BOSTON – Who knows if it happens, but the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors will be good enough to return to the NBA Finals next season.
Regardless, they will have an impact in the Eastern and Western conference standings.
But don’t expect either team to maintain the status quo.
The Celtics need improvements internally and externally, and Warriors GM Bob Myers has shown a penchant for tinkering with the roster.
The way both conferences are getting deeper and tougher, especially the West, getting back to the Finals is not a given. The last team to make consecutive Finals appearances was Golden State in 2018 and 2019.
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Celtics seeking consistency
The East should be strong at the top again next season with Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami. The Celtics should be right there. They are in solid shape with players, salary, coaching staff, front office and resources.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens and Coach Ime Udoka proved themselves more than capable in their first season in their new roles. Stevens hired Udoka, traded for Al Horford in the offseason and for Derrick White at the February trade deadline.
Former Boston president of basketball ops Danny Ainge had a significant role in shaping this team, but Stevens is responsible for the development of players during his term as coach (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams and Robert Williams). He has an influential imprint.
So what next for Boston? What elevates the Celtics to the next level?
More than any major roster moves, the Celtics need consistency. Their offense had highs and too many lows against Golden State. Part of that can be rectified with improvement from players already on the roster.
Some of that comes with age and experience. Tatum and Brown have entered a portion of their careers where that inconsistency (in the name of turnovers) should dissipate. Unlocking defensive puzzles and decision-making should come easier next season.
There are no significant contract issues facing the Celtics. All key players (Tatum, Brown, Smart, Horford, White, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard) are under contract for next season. But Brown can sign an extension, and that’s an interesting piece to Boston’s salary cap situation.
They are expected to be over the luxury tax threshold next season, which limits what they can do in free agency. However, Boston can spend $6.3 million with its taxpayer mid-level exception and it has three important trade exceptions – $17.1 million, $9.7 million and $6.9 million. The first two expire in July, but give the Celtics an opportunity to acquire a quality player.
Adding 3-point shooting and perimeter defensive will help the guards and wings. The Celtics, who do not have a first-round pick in Thursday’s draft, had the No. 1 defense, and they have the defensive player of the year in Marcus Smart. Tatum and Brown are solid defenders, and Horford and Robert Williams are quality rim protectors. Grant Williams has defensive versatility. Giving Udoka more depth/options to work with will help.
Contending will cost Warriors
The Warriors’ core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins are back next season – for a combined $148 million. The Warriors are way over the luxury tax threshold for next season and have several free agent decisions to make.
Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica and Andrew Iguodala are among several Warriors free agents. The Warriors also have use of their taxpayer midlevel exception at $6.3 million for next season.
Golden State’s ownership has shown a willingness to pay the luxury tax as long as it has a championship-caliber team. How much luxury tax are Joe Lacob and Peter Guber willing to pay? It could be nearly $100 million in addition to payroll. Championships can be costly and ultimately worth it.
The Warriors have the No. 28 pick in the draft, and they have a front office that has drafted well – even with lower picks (Draymond Green at No. 35, Jordan Poole at No. 28). Also, the Warriors are expected to have a healthy James Wiseman next season. The center was the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft but has played in just 39 games, all in his rookie season. Golden State also expects forward Jonathan Kuminga, the seventh pick in 2021, to expand his game.
No matter what their rosters look like, the Warriors and Celtics have enough key players returning to remain contenders.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics face offseason challenges