For awhile there, the Celtics offseason followed a fairly predictable plan.
Sign Gordon Hayward? Check.
Trade Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart to make room for Hayward’s max salary? Check.
Find a big man to help with rebounding? Check.
Sign 2017 draft picks and 2016 draft-and-stash players? Check.
Those moves mostly filled up the 15-man roster in the first few weeks of July, making the Celtics depth chart look set for training camp. However, Danny Ainge threw a bit of a curveball at everyone last week with David Pick first reporting that former 2014 first-round pick Shane Larkin had agreed to sign a one-year guaranteed deal with the Celtics. The son of MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and an ex-University of Miami standout, Larkin excelled overseas in Spain last year after a lackluster start to his NBA career. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.2 assists per game for three different NBA teams (Dallas, New York, Brooklyn) from 2013-2016 before posting 13.6 points and 5.3 assists for Baskonia last year.
Larkin reportedly left a $6.3 million contract offer on the table to sign a minimum guaranteed deal ($1.05 million) with Boston, even though he is (on paper) a distant third on the depth chart behind Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart at point guard. Nonetheless, he sounds excited to join the C’s.
So why are the Celtics bringing in a 5-foot-11 point guard when they currently don’t have enough room on the roster for him? Here are a few theories that could explain the decision for both sides.
1) Isaiah Thomas insurance for the start of next season -- This one is pretty self explanatory. Brad Stevens said during Las Vegas summer league that Thomas expects to be ready for the start of training camp and Ainge echoed that to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe yesterday, but hip injuries can be tricky. We haven’t heard from Isaiah himself much, and you can bet he’ll want to be at 100 percent when he returns as he enters a crucial contract year. The Celtics may not want to push their star early in camp, and having another experienced guard in the fold like Larkin may give Stevens more lineup options if Thomas is sidelined at all.
2) Trade options could be explored in the backcourt -- You may have heard this already, but money is going to get pretty tight for the Celtics during the 2018-19 season once Thomas and Smart are due for new contracts. I’d be shocked if Thomas goes anywhere this offseason (unless it’s part of a package for Kyrie Irving) but Smart’s contract situation bears watching as well. The C’s brass love him, but they also might not be able to afford both him and Thomas next year if they want to upgrade other parts of the roster too. The 23-year-old is eligible for a rookie extension before the start of next season, and I’ll be very curious to see what happens if those talks don’t go well. Larkin’s a big unknown at this point (he was out of the NBA for a reason last year), but cheaper options for the team will be appealing as salaries start to skyrocket for other parts of the roster. If Smart or Terry Rozier is used as a trade chip in order to bring in help in the frontcourt, Larkin could come in handy.
3) They are just bringing Larkin in for a look and to add some competition to training camp -- This seems like the most likely scenario of them all. Boston has had 16 guaranteed contracts in training camp for the past two seasons, resulting in Perry Jones III and R.J. Hunter getting cut before opening night. If ownership is willing to spend the extra dough on a player the Celtics might not keep, that’s a nice luxury for the front office to have to get a closer look at prospects. The Celtics are weak on point guard depth anyway after waiving Demetrius Jackson in mid-July, so why not give Larkin a chance at earning a spot over Abdel Nader? Certainly there’s no real downside if the signing doesn’t pan out.
It all makes sense from the C’s side of things for theory no. 3 to be the explanation, but that becomes less clear from Larkin’s viewpoint. It’s hard to get around the fact that he could probably find a better opportunity for playing time in the NBA in somewhere other than Boston (unless no other team likes him enough to even give him a chance). We won’t know how much more there is to the story than training camp, but it should add an extra layer of intrigue to an anticipated start to the 2017-18 season.