January 16, 2019
The Boston Celtics are walking the fine line between contending now and building for the future.

By Torkil Bang

The Boston Celtics were a surprise No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with Isaiah Thomas playing like a superstar. But they are still far behind the true contenders and need to add at least one starter this summer.

Until he traded this year’s No. 1 pick, Boston GM Danny Ainge has made only one significant move since last year’s draft, when he signed Al Horford to a max contract last summer. And even the pick trade doesn’t change the roster right now. It puts them in a position for other moves, though.

The Horford signing alone was enough to put the team on top of the Eastern Conference in the regular season, but it’s evident they’re still missing something to reach the next level where the true championship contenders reside.

There were plenty of rumors about wanted trades, suggested trades, trades that had been on the table, and trades that were never actually discussed in the front offices but still made the fans go bananas.

One input came from the recently retired Celtics veteran Paul Pierce, who said that the Celtics would have a five-year window with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, if they were to cash in on the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft (and possibly next year’s Brooklyn pick, too).

This looks sensible enough. You could easily see George or Butler replacing Jae Crowder in Boston’s starting lineup. And there would probably be enough salary left to sign a decent starting big man, too. Neither Butler nor George are ideal in Brad Stevens’ motion offense, but they are, however, the two best match-ups with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference in recent years.

Was there ever a trigger to pull?

So why didn’t the apparently trigger-happy Danny Ainge pull it already? The truth is, there was probably no trigger to pull´at any time until now.

First of all, we don’t know what was ever on the table from Boston. It was rumored that Ainge had sent an offer to the Bulls for Butler, but they didn’t bother calling back. If that’s true, you can guess that the two parties were pretty far from one another, and the Bulls didn’t actually want to trade Butler.

In Indiana, the obstacle at the trade deadline was most likely Larry Bird, who stated Paul George is untouchable and that he wanted to sign him to a max extension.

George has the choice to opt out of his contract next summer and according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he has already told the Pacers he plans to do that and join the Lakers.

This lowers George’s trade value significantly and forces Indiana to rebuild around Myles Turner immediately. If George plays for anyone but the Lakers next season, his team must expect him to be a one year rental only.

Butler and George are probably still among Ainge’s targets for a trade, but here comes the summer and free agency, which changes things quite a bit. And a two-way wing might not be Boston’s biggest need, but more on that later.

The Celtics can’t wait any longer

Even though the Celtics have very flexible roster management there is probably only this one window to improve the current roster.

The Celtics are in a position to hire a close-to-max player this summer. If they renounce their free agents, including restricted free agent Kelly Olynyk, their projected cap space before the trade with Philly is (according to basketballinsiders.com) $29.4 million for 2017-2018, which is very close to the max deal a player like Hayward could sign.

That ship sails this summer, though, as two starters—Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley—are potential free agents in 2018 and their dirt cheap deals will be converted to at least something reasonable, if not brick loads of money. They might even become too expensive for the Celtics to keep both.

Some of the Celtics trade assets also have an expiration date this summer. Zeller’s non-guaranteed contract becomes guaranteed by July 2, they might have to cut a young player or two to make roster room and if they acquire Gordon Hayward, which seems like a real possibility, Jae Crowder might need to be shipped out as soon as possible to get full value.

Let’s play “Trade, Keep or Drop?”

To get a sense of how the current roster is valued, I invited some of my BBALLBREAKDOWN colleagues to play a game of FMK, or in this instance “Trade, Keep or Drop?” with the current roster.

The Trade, Keep or Drop?-game is not about creating consensus, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we only found that for four players. There might be a couple of surprises, when you see what we disagreed on, though. Thanks to Eli Horowitz, Morten Stig Jensen, Vivek Jacob and Brandon Jefferson for playing along.

PlayerTrade, Keep or Drop?Comments
Avery Bradley5*KeepMorten: Bradley can compete now, and be a main key for the future. He won’t be as expensive as Isaiah Thomas either, and two-way players are always valuable.
Kelly Olynyk1*Trade, 3*Keep, 1*DropVivek (K): I assume he’ll decline his qualifying offer, but his value as a shooting big off the bench was highlighted in Game 7 against Washington. He’s 26, doesn’t have great overall numbers, so should be relatively inexpensive to keep.
Isaiah Thomas½*Trade, 4½*KeepMorten (½T,½K): As complicated as the Isaiah Thomas contract situation is, it never hurts anyone to pick up the phone and listen to offers. If something is offered that blows away Danny Ainge, go for it. If not, keep him for now and kick the can down the road.
Marcus Smart1*Trade, 4*KeepTorkil (K): Smart needs to improve his shooting, but the playoffs proved that he can win games for you at the highest level.
James Young5*DropVivek: Unless he’s willing to take a two-way contract, I see no reason to keep him.
Terry Rozier2*Trade, 3*KeepVivek (K): On contract, cheap, no reason to get rid of him.
Jae Crowder2*Trade, 3*KeepMorten (K): Cheap, productive, somewhat young, can play both forward positions.. There’s no reason to move him unless someone drastically overpays for him in a trade.
Jonas Jerebko2½*Keep, 2½*DropTorkil (K): Jerebko is a very good complementary player, and very useful in the Celtics rotation.
Amir JohnsonKeep, 4*DropMorten (D): Johnson was nice in Toronto, but has been showing his decline in Boston. At this point, the Celtics are better off dividing the minutes elsewhere.
Jordan Mickey½*Trade, 2*Keep, 2½*DropVivek (K): Very inexpensive team option to pick up so why not.
Al Horford5*KeepMorten: Even if you wanted to move Al Horford, you’re never going to get fair value in return given his contract. Besides, he’s a good all-around big man who still has some gas left.
Jaylen Brown5*KeepTorkil: Brown is a work in progress, and he will still have to fight hard for his minutes next season, but he seems poised for the second year leap.
Demetrius Jackson1*Trade, 3*Keep, 1*DropVivek (K): Only need to lose him would be to have a minor salary filler in a deal.
Gerald Green2*Keep, 3*DropTorkil (D): Green delivered what he was expected to, but streaky shooting isn’t that useful if there is too far between the outbursts.
Tyler Zeller2*Trade, 1*Keep, 2*DropTorkil (T): Zeller’s contract for 2017-2018 is unguaranteed until July 2nd. This makes it very useful in a big trade.

From Eli’s comment on his selections: “Not only are the Celtics nowhere near being a true threat to LeBron and the Cavs, they’re just as far off from the Spurs and Warriors. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they still have a number of quality draft picks. Their best path forward is to stockpile young talent and to assemble a more talented version of their current selves. This should be a team building towards contention in 2-5 years, once LeBron starts to decline and the Warriors are forced to break up financially. This is still an uncertain approach as other teams could emerge, but it’s unlikely a talent like LeBron will be holding a conference hostage anytime soon.

Trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler wouldn’t close the immediate gap, so it’s not worth giving up valuable assets unless Danny Ainge is able to fleece a team. Even if Boston could get Butler or George for Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown and the 2018 Nets pick, Butler and George haven’t proven they can fit into a motion offense and you’d sacrifice depth and risk neither player resigns long-term.”

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‘Win now’ isn’t ‘All in’

There’s a fine line between “win now” and “all in”, well maybe not exactly a “fine” line, but it’s an important distinction for the Celtics.

When you have an old(er) core with star players in their prime and late prime, you can’t hold back. You have to do everything to maximize that team’s potential right here and now. Cleveland and Golden State are obviously “all in” these seasons, but the Celtics would be wasting their most valuable assets if they tried that. If Boston had actually lured Kevin Durant last summer, they would be all in.

They’re obviously still in the market for a big fish, but what if their No. 1 pick in this year’s draft was their only shot at developing a superstar on their own for years to come. Why trade down?

It only makes sense if you don’t believe in the Markelle Fultz hype. And it is mostly hype, he hasn’t been tested at the NBA level.

Fultz’s weaknesses at the college level—effort and defense—can be worked on, but the Celtics might say that, for a No. 1 pick, that’s a pretty big red flag and actually puts him in the same tier as the rest of the top 8-10 players in the draft.

The Celtics could be wrong, though. It’s happened before. If Fultz moves on to be as dominant as projected, this is a trade that could backfire on most GMs. Ainge has a great track record overall and he is not going to get fired over this, but his reputation as a talent evaluator might not survive. On the other hand he might come out looking smarter than the rest of us.

There is speculation that this trade is the precursor to a deal for Jimmy Butler. We’ll have to wait and see, but if true, it seems strange that Markelle Fultz isn’t part of the deal.

The trade is also a compromise between ‘win now’ and ‘all in’, since it opens a bit of extra cap space for a (close to) max contract while adding another projected lottery pick for the future.

Thomas is still a gamble

Isaiah Thomas, with his fourth quarter heroics and efficient high volume scoring, came close to superstar level this season. Isn’t that enough to go all in?

Despite playing like a superstar this season, Isaiah Thomas isn’t a sure thing. First of all, he has only played one season at this level, he’s 28 years old and he ended the season with a hip injury that might require surgery. So we don’t know if he even has another season at that level in him. He might also become even better, but it’s still a pretty big gamble.

Second, he is flawed and to a degree exploitable. Besides the eye test, there are plenty of on/off stats that tell us that, while Thomas is a highly effective scorer, he is also a liability on defense. And there’s no fix for being five inches smaller than most of the opposing point guards.

And finally, the Celtics aren’t as good as their record, as coach Stevens said during the season. Net rating is often a better way to measure strength than the win-loss-record. Simply because wins count for 100, and losses for 0 even in games that are basically 50/50. In net rating, the Celtics were eighth in the league, behind Toronto and Cleveland in the East.  Based on net rating, they had an expected 48-40 record, five wins under their actual record, and that is actually worse than last season.

This is where Isaiah Thomas fourth quarter heroics come in, though. Having an efficient finisher is crucial in close games, and Thomas was probably the deciding factor in a lot of games this season.

While net rating isn’t the end-all measure stick either, the fact that the Celtics are worse this season than last season is a symptom that not all is well.

The defense suffers from bad rebounding

Even with bulldogs like Bradley, Smart and Crowder, the Celtics weren’t able to put together the stingy defense they’ve relied on under Brad Stevens.

It all comes down to the defense. Besides a worse defensive rating than the two previous seasons, there are more distinct symptoms: They went from 14.6 TOV% in 2015-2016 to 12.6 TOV% in 2016-2017; or in other words, about two fewer turnovers per game pace adjusted. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was compensated by better defensive rebounding or better efficiency in defense. But those two factors remained more or less the same.

So what changed? The two most aggressive defenders among the starters, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, averaged put together 3.2 steals per game in 2015-2016, and only 2.2 steals per game in 2016-2017 while playing a couple of minutes more per game. Steals only account for about half of the forced turnovers, but there’s a clear picture here.

And it gets even clearer when you look at Bradley and Crowder’s defensive rebounding numbers: They went from 6.4 defensive rebounds per game combined in 2015-2016 to 10.0 in 2016-2017, which should be a good thing. But since the Celtics were still the 27th team in defensive rebounding percentage this season (26th in 2015-2016), it’s quite obvious that they were only patching a bleeding wound.

And while rebounding should be a team effort, it doesn’t make life easier if all your big men are inferior rebounders. Jared Sullinger, who said goodbye to Boston last summer, might not have provided enough of everything else, but he was a ball magnet underneath the basket, and the Celtics clearly need that now.

If the Celtics are able to fix this, a lot of other problems might be solved, too. There’s no reason why Bradley and Crowder can’t go back to being bulldogs, which would again make the defense elite and still very good with Isaiah Thomas on the floor.

Celtics must find solutions outside the current roster

The Celtics obviously need to address their rebounding woes, but nobody on the current roster looks like the solution.

With Al Horford staying put as one the starting big men, the Celtics need to pair him up with an at least above average rebounder, but preferably a rebounding machine. You don’t find that on the current roster, even if Jordan Mickey has shown in the D-League that he has some potential that hasn’t been fulfilled during his NBA stints. Two of their stashed players, Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, might also have the potential, but it’s a long-shot for next season.

There aren’t many available elite rebounders, though. Andre Drummond might be the only one who’s actually on the trade market, but he’s entering the second season of a five year max extension and based on the first year of that contract, he isn’t quite worth it. A LOT of rebounding and decent scoring, but not much else is going on.

If you look at the free agent market, there are only few rebounders, too. Greg Monroe has decided to stay in Milwaukee, and Nerlens Noel (restricted) looks like he is part of Dallas’s plans for the future and they can match any offer. One intriguing option is Dewayne Dedmon who played a significant role for the San Antonio Spurs this season, and who opted out of next season in order to cash in on a long-term deal.

The Celtics can also go another way and take less rebounding but a lot more scoring and playmaking with either Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap.

While Millsap and Horford were paired in Atlanta, they had a 60-win season and ran into two straight sweeps by Cleveland in the playoffs. No matter how you look at it, though, Millsap is one of the most solid defenders in the league and so versatile on offense, he’ll fit right in with Brad Stevens.

Millsap’s efficiency took a hit last season, after pairing up with Dwight Howard instead of Horford. Would he regain that in Boston? Who knows, but if they want to compete while still keeping their assets under control, three or four years with Millsap seems like a solid signing. And if Boston can trade for George or Butler, it makes even more sense.

Imagine a lineup with Thomas, Bradley, Butler, Millsap and Horford, it’s almost like an All Star bench. And about three inches lower in average than most NBA teams.

There are several other free agents who could help the Celtics and as mentioned above the time is now, so it would be a disappointment to many if the Celtics didn’t add at least one player for the starting lineup. Even the first tier of players that are available might not make the Celtics true contenders but it would be a shame to not even try.

Everyone is still tradeable

If the Celtics don’t raise their ceiling this summer, it might be time to cash in on their best contracts.

As mentioned earlier, both Thomas and Bradley are possible free agents in 2018, and they’re looking to take a significant bite of the cap space. If the Celtics aren’t able to sign someone for the starting lineup, they need to go back to asset management.

This is what makes Isaiah Thomas’ situation a bit complicated, as Morten mentioned in the Trade, Keep or Drop game. If the Celtics aren’t all in, does it really make sense to use a max contract on Thomas next summer, yet alone a Designated Player veteran’s extension if he becomes eligible after his 8th season? Wouldn’t you rather cash in, if the right trade came along?

Or what if, say, Cleveland offered an unprotected first round pick in 2021 for Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart? That pick could easily come after the LeBron era, which could make it quite valuable.

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Torkil Bang

I'm a journalist from Denmark, so if I write something strange on my Twitter, it's probably in Danish.
I am the editor of NBAinfo.dk, a blog about the NBA in Danish.

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