The NBA trade deadline is in two weeks. By the time we go to bed 14 days from now, we’ll know whether Danny Ainge was able to pull off a move for any of the assets he’s been stockpiling.
But like the conspiracy theorist loading up his bunker for the zombie apocalypse, there’s still an expiration date on a lot of those cans. Nothing (except Twinkies) lasts for ever. Ainge and the Celtics are very well set up to make a very amazing offer for a player, but Boston’s greatest strength is perhaps its greatest weakness.
Let’s take a good look at what the Celtics have, what’s available, and what Danny Ainge is facing.
We know what Boston’s assets are. They have “the pick”… Brooklyn’s unprotected first round pick this June. We have come to hold that pick in the highest regard, holding out hope that it will become Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. “Why trade all these guys for a star when we might just be able to add one through the draft?” we say.
Boston also will very likely have Dallas’ pick, which is top-7 protected. The Mavs are currently a playoff team and, considering the bottom half of the West’s struggles, are very likely to stay there.
Of course, Boston will have its own first round pick, likely to fall in the late teens or 20’s, depending on how the season plays out. Minnesota’s pick is top-12 protected so it will likely turn into a couple of second rounders.
The Celtics also, of course, have players. Lots of them. And they are mostly, to a varying degree, good players. This is the order of their value as I see it.
Jae Crowder seems to be the name that comes up the most. He is the most valuable living, breathing “asset” on the Celtics: He’s an elite defender who can shoot about the league average from 3, which makes him a serious threat. He’s also locked up for the next four seasons after this one on an amazing contract. Almost every team in the NBA would use him… a lot.
Avery Bradley is in the same boat. He’s a top notch perimeter defender in a league where perimeter players can’t be touched. He can score, hit 3’s, and he’ll also come cheap.
Kelly Olynyk is a notch below those guys because he’s still developing and he’s only got one more year left before he becomes a restricted free agent. He’s still a stretch-5 and one of the best 3 point shooters in the league. He has a very desirable skill set.
Marcus Smart is another top perimeter defender who is still developing but shows a lot of promise. Will he ultimately be a starter or a back up? I don’t know. But he’s showing he’s learning how to be a scorer and passer while being a big-time defender.
Jared Sullinger is a really good rebounder who can work the post against guys a little (but not a lot) taller than him. His defense is improving, but his shooting is still an issue, and the question of whether he can be a true stretch-4 is yet to be answered. There are always the ever-present conditioning issues, but he’s shown he can produce and at least be a good contributor off the bench no matter what. He’s a restricted free agent, though, so there’s no guarantee a team will be able to keep him beyond this year (depending on the team’s cap situation and offer sheet).
Tyler Zeller is in a similar boat as Sully. His lack of play hurts his value but his recent stretch reinforces past performance. He going to be a restricted free agent too, so teams have to be willing to match offers for him if they trade for him.
I didn’t add Isaiah Thomas because I’m assuming he’s untouchable in this scenario. Ainge is trying to pair someone with Thomas, not make some sort of “lateral move” deal.
The rest of the guys, Lee’s expiring deal, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Jerebko (both have non-guaranteed deals for next year) are fair game for salary matching purposes.
So to recap, the Celtics will probably have a top 5 pick along with a pair of picks somewhere in the teens or 20’s. They have a bunch of second round picks and, of course, future Brooklyn picks. They have a bunch of players that are locked up long-term on the cheap… and a few young pieces that could be useful long-term but who have contract issues limiting their value at least a little bit.
This is hard to say definitively. Are the Atlanta Hawks REALLY going to give up Al Horford? How serious is Houston about moving Dwight Howard? Is Gordon Hayward really available? Blake Griffin? Anyone?
Horford is the biggest star of the bunch. I don’t think Howard is worth pursuing unless he’s a “get for free” scenario. David Lee, Zeller or Sullinger, and the Dallas pick is BASICALLY as far as I’d go for Howard. He’s on the downswing of his career and he’s going to opt out, leaving the Celtics with one hell of a contract decision to make.
The bottom line is that there’s no transformative superstar available this year unless a surprise team jumps into the mix. Blake Griffin being made available in the next two weeks would be a shock, especially in this scenario, because the Celtics don’t have anyone of immediate impact that would satisfy Doc Rivers’ desire to win now. Let’s check back over the summer on that one.
What’s Ainge facing?
This is where it gets really interesting, because Ainge is in a really interesting place.
He has a pretty good roster assembled right now. It’s got a lot of good players who can do good things and, altogether, they are a nice team.
They’re not, however, a contending team. Everyone knows that, especially Ainge, who wants to win and win soon. He’s a patient guy, but there are limits to that. On top of a team that leaves capable players on the bench as it runs 9-deep, it has developing guys in Jordan Mickey, RJ Hunter, James Young, and Terry Rozier just waiting for a chance to show what they can do.
So are the Celtics really going to make the (let’s assume for the sake of argument) third, 19th, and 21st picks, as well as multiple second round selections, in this upcoming draft? Are they really going to bring eight or nine players with less than three years experience into training camp next season? Will the Celtics REALLY start the season with nearly a dozen players (adding Smart and Olynyk) on rookie deals?
No. They won’t. No one expects them to. That’s not Ainge’s plan. His plan is to flip these assets for, at least, a pretty good player who will (a) make the team a lot better next year and (b) signal to the next group of big-time free agents that he’s serious about winning a title in Boston and they should join the party.
So everyone is fully aware that Ainge and the Celtics are entering this two-week fray as buyers… along with most other teams in the league. That alone is going to drive up the price in trade talks. With so few sellers and so many buyers competing for those few guys on the market, the price will rise higher than you might like. At the same time, Danny Ainge is walking around like a tourist in high black socks and an “I (heart) NY” shirt in Times Square… everyone knows he’s got a lot of money to spend and they’re going to try like hell to suck him dry.
There is also one recurring theme from national reporters who say opposing GM’s won’t easily forget that massive four-first-round-pick offer to the Hornets for the opportunity to draft Justise Winslow. I don’t know if that’s become a narrative at this point or if that’s just the pulse of the league, but there’s no discussion about this trade deadline without mention of that.
While I can’t pretend to know what impact that has on things, it does show Ainge is at least willing to spend for what he wants. And considering the Celtics wealth of picks and players, he might be tempted to overpay simply because he doesn’t like the alternative of having way too many young players show up in Waltham next season.
That’s where Boston’s greatest strength becomes a weakness here. Ainge can offer one of the best trade packages in the league, but he also almost HAS to make that offer in order to avoid creating a much different problem next season. In a sense, Boston might have too many picks, which means Ainge could throw a bunch together in a deal where he might normally pass.
There are other options, of course. The Celtics could try to swing smaller deals that involve giving up, say, the Dallas pick and a minor player for a minor player and that team’s future first round pick. The Knicks, Heat, or Cavs, for example, don’t have first rounders and might be willing to make that kind of deal. The Celtics could also make their picks and trade the rights to some of those guys in a bigger deal this summer when, maybe, Blake Griffin hits the market.
No matter what, though, Danny Ainge is facing a really interesting trade deadline this year. Everyone in the league is expecting him to pull of the big deal, and the rumor mill is telling us he’s at least trying. If anyone can make sense of all this it’s Ainge and his team… so let’s see what he’s able to pull off.