As the Celtics re-sign free agents, Knicks and Sixers are posing a serious challenge


As the Celtics work to hold their championship squad together, the league is shifting around them.

It’s one thing to be a title favorite through the regular season, but franchises are looking at how they’ll get past the Celtics. They’ll reshape their rosters to match up against Boston’s star wings. Teams will try to match the Celtics’ depth.

Boston’s biggest competition might be its two biggest division rivals. The first major shakeup of the offseason was the Knicks’ swing for Mikal Bridges, followed by a big contract to re-sign OG Anunoby.

What do you do when your neighbor has the best offensive wing pairing in the NBA? Build the best defensive wing pairing in the game. How do you respond to the Celtics having good chemistry? Run back the Villanova title teams under one roof.

The Celtics have steadily built a core around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown by trading a few draft picks here or there to get ideal complementary players. Despite all of the superstars they were tied to during the Danny Ainge era, they haven’t made any of those deals that have become commonplace where a team pushes all its chips in to get the best player available. But the Knicks built a team good enough that they found their moment and made their push.

“I think a lot of these teams, the Knicks included, stockpiled a bunch of picks that they had worked hard to get for a long time, and then each of these teams decides when they’re going to cash those in, right?” GM Brad Stevens said last week after the NBA Draft. “And they obviously have a great team, so they felt like this was a really good time, and it sure looks like they’re going to be really, really good.”

That was already a big enough move for Boston to start feeling the heat from down I-95, but now the Sixers are poised to make a move after reaching an agreement to sign Paul George to a four-year max contract.

This was a shrewd Daryl Morey maneuver that sets Philadelphia up to contend now and have a second revival down the line. Stevens said he wants the Celtics to be sustainable for a decade, but the Sixers are positioned to become a serious title threat and have reinforcements down the line the Celtics can’t match.

Boston is just about stuck with its current core. That’s not a bad thing. The Celtics went 80-21 for the year en route to a championship. They had the third-best net rating in NBA history. They don’t have to dominate in the same way as last season to repeat.

But they’ll start the season on the back foot. Kristaps Porziņģis is going to potentially miss multiple months as he recovers from ankle surgery

Luke Kornet is returning to the Celtics on a one-year deal, team sources confirmed to The Athletic. This will be Kornet’s fifth season in Boston after a brief hiatus in 2022, as he has been a reliable backup center and a valued part of the locker room culture.

Kornet was the first signing to break after the 6 p.m. opening for free agency, which was notable since the Celtics have several other free-agent bigs. Neemias Queta agreed to a multi-year deal soon thereafter, while Xavier Tillman Sr. and Oshae Brissett remain on the market. Stevens said last week that Boston made trades for Tillman and Jaden Springer at the deadline in part because the second apron would drastically limit their free agency tools this summer.

“We projected to be that last year when we made those trades, and we knew kind of what we were getting ourselves into,” Stevens said after the draft. “So we just have to all navigate it.”

Tillman has a chance to drum up a market beyond the minimum, so locking Kornet in now gives the Celtics a safety net if Tillman gets better offers.

It’s rare that an entire 15-man roster returns, and teams often want to bring in at least one new veteran to keep a team fresh. Boston needs a veteran defensive wing deep in its rotation if Brissett leaves, though only the minimum exception is available. Jordan Walsh could be given that opportunity as he enters his second season, but he looks like he needs more development before he’s ready for an NBA role.

Head coach Joe Mazzulla will be tasked with finding a fresh identity for his team next season. Their offensive game plans will have to find a new look. New York already looks well-equipped to take away Boston’s cross-match hunting in the post. Fortunately for Mazzulla, Boston’s roster is already built to be malleable.

Seeing how Denver has lost a key contributor two seasons in a row, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope reportedly heads to Orlando, it’s a testament to Stevens’ front office that Boston could have its entire rotation locked down long-term by the end of the month. That will come with an astronomical tax bill with around $1 billion in total contracts committed over the next half-decade, but the windfall of the upcoming TV deal makes that more tenable than ever. With the limitations of the second apron, the Celtics don’t have much of a choice anyway. They have a stacked team comprised of mostly players in their prime, so this is a team with a high price.

Teams usually don’t last long in the top spot because it’s hard to keep everyone together. The Celtics can hold that problem off. But they can’t stop the rest of the league from coming at them.

(Photo of Boston’s Derrick White and New York’s OG Anunoby: Bob DeChiara / USA Today)





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