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Celtics offseason primer: What can Brad Stevens do to improve roster after tough Finals loss?

BOSTON — A rollercoaster ride of a Celtics season came to an official end on Thursday night after Boston fell to the Golden State Warriors 103-90 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The team had a remarkable turnaround in the second half of the year under new head coach Ime Udoka but ultimately missed out on a crucial opportunity for a title run after blowing a 2-1 series lead against a seasoned Golden State squad.

The challenge of getting past the Warriors, Heat, Bucks and a host of other contenders in the steadily improving Eastern Conference will be a tall task for Brad Stevens and Boston’s front office as the team eventually turns the page towards building for next season. Let’s take a first look at the offseason outlook and tools Boston has at its disposal as they attempt to take another step towards building a perennial contender.

2022-23 projected payroll

Jayson Tatum: $30.5 million

Jaylen Brown: $28.7 million

Al Horford: $26.5 million ($19.5 million guaranteed)

Marcus Smart: $17.2 million

Derrick White: $16.4 million

Robert Williams: $10.7 million

Daniel Theis; $8.7 million

Grant Williams: $4.3 million

Aaron Nesmith: $3.8 million

Payton Pritchard: $2.2 million

Nik Stauskas: $2.2 million (non-guaranteed until 7/15)

Juwan Morgan: $1.8 million (non-guaranteed)

Malik Fitts: $1.7 million (non-guaranteed)

Sam Hauser: $1.6 million (non-guaranteed)

Total salary: $156.3 million to 14 players

Total guaranteed money: $137.1 million to 9 players (if Horford/Hauser is waived)

Guaranteed money if Horford’s contract is fully guaranteed: $149.1 million to 10 players

Expected salary cap for 2022-23: $122 million

Expected luxury tax line for 2022-23: $149 million

Expected Apron: $155 million

2022 CELTICS FREE AGENTS

Luke Kornet: The reserve big man was picked up at the trade deadline for added depth after the team dumped Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando at the trade deadline. He acquitted himself well in spot minutes in one or two chances so he could be brought back as a training camp invite with non-guaranteed deal after splitting most of his season between Boston and the Maine Red Claws.

Matt Ryan (two-way): A sharpshooting guard was signed out of the G-League in March. He will likely play with Boston in Summer League and would be a restricted free agent if the team offers him another two-way deal.

Brodric Thomas (two-way): The athletic guard got a couple of chances early in the season when the Celtics were ravaged by injuries and COVID-19. He spent the majority of his season in Maine with Boston’s G-League affiliate, making him another likely candidate for Summer League as the Celtics evaluate his future.

Non-guaranteed deals: The Celtics have several players signed for minimum deals (Stauskas, Fitts, Morgan, Hauser) and none are assured of a roster spot next year. Boston will likely bring all of them to camp to compete for an open spot or two (team can carry 20 players in offseason) but most of these spots on 15-man roster should be considered open when it comes to trades/free agents.

TRADED PLAYER EXCEPTIONS

Available significant traded player exceptions

Kemba Walker: ($5 million remaining)

Evan Fournier: ($17.1 million remaining)

Juancho Hernangomez: ($6.9 million remaining)

Dennis Schroder: ($5.9 million remaining)

FREE AGENT SPENDING AVAILABLE

No cap room

Taxpayer mid-level exception: $6.3 million

Veteran minimum contracts: No limit

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

What’s the plan for Al Horford?

The veteran big man has well over half of his contract guaranteed for next season ($19.5 million of $26.5 million) thanks to the Finals appearance. League sources tell MassLive that the Celtics are expected to bring Horford back after a sensational regular season that led to some of the best playoff basketball of his career, including a career postseason scoring high in Game 4 of the Bucks series. The Celtics don’t have to do anything to bring Horford back since he is under contract but that will solidify the team’s frontcourt for one more season as he and Rob Williams anchor what was the NBA’s top defense in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

What about the TPEs?

One of the biggest tools Brad Stevens has to improve this summer will be with a litany of trade exceptions created over the past year. The team gave up second round picks to create a new of these TPEs which opens the door for the team to add salary by simply sending out a draft pick. The biggest TPE worth $17 million expires in July so the Celtics could be active early in the trade market or during free agency to try to put it to use. However, don’t look for it to be used on a player via a sign-and-trade in free agency. That move would hard cap Boston and that’s something the Celtics will look to avoid, per sources as the team enters luxury tax territory.

How much money is ownership willing to spend?

By keeping Horford, the Celtics are projected to be back in the luxury tax for the first time in three seasons. Boston will be able to add a minor free agent with the taxpayer MLE but just how high the Celtics ownership budget is willing to go into the luxury tax could say a lot about how the team’s bench is formed. A willingness to absorb more salary with the team’s traded player exceptions could create added veteran depth that may provide Udoka with more versatile perimeter reserve options than he had this season.

Run it back with better supporting role players or mix it up?

With Boston’s top nine players under contract for next year, the simple option would be to simply run it back with some improvement on the fringes and try to build with continuity and internal improvement in year two under Ime Udoka. However, Stevens will also be able to explore the possibility of a bigger upgrade to the roster with some of his supporting cast having overlapping skillsets. The odds are against a move like this happening but due diligence will be done after a disappointing Finals exit with familiar offensive problems emerging in key spots.

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