BOSTON -- The plan for the Boston Celtics to upgrade their roster began with draft night.
They had the top overall pick and traded down with Philadelphia for the No. 3 spot, where they selected Jayson Tatum in addition to getting a future first-round pick.
Now on to phase two: Free agency.
A year ago this time, the Boston Celtics went into free agency feeling pretty good about their chances of landing at least one high-impact difference maker.
Years of meticulous salary cap management had Boston in position to add a pair of max-salaried players in one haul, something you seldom see happen in the NBA.
Boston secured Al Horford, who was widely viewed as the second-best free agent available, with a four-year, $113 million contract.
The Celtics were on the short list of contenders for the top free agent, Kevin Durant, who eventually signed with the Golden State Warriors and led them to an NBA title earlier this month, the franchise's second championship in the last three years.
Free agency officially begins on Saturday and Boston once again finds itself on the short list of teams for one of the better free agents-to-be: Utah's Gordon Hayward.
“Target number one for Boston,” one league executive texted to CSNNE.com on Friday when asked about Hayward. "I'm not telling you something you and the rest of the NBA world [haven't] known for a while; he's the guy in this free agent class that they really, really want.”
While a number of teams may enter the race for Hayward, he is expected to choose from one of these three: Utah, Boston and Miami.
As good as a Hayward signing may be for Boston, he’s not the biggest name on the free-agent market.
That would be Durant and Stephen Curry, both of whom are expected to re-sign with the Warriors. The likelihood of either winding up on another team can be summed up in two words – no chance.
And that leaves Hayward as arguably the best free agent available to be on another team’s roster next season.
But in terms of addressing specific needs, the Celtics are among the teams that can benefit from what is shaping up to be a position-less NBA, one where your best scorers in the paint are guards and your best passers play in the frontcourt.
For a good chunk of last season, the 6-foot-10 Horford was Boston’s top assist man, while 6-2 guard Avery Bradley was the Celtics’ top rebounder.
Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, hears all the time about how the Celtics need to become a better rebounding team.
Despite finishing with more wins than any team in the Eastern Conference, Boston was among the worst rebounding teams in several categories. Their defensive rebounding percentage of .485 ranked 27th out of 30 NBA teams.
Boston was the only team to win 50 or more games last season that was not ranked among the top 20 teams in rebounding percentage.
And while the knee-jerk response would be to go out and sign big men whose strength is rebounding the ball, Ainge is convinced that rebounding for the Celtics has to be across-the-board team effort.
“You have to have other guys that rebound,” Ainge said during an interview with CSN’s Kyle Draper and A. Sherrod Blakely. “Those teams with small lineups, you still have to find a way to rebound. Obviously, we were a very good team this year and small at a lot of positions and it seemed our big guys took the brunt of not being good rebounders. It really is a team rebounding game. This was the case even when I played with the Big 3. We know that’s a weakness. We need to add size and length to our roster.”
That’s why in many ways, Tatum was such a solid addition for Boston in last week’s NBA draft.
While he is given a lot of praise for his offensive versatility, Ainge also liked the fact that the 19-year-old was a really good rebounder particularly on the defensive glass.
For Boston, become a better team on the defensive boards would go far in them improving their rebounding as a whole and in doing so, show growth for a team whose defensive rating (105.5) ranked 12th in the NBA after beginning the season defensively as one of the NBA’s worst teams.
“Rebounding and size goes to all the positions. Rebounding is a five-man effort. We just added size,” said Ainge, referring to Tatum. “That’s huge; he’s a terrific defensive rebounder.”
Boston should also benefit from a pair of first-round draft picks from last season, Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele, who spent this past season playing overseas but are expected to join the Celtics roster for the 2017-2018 season.
“We have some guys that can help us improve in that area,” Ainge said.
And improvement, more than anything else, is the name of the game for the Celtics in free agency.
Well aware that no one single move will move them past Cleveland or Golden State, Ainge knows progress for his team may not be as instantaneous as some fans – or he for that matter – would like.
“We have a lot of really good players. A lot of gritty guys,” Ainge said. “But we could use like a little more talent; that’s the bottom line. The guy that can get his own shot, create for others, demands double teams on a regular basis. Maybe some of our young guys can develop into that. But that’s a ways away."
Ainge added, “But to me, a true contender, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are in the NBA Finals. They’re arguably the two best half-court guys. They’re there with [Russell] Westbrook and James Harden, of course, are great offensive players. But you have to have more than just them. We feel we have the [other guys]. We just need a guy like that [to] give us a chance.”