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Celtics must look different to move forward

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Can Brad Stevens lure free agents to Boston? (0:58)

Raja Bell and Zach Lowe weigh in on how much of an impact Brad Stevens can have on the Celtics' pursuit of a big time free agent. (0:58)

Isaiah Thomas called the 2015-16 Boston Celtics the closest team he's ever been on. Boston's first-round playoff exit reduced him to tears last week, in part because Thomas believed this group had the potential to advance further. As Celtics players waded into the offseason, most raved about the continuity and chemistry of this team and expressed a desire to keep much of the squad intact next season.

Thomas, realizing more pure talent is needed for the Celtics to make a true leap forward, admitted things probably have to change.

"I love the guys, but we do need a little more," Thomas said. "[Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] will do his part, I know he will, and we’ll get even better."

This year's Celtics team was an endearing bunch, a group that rallied around Jae Crowder's "We're one superstar" mantra and made it their playoff slogan. Third-year coach Brad Stevens seemingly extracted as much as he could from his players, with Thomas elevating to All-Star status, Crowder developing into a two-way force and all of Boston's younger players showing encouraging strides.

Hindered by injuries, it wasn't good enough to get Boston out of the first round of the playoffs for a second straight season.

The Celtics could very easily keep much of the team intact moving forward, particularly with only one true unrestricted free agent (Evan Turner) this summer. But with only minor tweaks, there are no guarantees this team will be able to progress. It's a fallback option at best.

Armed with a trove of draft picks (and that treasure chest will shine even brighter if the pingpong balls cooperate May 17), intriguing young tradable talent and some serious salary-cap flexibility, the Celtics must swing for the fences this summer. That means things are likely to look different next season-- and that's not a bad thing for the Celtics.

CAP CHECK: START OF OFFSEASON

The Celtics have nine players on guaranteed contracts for next season, including maybe their three best players on bargain deals in Avery Bradley ($8.2 million), Thomas ($6.6 million) and Crowder ($6.2 million). Boston is committed to $34 million total in guaranteed salary, and that includes the rookie contracts of Marcus Smart ($3.8 million), Kelly Olynyk ($3.1 million), Terry Rozier ($1.9 million), James Young ($1.8 million), Jordan Mickey ($1.2 million) and R.J. Hunter ($1.2 million).

If the salary cap soars toward a projection of $92 million, Boston will essentially have $58 million to work with, though it's not as simple as that because of cap holds and nonguaranteed deals. Boston's three 2016 first-round picks alone will create holds of as much as $9.2 million if the pingpong balls bounce in the Celtics' favor. But when you project that max contracts will range from roughly $21-$30 million (based on years of experience), Boston will have the ability to chase two max players and still have flexibility to make other moves.

It's really not worth stressing over the exact amount of available cap space before July 1 because it seems likely the Celtics will try to use draft night to begin the process of adding the sort of impact talent that might make the team even more attractive at the start of free agency.

THE NONGUARANTEED CONTRACTS

Boston's salary flexibility starts with three nonguaranteed deals that afford the team a total of $18 million in tradable salary that a receiving team could wipe directly from its books (while also likely pulling back valuable draft picks). Using these contracts, the Celtics could cobble together intriguing reboot packages for teams that might desire to move on from a superstar (cough, Jimmy Butler or DeMarcus Cousins) or use smaller chunks of salary to facilitate moves for other talent.

Boston's three nonguaranteed salaries belong to:

  • Amir Johnson: The just-turned-29-year-old Johnson was Boston's best big during the Atlanta Hawks series and provided a long-needed rim protector this season. His $12 million salary is reasonable, especially as the cap rises, but he played only 22.8 minutes per game during the regular season. A July 3 guarantee date means that if the Celtics don't move him before free agency, the team can still navigate the early portion of free agency before making a decision on whether to clear his salary from the books.

  • Jonas Jerebko: Jerebko was the oldest player on the team (29) after David Lee was bought out, but he provided a youthful exuberance, particularly after elevating to starter status in the postseason. At $5 million, he's an absolute bargain, even if just in a reserve energy role. If the team adds another swingman with the ability to play the 3 and 4 like Crowder, that might increase the likelihood Jerebko is moved or cut loose before July 3.

  • John Holland: The Celtics signed the 27-year-old D-Leaguer late in the regular season. His reward? Holland was active for Games 2 and 3 of the playoffs against the Hawks due to injuries and made his NBA debut by playing the final 79 seconds of a Game 2 loss. Holland has a chance to spend the summer with the Celtics, but his nonguaranteed status makes it likely he'll be included as salary filler in a trade (somewhere, Chris Babb nods in agreement) or waived amid the roster crunch that could ensue if Boston uses even a tiny portion of its eight total draft picks.

THE FREE AGENTS

  • Evan Turner: Turner endeared himself with his versatility, but because the Celtics hold only Early Bird Rights, the team would likely have to bite into cap space to re-sign him above $6 million. His market value is likely to well exceed that, which makes it unlikely Turner returns without taking a discount.

  • Tyler Zeller: Zeller morphed from intriguing young starting center in 2014-15 to a DNP-heavy bench-glued backup when the Celtics were healthy this season. The kid can play and, as a serviceable 7-footer, he'll have a market in free agency. Here's the conundrum for the Celtics: Do they tie up a $6.6 million cap hold with Zeller's qualifying offer in hopes of facilitating a sign-and-trade and recouping value? Bringing Zeller back at the $3.7 million qualifying offer is OK, too, but hinges on how the team assembles a new-look frontcourt.

  • Jared Sullinger: Sullinger endured a forgettable postseason, but he's still an extremely talented (though not ideally shaped) 24-year-old who was the only player on the team consistently able to rebound the basketball. If the Celtics desire to bring him back, the team could live with his initial $5.6 million cap hold, make all its other moves, then hope to re-sign Sullinger (or match the best offer sheet he receives). Rivals of the Celtics can put pressure on Boston by putting in an offer sheet early in free agency (and start the three-day match clock). Depending on Boston's other moves, it might ultimately be fine moving on from Sullinger at that point.

BOTTOM LINE: FLEXIBILITY

Every move the Celtics make this offseason will have a domino effect on another. It starts May 17 when the team, armed with the third-best lottery odds, will hope the Brooklyn pick vaults to a top spot. The odds suggest it's more likely to land fourth or fifth. Boston will chart a path in the aftermath of the lottery, but the higher the pick, the more flexibility it accrues as the pick becomes more valuable regardless of whether it's utilized or moved in a trade.

The 2015-16 Celtics were a fun team. But another early playoff exit leaves this team yearning for more. If Boston fans are going to daydream about players like Kevin Durant, then they have to understand this roster must morph just to have a chance at convincing him to come.