A look at how the Boston Celtics fit in the NBA trade market
Let the wheeling and dealing begin! This week marked the unofficial beginning of the NBA in-season trade market. Free agents signed this offseason became eligible to be traded last Sunday. Toronto and Sacramento jumped the gun a bit last week with a seven-player deal featuring Rudy Gay. That early deal might be a harbinger of an active two months leading up to the February 20th trade deadline.
Teams that feel they have a chance to compete are generally motivated to wait and see which players become available as the deadline nears; hoping for that piece that best addresses their need and puts them over the top. Similarly, teams that are looking to move pieces that don’t fit their long-term plans are motivated to wait for demand to peak and drive up the value of what they have to offer.
This season, those dynamics are skewed by two factors; the significant competitive imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences and the incredible parity within each of the conferences. A reasonable argument can be made that more than half, 17 of the 30, teams in the NBA are trying to figure out if they will be buyers or sellers. That number doesn’t include an 18th team, the Raptors, that would be in that position if they hadn’t already declared themselves a seller with the Rudy Gay deal. That uncertainty creates an opportunity for some teams to gain an edge by dealing early rather than waiting and risk being left standing when the game of musical chairs heats up close to the deadline.
For the Celtics, this chaotic market could mark a big first step that shapes the direction of the post Big Three rebuilding effort.
The Celtics have surpassed everyone's expectations thus far. Their 12-15 record has them in first place in the Atlantic division and right in the middle of the (frankly depressing) Eastern Conference playoff race. Their surprising spot in the standings, the encouraging play of the team as a whole, and the imminent return of all star point guard Rajon Rondo, puts them in the position to take either direction.
GM Danny Ainge can use some of the attractive assets they’ve accrued to improve the roster and make a serious run at the playoffs. Alternately, he can choose to move the remaining veterans and make a run at the top of the deep 2014 draft. The choice that Ainge makes will set the course for the rebuilding effort that started on draft night last summer.
An even more interesting scenario to consider is how the composition of the roster could put the Celtics in the unique position of being both a buyer and a seller.
Normally, trading away a veteran starter sends a signal, around the league and inside the locker room, that winning is no longer a priority. However, with logjams at the 4 (Sullinger, Bass, Olynyk, and Humphries), the 2 (Bradley, Lee, Brooks, and even Crawford when Rondo returns) and even the 3 (Green and Wallace) the Celtics have the freedom to move a player or two for draft picks and/or cap flexibility while at the same time, looking at other deals that could augment their playoff chances.
So who might get dealt? Well, no one on this roster is untouchable, but you can categorize the players into three groups.
The first group consists of the players that Ainge will be actively looking to move for future assets and cap flexibility. This list undoubtedly includes Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks and Keith Bogans. The first three have shown that they can potentially help a contender as a role player or end-of-the-bench injury insurance. Brooks and Bogans don’t have much value but their contracts could help facilitate a deal.
Ainge (and Celtic fans) would presumably consider it a victory if he can manage to shed Wallace and Lee’s contracts and may even be willing to include a future draft pick to make that happen. Any future asset, even a second round pick, that he can extract in a deal involving these guys would be a bonus.
So where might Ainge find such a deal? Best bets are teams that are (or consider themselves) part of the playoff picture; especially those with obvious holes or injury issues.
Obvious candidates include the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Bobcats in the Eastern Conference and the Lakers and Clippers in the Western Conference. New York, with their significant injury issues (not to mention owner James Dolan’s history of short-sighted decisions) seem especially ripe for a lopsided deal.
Wallace, Humphries, and Lee for Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert works under the salary cap. Amare’s contract is one of the worst in the league, but has only one year remaining after this year while Wallace and Lee’s deals each have two years remaining. The deal would make the Celtics viable players in the 2015 free agent market. Shumpert fits as a first guard off the bench and another defensive menace in the backcourt to complement Avery Bradley.
The next group consists of the wildcards; Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass, and Jordan Crawford. Rondo and Bass are proven playoff performers, while Crawford has established himself this season as a reliable contributor. Each could be a significant component of the Celtics’ future. However, they each also have question marks that could cast their long-term place with the franchise in doubt.
For Crawford, the question is whether his play thus far this season is an anomaly or whether he has turned an important corner in his career. If Ainge and coach Brad Stevens have any doubts, they could decide to sell high on the fourth-year guard.
Brandon Bass has been the team’s most consistent performer this season. He has become a solid defender and rebounder and has always been a reliable mid-range shooter. However, he is owed nearly 7 million next season and if Ainge intends to explore opportunities to improve the team through free agency next summer, getting Bass’ contract off the books is a priority.
As for Rondo, the team continues to insist that he is the key cog in the rebuilding effort and it’s easy to see why. His basketball IQ, competitiveness and mental toughness can have a significant positive impact on a young roster developing its identity. The questions center around his willingness and ability to serve as a positive influence on a team that will struggle to compete and what his salary expectations are once his current deal expires in 2015.
Crawford and Bass are attractive trade targets for contenders looking for a final piece of the puzzle while Rondo will surely have several suitors should Ainge make him available. Bass was a central figure in the recent Omer Asik rumors and Rondo’s name has been floated in a rumored deal with Sacramento that no one (other than Donny Marshall) seems to be taking very seriously.
The third group is made up of the players that are potentially part of Ainge’s vision for the future but could be moved in a deal to bring in an established impact player. Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Vitor Faverani, and Phil Pressey make up this group. To varying degrees, these guys have demonstrated enough potential, relative to their contracts, to suggest that they may have a role to play in the long-term. However, if the opportunity to land an impact player presents itself, Ainge wouldn’t hesitate to include any of them in a deal.
It is still a little early to have a clear sense of which players might become available. Here are a few names to consider:
LaMarcus Aldridge’s name was tossed around the rumor mill last summer under the assumption that if Portland struggled out of the gate, they might be inclined to start over. However, their hot start to the season, fueled in large part by Aldridge’s MVP-level play, surely takes his name off the table.
The Knicks’ struggles and resulting drama has cast doubt on Carmelo Anthony’s desire to commit for the long term (his current deal runs through next season). If New York decides that they can’t overcome their dismal start and a list of injuries that seems to grow daily, they could look to deal Anthony and reshuffle the deck. Even if owner James Dolan were to set aside his ego and agree to move the mercurial forward, it is hard to see him dealing a franchise player to a division rival. Furthermore, Anthony is rapidly approaching 30 and probably isn’t a fit for the type of team that Ainge and Stevens envision.
Kevin Love is the presumed jewel of the 2015 offseason (his contract runs through 2016 but he has an opt-out clause that he can exercise after 2015) and is considered a lock to leave Minnesota when he gets the chance. The Timberwolves were considered a favorite for one of the lower playoff seeds in the Western Conference coming into this season. They are currently a mediocre 13-14 and 2 games out of the eighth spot. Could Flip Saunders decide to cut his losses and deal Love to kickstart (yet another) rebuild of the Timberwolves? If so, Ainge could put together a compelling package likely centered around Jared Sullinger and multiple picks.
Detroit, much like the Celtics, has benefited greatly from the Eastern Conference morass of mediocrity. Their 13-15 record puts them in the 6th seed and they seem like a decent bet to return to the playoffs after a four year absence. They signed Josh Smith in the offseason to complement Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in their frontcourt. The three players haven’t exactly meshed as GM Joe Dumars envisioned and Monroe’s name has been floated as the most likely of the three to be moved. The 6-11 big man is a skilled offensive player and could potentially complement Jared Sullinger’s game. However, he is below average defensively and Dumars would be seeking a return package centered around Rondo.
After a tremendous 56 win season and conference finals appearance, the Memphis Grizzlies have struggled to a 10-15 record. They are on the outside looking in to the Western Conference playoffs and will be without center Marc Gasol through at least the rest of this month, if not longer. Their struggles, along with the improving play of Ed Davis, could make power forward Zach Randolph available. Z-Bo is a beast in the post and could give the offensively challenged Celtics some much-needed firepower inside. However, he is subpar defensively and is on the wrong side of 30.
Similarly, 33-year-old Pau Gasol will undoubtedly be shopped by the Lakers but wouldn’t fit in Boston unless Ainge decided that there is enough talent on the roster to make a run in the playoffs this season. Gasol’s name has been linked with the C’s several times in the past, but it’s hard to see the Lakers and Celtics matching up on a deal this time around.
That brings us to the one player that, all things considered, seems the most likely match for the Celtics; Utah’s Gordon Hayward. The Jazz are, without a doubt, looking to land in the lottery this season and at 7-22 are headed exactly in that direction. Hayward is a young (23) emerging offensive threat and underrated defender whose contract expires at the end of the season. Unless Utah is committed to the 6-8 swingman as part of their future, the Celtics could part with an asset or two and reunite him with Stevens, his former coach at Butler.
The next 10 weeks should be very interesting for Celtics fans. After the deadline passes, we will have a much clearer understanding of Danny Ainge’s approach to rebuilding the franchise.