. Again, that seems unlikely if flexibility is preferred. The team wouldn't want to hard cap itself and hinder potential pursuit of an impact talent, so it’s more likely to use the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel.

The big unanswered question is this: Do the Celtics have someone in mind whom they yearn to put alongside Tatum and Brown? The natural inclination has been to ponder Bradley Beal’s future, especially given his relationship with St. Louis buddy Tatum. But Stevens and the Celtics like to operate below the radar and could also have a different target in mind.

Or might Boston simply be staying ready for whoever is available next? Maybe the team reasoned that it’s better to be prepared for the next James Harden, rather than settle for what’s available in an underwhelming free-agent class.

That’s a prudent path, though not without its own risk. How long can you wait for the next piece given how quickly things tend to change in the NBA? You wait too long and Tatum is wondering if he and Beal should team up elsewhere, or Brown is one year closer to a deal that ends after the 2023-24 season.

Report: Marcus Smart 'likely' staying with Celtics

Maintaining flexibility also adds a layer of complication to upcoming decisions. The Celtics have the ability to extend both Marcus Smart and Robert Williams this summer. If Smart is truly part of the core and desires the security of an extension, it makes sense to strike before he reaches free agency. He might still be a tradable asset if the fit isn’t perfect with him as your top point guard option. But signing him does add a possible hurdle to cap gymnastics.

Then there’s Williams. If he stays healthy and has even a modest 2021-22 season, teams could be lining up to pay him big money next summer. The Celtics could splurge a bit now and try to lock him up at a decent number — maybe something in the low teens as a starting salary. The obvious risk there is both health and potentially clogging up the cap if Boston needs every penny to pursue a veteran star.

But extending Williams could also make a pursuit easier if it comes via the trade route. With Smart and/or Williams on friendly deals, bundling players as part of a salary match becomes easier, at least if the disgruntled star’s team wanted one in return. Pair Smart or Williams with Al Horford’s partially guaranteed final year, and a ransom of future picks, and maybe you’re in the mix for an impact talent. Developing an intriguing young player like Aaron Nesmith or Romeo Langford would be even more helpful.

The Celtics have only $72 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2022-23 season. That number will sink to $57.5 million if Boston moves off Horford’s final year before next summer. It’ll bump up a bit if Boston picks up rookie-scale options on players like Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, and Langford but there will be ample room to pursue a star talent. Williams’ potential cap hold -- if not extended -- would be the only other bloat on the cap sheet.

Here's a look at the Celtics' potential contract situation entering the 2022 offseason.

Which is why any move that Boston makes in free agency will almost certainly be for expiring deals, or pacts with second-year options, with the goal of maintaining flexibility.

If Tatum and Brown take another pronounced step forward next season, it will be fair to look back and wonder if the Celtics should have been more willing to pay to keep Fournier. The risk is that, if he underperformed early in the deal, trading off his long-term money could have really complicated the path to cap space. The team appears to be trying to limit all dice rolls.

Then again, banking on flexibility is a dice roll of its own.

Fans have to hope that Stevens and Co. are operating with a grand plan. Maybe they know Beal is going to be available down the road. Maybe they know that Beal is the key to ensuring Tatum’s future here long term and are on board with any pursuit that doesn’t involve relinquishing Brown.

But it’s hard for fans here to buy into patience. The Celtics made concessions last year to dodge the tax to ease future repeater penalties and being thrifty contributed to a first-round exit. (So too did COVID and a weird pandemic season.)

Celtics fans used to pledge that "In Danny We Trust,” and he delivered the Tatum/Brown core. Some missteps along the way to being a legitimate title contender forced him to pass the baton to Stevens.

With a hazy path forward, are fans ready to trust Stevens and a long-range plan?