Another trade deadline came to pass on Thursday, ending, like the others, without the Boston Celtics trading for a superstar, a failure to some, an inconsequential result to others.
Only, what if this is actually a success story? What if, by standing pat, the Celtics made the right move, the smartest move?
What if inaction was the best action?
There’s been this innate sense of urgency ascribed to the Celtics’ rebuild ever since it became clear how valuable their Brooklyn Nets picks are. They snagged Jaylen Brown at No. 3 last year, can swap selections with the league-worst Nets this June and own Brooklyn’s first-rounder outright in 2018. When all’s told, the decision to trade Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry back in 2014 will have, in all likelihood, netted the Celtics a trio of top-three selections (plus James Young, the No. 17 pick from 2014).
Once Brooklyn’s insta-build flopped, there was no chance the Celtics wouldn’t consolidate these draft choices into a household name (or two). That they hired a top-three coach in Brad Stevens to succeed Doc Rivers, grabbed Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns for nothing, developed Avery Bradley into a two-way terror and extracted value from players without any (see: Turner, Evan) only solidified what was a foregone conclusion.
It didn’t matter that the Celtics sat pretty at last year’s trade deadline or ahead of the draft. They were too far ahead of schedule to peddle endurance. They burned two of their three first-round picks last June on draft-and-stash prospects for crying out loud. And then they signed Al Horford. If they weren’t on the map before, they are now. Certainly this was the season, the trade deadline, during which team president Danny Ainge would pillage through his war chest of assets, delivering an offer monstrous enough to poach Jimmy Butler or Paul George.
Both those names were in play as the clock ticked closer to Thursday’s cutoff, per ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. Like usual, nothing came of the rumors, a development most probably could have predicted, even if they were pulling for the alternative.
That the Celtics (apparently) whiffed on a blockbuster acquisition due to ostensibly arbitrary sticking points doesn’t help matters. They didn’t win the Serge Ibaka sweepstakes because they wouldn’t trade Terry Rozier and a future pick, according to CelticsBlog’s Jared Weiss. Butler would have traded in Chicago Bulls red for Celtics green by now if Boston was willing to part with Jae Crowder, per NBA.com’s David Aldridge.
When glaring hangups involve role players and projects, conventional wisdom demands you trade for the top-15 player and figure out the rest later. Neither Butler nor George would have cost the Celtics both of their next two Nets picks, and the name power alone implies they would be neck-and-neck with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Or, in other words, right where they are now.
Few would deign to roll with the Celtics in a best-of-seven set with the Cavaliers, but they already have the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. Over the last 15 games, the Golden State Warriors are the only team matching Boston’s offensive and defensive ratings while also playing as fast (99.7 possessions used per 48 minutes).
With the exception of this most recent stretch, the defense has been a concern. And it’s a red flag that the Celtics have a better better net rating in the fourth quarter when playing without Isaiah Thomas, this season’s foremost authority on final-frame detonations. But, at the value it would cost to land them, Butler and George wouldn’t enhance Boston’s makeup—not enough, at least.
The Celtics have lost more value to injuries than every team except the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, per Man Games Lost. Not only do they own the Association’s fifth-best record anyway, but three of their players profile as above-average contributors on both ends of the floor, according to NBA Math’s Total Points Added. That’s two more than the Cavaliers, and one more than each of the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, who round out the East’s top-five playoff seeds.
By season’s end, the Celtics’ number of positive performers on both sides will increase to four or five. Bradley and Crowder are slight negatives on the less glamorous end at the moment, almost solely due to the preferred starting five’s defensive malaise, which has been compounded by protracted absences from everyone but Amir Johnson and Thomas.
Bradley may never get there. He’s undersized at shooting guard and dealing with Achilles soreness, and the amount of time he spends trying to cover up for Thomas will dwarf everyone else. Crowder is going to get there, at which time the Celtics will join the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Warriors as the only teams with four or more two-way positives.
It’s fitting, then, for Crowder to be the primal impasse in Butler and George negotiations. There is no comparison on the surface; Butler and George are All-Stars, while Crowder isn’t. But additional context yields an actual dilemma.
Crowder has a better TPA (58.08) than George (54.03) in fewer games. And it’s George who, per TPA, ranks as the less valuable defender, costing the Indiana Pacers almost six times as many points (minus-18.03) as Crowder has given up for the Celtics (minus-3.06).
Butler trounces Crowder’s marks. He is a net positive on both sides of the court, and his 235.99 TPA places 10th in the entire league. That gap is wide enough for the Celtics to justify pulling the trigger.
At the same time, it’s Crowder who is out-performing his contract as much as anyone in the league.
Fifty-four players who aren’t on rookie-scale pacts (sorry, Giannis) are posting a TPA of 50 or higher; only seven are earning less than Crowder. Of those seven, four can or will become free agents this summer (Joe Ingles, James Johnson, David Lee, Zaza Pachulia). Of the remaining three, two become free agents before Crowder (Patrick Beverley, Kyle O’Quinn). That leaves Tyler Johnson, whose salary will almost triple Crowder’s by 2018-19; the average of his four-year poison pill ($12.5 million) comes close to doubling Crowder’s annual earnings ($7.1 million) through the end of his deal—which, we should note, runs through 2019-20 and doesn’t include an escape clause.
If he entered the free-agent pool this summer, Crowder would land a max deal, no question asked. His current contract is the best in the NBA, non-expiring division. That kind of below-market value becomes exponentially more important as the Celtics begin to re-invest in their core. Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Bradley and Thomas will all get new contracts by the time Crowder reaches free agency. Jaylen Brown will be prepping for restricted free agency, or he’ll have already signed a new extension.
Al Horford, whom the Celtics signed last summer, can explore the open market before Crowder.
It’s in this absurd benefit some begin to take exception. That so many players will be due lucrative pay bumps before Crowder’s scheduled foray into free agency accentuates the tightness of Boston’s window. Thomas will be 29 when he signs his next contract, while Bradley will be going on 28. Horford is already 30. The Celtics shouldn’t be paying all of them, in addition to more expensive versions of Olynyk, Rozier and Smart.
Consolidation feels imperative, but it’s not that simple. Accommodating a new superstar is difficult. Most of them are used to being featured options. Butler and George specifically can play off the ball, but they’re more accustomed to playing on it. While the Celtics are lucky they have a lower-usage star in Al Horford, he still soaks up 22.6 percent of the team’s offensive plays when in the game. Bake in Thomas’ team-leading 34.2 percent usage, and the prospect of incorporating a Butler or George, both of whom post usage rates north of 27, is about as terrifying as it is tantalizing.
Crowder and Bradley, to a slightly lesser extent, are the better fits—two lower-volume wings who are used to working off not one, but at least two senior facilitators:
George projects as a better fit in Boston, if only because more of his shots (25.2 percent) than Butler’s (9.4 percent) come as spot-up threes—and that still pales in comparison to the frequency of Crowder (44.3 percent), the player he would, in most scenarios, be replacing. A smaller share of Bradley’s looks come on catch-and-shoot triples (22.4 percent), but he’s by far the better plug-and-play option compared to Butler.
Inevitably, the Celtics must commit themselves to the offensive transmutation that accompanies superstar arrivals. But now, during the middle of the season, with the Cavaliers one bad break away from devolving into an inferior, is not the time for such an extensive facelift.
Especially when you have more to gain by waiting out the trade market until after free agency.
The Celtics can carve out close to $37 million just by playing the renounced-rights game. Be a bit more liberal with who gets to stay, and they’ll be able to add a high-end free agent while still maintaining the capacity to chase Butler and George trades that don’t obliterate the core.
Here’s what their summer ledger will look like against next season’s projected $103 million cap if they guarantee Demetrius Jackson’s, Jordan Mickey’s and Tyler Zeller’s salaries, keep Olynyk’s hold and renounce the rights to Jonas Jerebko, James Young, Johnson, et al.
Sub out one or more of the holds from Jackson, Mickey, Olynyk and Zeller for empty roster charges, and that $17.4 million balloons. An unanticipated bump in the salary cap, as we saw before 2016-17, could end up getting them to $20 million without having to renounce Zeller’s $8 million trade chip or Olynyk’s restricted free-agent hold.
That’s not enough money to sign Gordon Hayward or try stealing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the Detroit Pistons with a max offer sheet (it won’t work anyway). But it gets you in the conversation for a Danilo Gallinari (player option) or, much less likely, Serge Ibaka. Maybe Ainge goes for depth, attempting to sign some combination of Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, P.J. Tucker, Andre Roberson (restricted), Thabo Sefolosha, JaMychal Green (restricted) and any other mid-end role-player type you can fathom.
If Boston wants to reunite Stevens with Hayward, renounce Olynyk and presto, you at least begin to sniff that territory.
Then, after the Nets pick has turned into a cap hold, the Celtics can sling something like the player they selected, Jaylen Brown and Zeller’s expiring salary for Butler or George. Perhaps they’re able to get away with including Bradley and Smart instead of Brown. Or maybe just Bradley. They’ll have that leverage after adding to the East’s second-best squad without having first met Chicago’s and Indiana’s demands.
Yes, the Celtics would have been able to manufacture plenty of cap space following a Butler or George trade. The Nets’ pick presumably wouldn’t be on their books, and some of the other pieces they sent over would be on contracts that spilled into this season.
Still, you don’t know who else they would have needed to take back in those deals. What if the Bulls insisted on including Robin Lopez? Or the Pacers wanted to throw in Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson or Rodney Stuckey? And even if they didn’t, the Celtics would be going into free agency with a shallower, more top-heavy roster—all because they felt the need to trade for a star they could have pursued later who didn’t immediately ferry them across the flume still separating them from Cleveland and Golden State.
There is no downside to playing the longer game unless you think this is the only season over the next four or five in which Boston could have rivaled the league’s superpowers. Chicago and Indiana won’t balk at the Nets’ 2017 pick just because it turned into Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson instead of Markelle Fultz; the intrigue attached to the unknown remains intact until prospects make their NBA debut. Strike out in free agency, and Boston has all the same assets, perfectly positioning Ainge to acquire the exact same names we’ve been talking about.
Standing idle bought the Celtics flexibility and leverage at a time when they didn’t need to hemorrhage urgency. That comes next February, when they must reconcile the end of bargain-bin salaries that don’t belong to Crowder.
In the meantime, the Celtics get to be one of the two biggest Eastern Conference threats, however authentic, to the Cavaliers, without tethering themselves to one direction or nucleus iteration—a balancing act that allows them to monopolize the future while owning a majority stake in the present.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for NBA Math and Bleacher Report. Listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey and Adam Fromal.