SALT LAKE CITY -- The players who comprised the Boston Celtics' 2016-17 roster have a group text they have used to communicate since the start of last season. The messages slowed a bit after Boston's season ended in the Eastern Conference finals in late May -- save for the occasional 1 a.m. ET meme that Vegas-residing Amir Johnson might fire off -- but picked up again this week as the NBA's offseason kicked into overdrive with the start of free agency.
Even as players excitedly discussed the rumors about Boston's pursuit of free agent Gordon Hayward, they were bidding farewell to key members from last season's team. For second-year swingman Jaylen Brown, it only hammered home how fast things can change in the NBA.
"It's an interesting time because the team that makes it to the Eastern Conference finals potentially could have a completely new team next year," Brown said.
Johnson signed with Philly, Kelly Olynyk went to Miami, and Friday morning the Celtics traded Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons in a move to clear the necessary cap space to sign Hayward to his maximum-salary contract.
The departure of Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the team and the last remaining link to Boston's most recent Big Three era, was sobering news for Celtics fans still basking in the glow of Hayward's decision to join with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who was Hayward's college coach at Butler.
Most knew this was coming, but that didn't make it any easier to digest. The impossibly optimistic Bradley was the model teammate, maybe the most feared perimeter defender in the NBA, and Boston's second-best scoring threat behind Isaiah Thomas. After taking the starting shooting guard role that contributed to the departure of Ray Allen after the 2011-12 season, Bradley had been the one constant on a team that has endured perpetual change ever since Allen bolted for the Miami Heat.
The Celtics simply were not going to be able to keep Bradley beyond this season, and they brought back some much-needed frontcourt help in Marcus Morris via the trade. With the savings, Boston can sign Hayward and might be able to preserve some other pieces from last season's team.
With Thomas positioned for a monster payday next summer, the Celtics couldn't afford to retain both him and Bradley. While Boston has avoided spending into the luxury tax in recent seasons, that is likely to end next year when Hayward, Al Horford and Thomas could combine for roughly $90 million in salary. That would be nearly 83 percent of the projected $108 million salary cap and nearly 70 percent of the projected $130 million luxury-tax line. (Since the NBA has a soft salary cap, which allows teams to exceed the cap to re-sign their own free agents, teams don't necessarily pay the luxury tax when they exceed the cap -- but they automatically pay when they go over the luxury-tax line.)
Now imagine adding Bradley at about $20 million, or whatever number the market dictates next summer. It just wasn't feasible, especially considering the steep repeater taxes further down the road.
For the Celtics, it made more sense to hang on to Jae Crowder and his ridiculously affordable contract (three years remaining at an average annual value of $7.3 million). Marcus Smart, a 2014 draftee who is now the longest-tenured member of the Celtics, will be a restricted free agent next summer, but the Celtics can still explore a reasonably priced extension in advance of a late October deadline.
Still, it wasn't easy for Boston to move Bradley, who never quite got the praise he deserved but never let that affect the way he led by example on and off the court. The Celtics wouldn't have survived a first-round scare against the Chicago Bulls in the 2017 playoffs without Bradley's two-way efforts while outdueling Jimmy Butler.
In formally announcing the trade, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said in a statement: "It's no secret that Avery had been one of my favorite players. ... Avery did a lot of the dirty work and often didn't get the recognition that he deserved, but our coaches, staff, his teammates, and our fans who watched him play every night appreciated what a special player and person he is."
So who replaces Bradley in Boston's starting lineup? Stevens will have options, in large part because of the mix-and-match roster the team has constructed.
Smart has started more than a third of the 207 career games in which he has appeared during his three-year career, and he would offer some of the defensive intensity for which Bradley was known. Brown started 20 regular-season games during his rookie campaign and could add some size and athleticism next to the 5-foot-9 Thomas.
Don't get too hung up on positions. Stevens likes to remind us how he sees basketball in only three positions: ball handlers, wings and bigs. And given Boston's depth on the wing -- with Crowder, Hayward, Morris and first-round pick Jayson Tatum on the depth chart -- it's likely that Stevens will get creative with lineups in his position-less scheme.
So in Brad Stevens' postion-less basketball, Boston's depth chart looks like this for the moment. A rebounding big the priority. pic.twitter.com/072hKljr0p— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) July 7, 2017
Boston is still thin on big-man depth, at least among prototypical bigs who can alleviate Boston's rebounding woes. While 2016 first-round picks Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele have excellent potential, Zizic was up-and-down during the summer league in Utah. He's coming off an extended overseas season and might be a bit gassed, but there's still an NBA learning curve, especially at 19 years old. Yabusele, who split last season between China and the D-League, is still rehabbing from surgery to remove bone spurs in his feet that kept him out of the summer league.
The Celtics can still add to their roster. The team will have the room midlevel exception ($4.3 million) to seek additional talent. With Boston positioned to challenge the Cavaliers in an otherwise underwhelming Eastern Conference, title-chasing veterans might be intrigued by Boston's situation.
Boston has used chunks of its midlevel exception in recent seasons to sign younger players to team-friendly contracts that provide more security than the minimum deals that most second-rounders agree to. Second-round pick Semi Ojeleye would be a candidate for a deal using a chunk of the midlevel.
Despite all the changes, Celtics players say they believe they can take a step forward from last season.
"We won the Eastern Conference outright in the regular season, then we just didn't have enough against the Cleveland Cavaliers," Thomas said during an appearance on Jason Terry's radio show on Sirius XM's NBA channel this week. "But adding a guy like Hayward, it makes us feel like we can really compete and get to the Finals and win the East in the playoffs."
While moving on from Bradley wasn't easy for Celtics fans to digest, this team remains spoiled by the position in which it has put itself. Boston will open its Vegas summer league slate Saturday night with a showdown against the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
It was originally going to be a battle of the top two picks in the draft. Instead, Boston traded down to No. 3, grabbed Tatum, and picked up a potential future lottery pick for its troubles. Tatum starred in the Utah summer league, getting the better of top pick Markelle Fultz in Boston's summer opener.
Incidentally, that potential lottery pick could come from the Lakers. If Los Angeles' pick lands between spots 2-5 in next year's lottery, the Celtics will collect it. As Lakers president Magic Johnson tries to restore Los Angeles to respectability, the Celtics could find further help in their own quest to build a sustained title contender if the Lakers struggle in 2017-18.
Yes, things will look a little different in Boston this season, but the Celtics are moving forward. Many teams in the league would endure the pain points that Boston has navigated if it meant they could expedite a similar climb.