At long last the moratorium has lifted and we will no longer have to talk about the Celtics in hypothetical terms. Soon the team will announce that Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green have re-signed and Jason Terry will take the mid-level exception, accounting for most of the offseason heavy lifting. Once those deals are announced, there will be 10 players under contract for next season with three more working on non-guaranteed deals -- at least for the next few weeks.
Here’s a snapshot.
Guards: Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry, Avery Bradley
Forwards: Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson
Centers: Kevin Garnett, Fab Melo
Non-guaranteed: E’Twaun Moore, Sean Williams, Kris Joseph (More on them later)
By no means are the Celtics a finished product. There could be as many as five spots to fill and there are glaring areas of need. First, there’s the matter of finding another starting-caliber guard to replace Ray Allen. Second, the frontcourt is looking mighty thin at center behind Garnett and rookie Fab Melo, who is an intriguing project but a project nonetheless.
Soon, we will also be able to put away all talk of salary caps and luxury taxes for at least another year, but not before we have to dive into the finer points of the collective bargaining agreement. Once the signings are official, the Celtics will be over the $58 million cap with only the bi-annual exception, Bird rights on their own remaining free agents and minimum contracts left to flesh out the roster.
What we don’t know yet is how those free agent contracts are structured and how much actual room they will have to finish the roster renovation. The Celtics have to stay under the luxury tax -- $70.3 million – to take advantage of more accommodating trade rules in a potential sign-and-trade, and then they must stay under the apron -- $74.3 million – to complete the roster renovation.
It’s entirely possible that they won’t have enough room left below the apron to use the bi-annual exception -- a two-year deal starting at $1.9 million. The bi-annual is a useful bargaining chip for late in the free agent game when veterans are looking for a new home and that tends to be the last demographic to sign deals.
As for a sign-and-trade, team sources indicated this week that the pursuit may take a little while to reach a conclusion. Keep an eye on Houston, last home of Courtney Lee, where the Rockets are working on a half-dozen other scenarios including what could be a complicated run at Dwight Howard. Then there’s the Suns, who are waiting on whether the Hornets will match their offer sheet for Eric Gordon. With Lee and O.J. Mayo clearly the best of a dwindling lot, one of those two teams will have money to spend on a guard.
With that in mind, here’s what we learned about the Celtics in 2012 during the first few days of summer league and the free agency period.
JASON TERRY IS NOT RAY ALLEN’S REPLACEMENT
Ray Allen averaged 14.2 points and 3.1 assists last season, while Jason Terry averaged 15.1 and 3.6. Their per-game production may have been similar, but their methods are drastically different.
Allen is perhaps the greatest long-distance shooter who ever lived. He’s made more 3-pointers than anyone in the history of the rule and he’s a career 40 percent shooter from behind the arc, including a career-high 45 percent last season. Most of Allen’s points came off assists -- more than 77 percent of his field goals had a pass attached to them -- and he rarely created his own shot.
Terry is a good 3-point shooter -- 38 percent for his career -- who also is capable of scoring off the dribble, particularly in the mid-range area. Less than half of Terry’s field goals happened without an assist last season, and he is also capable of handling backup point guard minutes. For the last five seasons, Terry has been one of the best sixth men in the league.
In the Celtics' Plan A, Terry and Allen would have co-existed in the backcourt and formed a potent three-man backcourt with Rajon Rondo. It would have been vaguely reminiscent of the Bad Boys era Pistons with Terry acting as their Vinnie "Microwave" Johnson. With Allen in Miami and Avery Bradley recovering from two shoulder surgeries, the Celtics still are looking for another shooting guard who can play starter minutes.
In other words, Terry may match Allen’s production, but he offers an entirely different dimension, especially for Boston's offensively challenged reserve unit.
JARED SULLINGER CAN PLAY, BUT WHERE DOES HE FIT?
If the Orlando Summer League has taught us anything, it’s that Sullinger has low-post skills that have not been seen in these parts since … well, it’s a good question. Leon Powe was a bull on the block, but when he got the ball he had one thing in mind: scoring. Sullinger, on the other hand, has displayed fine footwork, an array of post moves, a soft touch and an ability to pass out of double teams.
Now consider adding those skills to a reserve unit that was one of the worst offensive groups in the league last season and lacked any kind of a reliable low-post threat. Now take a deep breath.
It’s still way too early to pencil Sullinger into a rotation spot. His conditioning needs to improve, his lack of athleticism will catch up to him in certain matchups, and like all rookies he needs work on the defensive end.
That said, he’s clearly begun to make a case for himself. As it stands, the Celtics have two players -- Terry and Jeff Green -- who likely will anchor their second unit. They’ve hinted that Sullinger could possibly play center as well, and with the depth they have right now, he might have to in certain lineups.
FAB MELO WILL NEED SOME TIME TO DEVELOP
As a freshman at Syracuse, Melo rarely saw the court and wasn’t in good enough to shape to do much of anything when he did get time. He slimmed down as a sophomore and emerged as one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball and a defensive force.
Suppose Melo had gone back to school and continued to develop. After all, he’s only been playing the sport competitively for a half-dozen years. Had he continued on that development track, Melo would almost certainly have been a lottery pick next spring and well beyond the Celtics’ grasp. That’s good value for a late first-round pick, but whether that translates on to the court next season is another story.
Melo certainly can block shots, and as fellow rookie Kris Joseph noted, he never gives up on a play. That’s to his detriment on occasion, and he sometimes finds himself out of position. The finer points of NBA defense can be taught, and Melo had better be ready for Professor Garnett’s finishing school for big men.
The good news is that he’s active and extremely vocal on the defensive end. He has also shown flashes of skills that had those on press row buzzing -- “I didn’t know he can do that.” He has decent form and a quick release on a 15-foot-jumper and he dropped off a handful of assists that were sublime. He also mixed in some wild passes that went directly to the other teams or startled teammates on the bench.
With a proper 82-game season, Melo will get lots of work in practice and potentially a D-League stint or two. The Celtics made an investment in their affiliate in Maine, and by agreeing to run the basketball side of the operation they will choose the coaching staff and be able to implement their own system.
Additionally, the NBA has relaxed its rules on D-League assignments. Now it’s possible for a player to arrive in Maine for a game and then return to Boston the next day to rejoin the team, so Melo should become well-acquainted with the drive up the coast.
THE UNGUARANTEED STORY
E'Twaun Moore: The Celtics have until midnight of their last summer league game in Las Vegas to guarantee the second year of Moore's contract. Considering how well he's played so far this summer, their obvious need in the backcourt and his $762K salary for next season, this would appear to be a no-brainer. However, non-guaranteed deals have value in sign-and-trades, so stay tuned.
Sean Williams: The former Boston College star is due $915K for next season if he's not waived by Aug. 1. With his low salary and upside, he'd be a better fit than most well-worn veterans who would have to take the minimum. As with Moore, he has value as a non-guaranteed deal.
Kris Joseph: The C's second-round pick has played well in Orlando, and he'll have to continue to prove he belongs because neither year of his two-year deal are guaranteed. Joseph would make just $473K in his first year, and the Celtics definitely could use a low-cost alternative on the wing. Draft picks can't be traded for 30 days after they sign their contracts.
THE REMAINING FREE AGENTS
Mickael Pietrus: As a non-Bird free agent, the Celtics are limited in what they can offer the veteran swingman. He can either a return for a contract that starts at about $1.4 million, or they could potentially bring him back for the bi-annual exception. The two sides have talked since free agency began, but there's a sense that Pietrus’ camp is looking for something more, and the C's simply can't do that under the rules.
Greg Stiemsma: He's still a restricted free agent and still waiting on an offer. The C's can only match using an exception. Translation: If he gets offered more than the bi-annual, there's nothing they can do. To date, Minnesota has shown the most interest, but the Wolves are tied up in a tricky cap dance involving Nic Batum, Brandon Roy and Russian import Alexey Shved. If the miss on Batum they also could get into the shooting guard market in a big way.
Keyon Dooling: Still waiting and likely dependent on what the C's do in the backcourt.
Ryan Hollins: Considering Boston's need up front … maybe?
Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic: Still available in a pinch.