How the Boston Celtics Can Become a Real Rival for LeBron James’ LA Lakers

How the Boston Celtics Can Become a Real Rival for LeBron James’ LA Lakers

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The Boston Celtics fell two wins short of meeting the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for a 13th time, losing the chance to push their title count to a league-best 18. Instead, the Lakers are now tied with Boston at 17 total championships.

The Celtics and Lakers have the greatest rivalry in the NBA, but Boston didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, falling in six games to the Miami Heat. The greatest Celtics teams went toe-to-toe with the Lakers in the NBA Finals, meeting seven times in the Bill Russell era (all wins), three times with Larry Bird (winning one of three against Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and twice with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (an even split).

After closing out the Heat in the Finals, LeBron James stands among the all-time Lakers greats. But to fully cement himself as such, James needs to go to battle against Boston. It’s a rite of passage for any Lakers star.

Several teams believe they stand out as L.A.’s rival (Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, etc.), but the Lakers have always had their sights set on the Celtics and their lead in titles. If James can push the franchise to No. 1 overall with 18 championships and do so by beating Boston in the Finals, he’ll cement his Lakers legacy.

The Celtics have no interest in Lakers lore, but they certainly want to return to prominence. The team is entering an important offseason to take that next step in the Eastern Conference. If James and the Lakers are there to meet Boston in the next Finals, even better. There’s nothing the Celtics like more than winning a title at the Lakers’ expense.

Some decisions will be easy, like Jayson Tatum’s likely extension this offseason. Others will be more complex, like Gordon Hayward’s future, especially if ownership is worried about a hefty luxury-tax bill.

Tatum Extension

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Tatum, the No. 3 overall selection in 2017, is the best player from his draft class, rivaled only by Donovan Mitchell (No. 13 to the Utah Jazz) and Bam Adebayo (No. 14 to the Miami Heat). He made the All-NBA Third Team in September and will get a maximum extension from Boston this summer, a designated “supermax” if he qualifies, per a former Western Conference executive.

The team will be able to lock in a deal once the 2020-21 offseason is scheduled (currently in limbo) with a deadline before the start of next season. Tatum’s actual contract figures would not be determined until the cap is set for the 2021-22 season. If it climbs to $115 million, he would be eligible for a five-year designated extension at $28.8 million per year ($166.8 million total) or a supermax at $34.5 million ($200.1 million total).

Tatum would need to make another All-NBA Team or win Most Valuable Player or Defensive Player of the Year to qualify for the larger figure. The most another team can offer Tatum as a restricted free agent in 2021 would be $123.6 million over four years. A long-term marriage with the Celtics seems inevitable.

War Chest of Future Draft Picks Empty?

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Dating back to their 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets, along with several subsequent moves, the Celtics were sitting on several draft picks that many speculated would be used in a trade to bring in a star like Paul George, Jimmy Butler or Anthony Davis.

Instead, Boston used patience, waiting to sign Hayward as a free agent in 2017. The deal with the Charlotte Hornets for Kemba Walker in 2019 was a dual sign-and-trade that included Terry Rozier (Boston’s draft selection at No. 16 in 2015).

Looking back, Boston did well with its draft haul, using Brooklyn’s No. 3 pick in 2016 to get Jaylen Brown and the Nets’ No. 1 pick in 2017 to get Tatum (trading down to No. 3 with the Philadelphia 76ers). But the Celtics’ remaining assets have dwindled to three first-rounders in November’s draft: their selection at No. 26, No. 14 from the Memphis Grizzlies and No. 30 from the Milwaukee Bucks.

After the draft, the Celtics’ books are clean with no other future picks but their own. But will president of basketball operations Danny Ainge use all three of those selections in November?

“Danny isn’t giving up the picks, cheap help,” the former executive said.

An Eastern Conference executive doesn’t agree: “They will be looking to deal picks, regardless of what happens with Hayward.”

Hayward has a $34.2 million player option to decide on before the start of the 2020-21 offseason.

The more pressing issue for Ainge and the Celtics is roster space. Teams can only start a season with 15 players, and Boston does not have the room to add three rookies. As a franchise with serious championship aspirations, can it commit time and resources to develop prospects beyond the ones already in place like Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Vincent Poirier, Carsen Edwards and Javonte Green?

Look for the Celtics to explore moving some or all of their picks, even if it’s a small move for future draft picks. Another option would be drafting an international player who is willing to stay overseas next season. If so, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie suggested Leandro Bolmaro, Aleksej Pokusevski or Theo Maledon to Bleacher Report, though he noted that some may not be on the board when the Celtics pick late in the first.

Hayward and Kanter Options, More

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Few teams project to have cap room this offseason. Hayward isn’t going to earn close to the kind of money he’d turn down from Boston if he opts out.

“Hayward is picking up his option, no doubt,” the former Western Conference executive said. “[Center Enes] Kanter thinks he’s better than $5 million. He should opt out.”

Kanter can opt out of his final year at $5 million. The team can pass on Semi Ojeleye’s $1.8 million option and may have to with a packed roster. Daniel Theis is a bargain at a non-guaranteed $5 million; the Celtics won’t let him go. Green is an interesting young wing with $1.5 million in non-guaranteed salary.

Reserve point guard Brad Wanamaker will be a restricted free agent and played well enough for the team to warrant a new contract. If so, the Celtics would have 15 players with Hayward and the first-round picks, assuming Kanter, Green and Ojeleye are gone.

“They keep Javonte and move Poirier is my guess,” the Eastern Conference executive said.

Trade Hayward, Avoid Luxury Tax?

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If Wanamaker returns at a minimum contract, and if the NBA’s salary cap remains flat at $109.1 million with a $132.6 million luxury-tax threshold, the Celtics will be over the tax line by about $10.6 million (with a $17.9 million penalty).

Boston can try to nickel-and-dime that down by small trades to move some of their young players or draft picks, but it’s unlikely to break up the core of Marcus Smart, Tatum, Brown and Walker. Theis is too valuable at his price to move, leaving the Celtics with a long list of low-dollar contracts ($1.5-3.6 million range) and one massive one with Hayward.

Assuming the Celtics do give Tatum a maximum deal, Boston would have about $105-111 million invested in just four players for 2021-22. If Hayward expects a new deal near the $20 million range per season, Boston would be making a long-term commitment to paying luxury taxes.

But if the Celtics do hope to improve by trade this offseason, Hayward may be the movable piece that can bring back a player under a substantial salary.

“[Ainge] likes Hayward. They probably just make a run at it next year with the same team,” the former executive said. “Who is going to take Hayward? He’s damaged goods now.”

Hayward has struggled to stay healthy in his time with the Celtics, most notably with a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia in his first game with the team in 2017.

“Danny does a good job knowing when to move on from people, but that being said, Hayward had a very good year for them. People forget because of the bubble,” a different Eastern Conference executive said.

With player movement currently on hiatus and Hayward’s option status unresolved, trade rumors aren’t buzzing aggressively around the league just yet.

Speculatively, if the Indiana Pacers were interested in breaking up their big-man tandem of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, would they be interested in a deal for Hayward, Poirier and Nos. 14 and 26 in the draft for Doug McDermott, TJ Leaf and Turner?

“Not a bad idea. I’m sure they could come up with something win-win revolving around those two players and picks,” the first Eastern Conference executive said. “Boston will retool for sure.”

“That’s a no-brainer for Indiana,” the second Eastern Conference executive said. “I just don’t think Boston would trade [its] picks.”

Hayward would return home (he was born in Indianapolis and went to high school in the suburb of Brownsburg), giving the Pacers a player to potentially replace Victor Oladipo on the wing. Oladipo is heading into the last year of his contract, and several executives around the league believe Indiana will shop him this offseason. Boston may not have the willingness to give up the kind of assets needed to take on Oladipo, but Turner might be attainable.

Hayward may be open to a more reasonable extension in Indiana than Oladipo, who one executive noted is “looking for a max deal.”

Boston would get the size in Turner to better compete in the East on a contract worth $18 million a year through 2022-23. The Celtics improve their depth, get under the luxury tax and open a roster spot for Green or a veteran on a minimum contract.

The Turner notion would require the Pacers’ participation, but if not, it’s the kind of move Ainge and the Celtics could try to make should Hayward opt in.

As a projected tax team, Boston wouldn’t have much more than the $5.7 million taxpayer mid-level exception to add to its roster in free agency. Improvement could come via the draft and player development, but that’s a lot to ask of young players for a team that was two wins away from facing the Lakers in the championship series.

If Boston can get a good return on Hayward, that may be its best path for a reunion in the 2020-21 NBA Finals.

Not long ago, the Celtics were positioning themselves to make a run at Anthony Davis, who had yet to ask the New Orleans Pelicans for a trade. In December 2018, the “buzz in Las Vegas, where most of the league’s executives gathered … for the NBA G League Winter Showcase, [was] that Davis will end up with either the [Celtics] or Lakers before the 2019-20 season.”

The Celtics had multiple first-round draft picks and young developing stars like Tatum and Brown to offer New Orleans. But Davis, who had signed with LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, had set his sights on the Lakers.

Instead, Boston ended up acquiring Walker via sign-and-trade from the Hornets. And now that the Lakers have finished off the Heat, the Celtics will have a new goal: reclaiming their spot as the winningest franchise in NBA history.

Email Eric Pincus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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