June 3, 2021

Here's How Boston Celtics Can Become Championship Contenders Again

The NBA world was treated to a "Succession"-style plot twist Wednesday with news that Danny Ainge was stepping down as Celtics president of basketball operations with coach Brad Stevens replacing him.

Ainge undoubtedly made some shrewd transactions during his tenure, such as the Nets heist that led to drafting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but over the past few years, he’s allowed Boston’s once overflowing treasure trove of assets to dry up into a box of broken toys.

Stevens has his work cut out for him. He has to navigate the Celtics' difficult cap situation while trying to maximize the talents of both Tatum and Brown.  Oh yeah, and he has to find his replacement to take over as Celtics coach. 

Here's what Stevens should do to help make Boston a championship contender again. 

Trade Kemba Walker At All Costs

Kemba Walker was once one of the most electrifying guards in the league, using his jitterbug quickness to uncork filthy crossovers and step-backs, but his knee injuries have clearly sapped him of his athleticism.

Walker has gone from averaging 25.6 points and 5.9 assists in his last season in Charlotte to just 19.3 points and 4.9 assists with the Celtics this past year. In his final four Hornets seasons, Walker missed a total of six regular-season games. In two seasons in Boston, Walker has missed 46 games.

In Boston’s series against Brooklyn, Walker was more hampered than ever before, averaging only 12.7 points on 31% shooting in only three games. At 31-years-old, Walker’s best days seem to be behind him. 

Walker is locked into $36 million guaranteed next season, followed by a 2022-23 player option for $37 million that he’s unlikely to turn down. With that hefty salary, it's unlikely any team will come calling, so the Celtics will likely have to add an asset to the mix, but a tanking team could take on Walker's contract while adding an asset. 

The Celtics need to ditch Walker's pricey pact in order to free themselves to make more moves to build around Tatum and Brown. 

Deal Marcus Smart, Too 

Sometimes, a team that is stuck between a rock and a hard place has to make an agonizing decision. There’s no doubt that Smart has helped set the culture for the Celtics ever since being drafted in 2014 while being one of the league’s most effective defenders. He’s hit clutch shots. He’s made incredible hustle plays, diving for loose balls and guarding players twice his size.

As much as Smart does the little things to help a team win, his flaws have hampered Boston. His career shooting splits are 37/32/77, and he’s not improving anytime soon. He also experienced a slight drop-off on defense this season. It’s also fair to worry whether his aggressive style of play will lead to his body eventually breaking down sooner than most players.

Because of Ainge’s poor roster management, the Celtics are top-heavy with Brown, Tatum and Walker taking up approximately $89 million in salary in 2021-22. After Smart and Tristan Thompson, the rest of the roster is loaded with minimum deals. 

Shipping off Smart — and hopefully Walker, too — will shed some much-needed money off the Celtics' cap. 

Boston can use the savings on a point guard who can stay healthy while facilitating for Brown, Tatum and the rest of the squad. They need more reliable three-and-D cogs. And currently, neither Smart nor Walker have been able to fill either role.

The goal should be to receive a better offensive player who can hold their own on defense or a package of picks and younger assets they can potentially use to trade for an even better player, which is, of course, easier said than done.

Ace The Head Coach Hire

The news that Stevens would be leaving his head coach job was far more shocking than Ainge’s departure. Boston is losing one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league and has two ready-made stars in Tatum and Brown who want to win now. Getting this next hire right is absolutely crucial.

For Boston — and any team, really — the hope is to hire a bright, detail-oriented coach who will command respect from his locker room while still being able to foster genuine relationships with his players and stress accountability.

Whether that next hire is Juwan Howard, Chauncey Billups, Ime Udoka, Lloyd Pierce, Kenny Atkinson, Jason Kidd (just kidding), Sam Cassell or anyone else doesn’t matter as long as the hire can cover those bases we just mentioned.

Brown and Tatum are still in the early stages of their rookie-scale max contract extensions, but the clock is always ticking in today’s NBA. If the new coach does not mesh well with Boston’s two cornerstones, then that’s bad news.

Re-Sign Evan Fournier And Then Trade Him 

The Sacramento Kings made a mistake last offseason by letting Bogdan Bogdanovic walk in restricted free agency for nothing. Even though Bogdanovic was not in Sacramento's long-term plans, the shrewd move would have been to re-sign him, then trade him later on for something substantive. He’s been a baller for the Hawks, and it’s bad asset management to let a player walk for nothing.

Even though Fournier is not an RFA, the Celtics should try to bring him back on a reasonable deal. Fournier struggled with COVID-19 and migraines with the Celtics and was clearly not at 100%, but if he can return healthy next season, he’s a capable scorer who can help anchor bench units and complement Boston’s stars.

Boston might still be equipped to trade for the league’s next disgruntled star if they put Fournier, Smart, Robert Williams and all their future first-round picks up for sale. They also possess a few trade exceptions which should help push any potential deal through.

Unfortunately for Stevens, there are no easy fixes to what is going on. One of the hardest jumps to make in the NBA is to leap from a good team to a great team, and Boston is currently facing that dilemma. Ultimately, it’s unlikely a must-have trade comes across Stevens’ desk.

To truly make the leap, improvement will have to come from within. Can Tatum and Brown take their games to another level, especially in the playmaking department? Can the new coach make a tangible difference? How will the crop of young players develop? 

Those are the questions that need answering. Boston has no cap space available other than to re-sign their own, and golden parachute trades aren’t something that can be counted on.

A big offseason looms in Beantown.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration