Despite reaching their fifth Eastern Conference Finals in seven years, the Boston Celtics entered this offseason feeling disappointed at the way things played out against the Miami Heat. Falling behind 3-0 with a particularly listless performance in Game 3 left them no margin for error going forward, and they eventually ran out of gas in Game 7 to see their season come to an end.
There was an expectation that changes were coming in Boston after such a performance, and they did just that with a blockbuster three-team trade to bring in Kristaps Porzingis and send out Marcus Smart. It’s a big swing but one with high upside as the Celtics try to figure out what they need to do to finally breakthrough for a championship.
Here we’ll look at that trade and the rest of their offseason moves and hand out grades for the Draft, free agency and contract extensions, and work on the trade market.
The Celtics made just one pick in this year’s draft, as they came in with just the 35th overall pick and actually moved back in the second round, taking Jordan Walsh out of Arkansas at No. 38 overall. Walsh is a strong athlete and defender, with a ways to go on offense if he’s going to be a genuine rotation player. There is some real upside here given his defensive abilities and physical tools, but there’s some serious development needed with his shooting to make a significant impact.
Free Agency/Contract Extensions: B
How you feel about the Celtics summer really depends on two things. One is what you think of Jaylen Brown getting a 5-year, $304 million extension, as he is now in possession of the largest contract in NBA history (albeit one that will soon be dwarfed by other supermax deals to come). Brown is coming off of the most productive season of his career, scoring 26.6 points per game to go along with 6.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 steals each night. He posted a career-best 57.6 shooting percentage from two-point range (and a career worst 33.5 percent from three). He’s a plus-defender on top of that scoring ability, and he and Jayson Tatum make up the best wing tandem in the NBA. That said, they do have a lot of overlapping skills and aren’t perfectly complementary in the sense that they can’t mask each other’s weaknesses. There are times where the Celtics late-game offense feels very “your turn, my turn” as they try to create on the ball — a problem that’s been apparent for a few years. Brown is turnover prone, particularly in the playoffs, with a particularly loose handle opposing defenses have been able to pick apart in key moments — he had nine games with 4+ turnovers in Boston’s 20 playoff games a year ago, including eight in the Game 7 loss to Miami.
Brown is unquestionably a star-caliber player, and the fact that Boston has made five conference finals (and one Finals) in seven years with him is a testament to how good he is and how well he and Tatum can work together. At the same time, their inability to crest that final hurdle raises questions about whether they can get the job done, and the more times you come up short, the louder those concerns become. I land somewhere in the middle of the debate, where I think the deal is fine for Brown’s abilities but do understand how it could inhibit the Celtics in the future. There’s plenty of reason for the Celtics to believe they can win with Tatum and Brown as their leading stars, especially noting they’re still approaching their primes, and they took a swing this summer to change their roster structure to try and alleviate some of the scoring imbalance they’ve had. If that doesn’t work, even at a $60 million annual value, Brown would probably be movable in the future once the cap increases again with the new TV deal. As such, I don’t think the Celtics got some incredible value here but also don’t view it as an outrageous overpay like some others do.
Beyond the Brown extension, the Celtics made two other signings by bringing in Oshae Brissett and Dalano Banton on minimum deals. They’ll hope Brissett can bounce back from a down year in Indiana to provide them some back end rotation minutes at the forward spots. Banton, meanwhile, is a big guard to add to the roster and while he likely won’t be part of the main rotation he’s emergency depth with NBA experience. Boston was never going to be a primary destination for vet minimum guys given most of their rotation minutes are set, so I can’t knock them for not landing a real impact guy with a minimum deal.
The aforementioned swing taken by the Celtics was making a blockbuster deal to send Marcus Smart to Memphis for a pair of first round picks and acquire Kristaps Porzingis from Washington for Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala in a reworked three-team deal after one sending Malcolm Brogdon to the Clippers fell apart. From a value standpoint, the Celtics did very well, which is why I’m more than comfortable giving this a solid B+ grade. Porzingis was terrific for the Wizards a year ago, averaging 23.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while knocking down 38.5 percent of his threes. Adding another legitimate scoring threat to this offense should be huge in taking some of the pressure off Tatum and Brown to create everything, and the Celtics hope that will help their offense run more smoothly in crunch time. Given Joe Mazzulla’s philosophy is to hoist as many threes as possible, adding an elite shooting big makes a ton of sense.
At the same time, I also understand why Celtics fans were blindsided and upset by the sudden trade of Smart, who has been the emotional core of this Boston team since he arrived. Defensively, he was a tone-setter at the point of attack and they don’t have an immediate replacement for that — although Derrick White’s presence certainly made him more expendable as White was an All-Defensive guard a year ago. Whenever a team makes a trade that sends a player like Smart out whose impact goes so far beyond just what he produces in the box score, we can never fully judge what that will do to a team. Jaylen Brown even noted that without Smart the challenge is on them not to lose their defensive edge, which is easier said than done. Porzingis will certainly not be filling that void, and there is a real chance Boston takes a step back defensively even with Porzingis adding some more rim protection alongside Robert Williams.
On top of all of that, there is the ever-present concern about whether Porzingis can stay healthy. He did so last year, playing in 65 games last year in Washington. However, that’s the most games he’s played in a season since 2016-17, when he played in 66 games as a sophomore for the Knicks. If healthy, he represents a legitimate upgrade, but if he’s sidelined and they’ve given up such an important piece to their defense and culture as a whole in Smart, that won’t be easily overcome. Still, for a team that hasn’t been able to get over the hump relying on a defensive identity yet, it’s understandable why they’d take this swing to hope that a revitalized offense would make up for any slid on the defensive end. Adding a couple first round picks that can be ammunition to further bolster the roster in the future doesn’t hurt.
The Porzingis trade also made Grant Williams expendable in the eyes of the Celtics, as he got moved to the Mavericks in a sign-and-trade for some future second round picks. Williams’ versatility as a defender will be missed, but by adding Porzingis, the Celtics are hoping they can move Al Horford into a bench role and be able to navigate their frontcourt rotation without needing Williams, particularly once they shorten their rotation for the playoffs. Again, that only works out if Porzingis stays healthy, but given the price tag on Williams, it’s understandable why they’d move him rather than keeping him as a fourth big.
Overall, the Celtics had a perfectly fine offseason and, maybe most importantly, they didn’t see a bunch of teams in the East make a huge leap forward around them. The Heat landing Damian Lillard would obviously place them back in the favorites tier, but otherwise the Bucks are running it back (with a couple small departures) and the Sixers are dealing with the James Harden trade request. The Cavs and Knicks made solid additions but still appear to be in the tier below, and all that makes this a pretty good offseason for Boston as they took the biggest swing among contenders outside of Miami (which is still TBD).