Another NBA offseason, another superstar asking for a trade. Danny Ainge and the Celtics were here last year with Kyrie Irving. Now it’s Kawhi Leonard. The names change, but the game remains the same for Ainge: Get the best players you possibly can. News of Leonard wishing for a trade has led to inevitable speculation about the Celtics possible interest, which is real. This development has sparked a now raging local debate: Should the Celtics stand pat with the NBA’s best roster 1-8 next year or go for the gusto with a Leonard trade?
By any measure, Leonard is one of the five best players in the world. For my money, he’s in the top three with LeBron and Durant. Defensively, he’s arguably the best post-millennium perimeter defender the league has seen. He proved in 2014, even at the very ripe age of 22, that he is more than capable of being the best player on a title winning team. The debate over whether the Celtics should go after Leonard has been fascinating, partly because of how good the Celtics could be next year by simply doing nothing. Aaron Baynes is the only rotation player with the ability to leave on his own this summer. Part of this debate involves cost and money, which is where the Celtics would need to get creative.
For all intents and purposes, the Celtics probably need a third team to make the money work for a Leonard trade. Regardless of that factor, they will be able to offer the best package for the soon-to-be 27-year-old star. It’s not that close either. No one is touching a package of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and the Kings pick next year. Thrown in Marcus Morris and probably more salary filler to make the money work. Is that a lot? Sure, unless you consider that Leonard could be the best in-his-prime player the Celtics have employed in 35 years. This guy is THAT good. Remember when the Spurs were beating the crap out of Golden State last year in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at Oracle…before Zaza-gate? Leonard got hurt, and the Spurs got swept. It wasn’t a coincidence.
It’s been amusing to hear the push back on this deal, as if such a move would NOT solidify the Celtics as a title favorite for easily the next half decade. Standing pat is a very legit argument given how deep the Celtics look for next year. But, boy, you don’t get a chance at a talent like THIS very often. This is not Kyrie. This guy is clearly a superior player, not that it matters. If the Celtics can get him, I believe he would stay given how good this team is along with the fact that Leonard would have to wait until LeBron’s age 35 season to join him in LA in that scenario. But there’s that money issue again.
Could a Celtics star be dealt to make room for Leonard? Unlikely, but do not rule anything out. Perception is important for a budding destination like Boston, so dealing players such as Al Horford and Gordon Hayward who came here voluntarily would be a questionable look to future prospective free agents. Tatum is untouchable. Baynes is a potential, albeit unlikely, wild card here. He’s a former Spur, and grabbing a one year deal in a sign-and-trade scenario can’t be ruled out to make a potential deal work. That leaves Irving, who could be the odd man out in this scenario. The Celtics need to decide if they want to shower him with a $200+ million extension after next season. When you consider that he’s got a history of serious foot and knee injuries, along with Terry Rozier’s emergence, it’s not the slam dunk we thought it was six months ago. Regardless, I find it more likely that the Celtics would package some youngsters and a pick or two should they make a run at Leonard.
As far as tomorrow’s draft is concerned, the Celtics appear to be looking for backcourt help given the short-term deals left for all of their guards (Kyrie, Marcus Smart and Rozier). When searching for possible candidates, let’s remember how Ainge has assembled this roster over the past few years. It is not a coincidence that so many Celtics have played for championship coaches in college (and for Baynes, the NBA). It has helped them create a culture of toughness and competition in Boston. With that criteria in mind, Al Horford will tell you how hard it is to win one NCAA title, never mind two. Villanova has two guards who could end up with the Celtics in Jalen Brunson and Dante Divencenzo. Coachability is also huge for Ainge.
Brad Stevens is a great coach for players who listen; however, the NBA is littered with players who do not, and the Celtics do not employ those guys. Whether it’s Rozier playing for two-time NCAA champion Rick Pitino, Horford netting two rings in college for now-NBA coach Billy Donovan, Marcus Morris playing under Bill Self and his 14 straight Big 12 regular season titles or Jayson Tatum and Irving playing under five-time NCAA champ and legend Mike Krzyzewski, most Celtic players come here already having been well coached.
In addition, Gordon Hayward played under a decent coach at Butler. It is not a coincidence. Another guy to keep an eye is Bruce Brown from Miami. Given the Larranaga connection (Jim is the head coach at Miami, while his son, Jay, is Stevens’ top lieutenant on the Celtics’ coaching staff) and the fact that Brown was projected to go much higher before the season, it’s easy to see Ainge picking him tomorrow. If the Celtics go big, they could do worse than Michigan’s Moritz Wagner. Given how next year’s roster looks and the possible four first round picks in tow for next year’s draft, Ainge is also in a position to take a gamble here.
Besides the Celtics dealing Tatum, I don’t see much else that is totally off the table this summer. Does Ainge want to build a team that is payroll sustainable and can compete for the entire 2020s? Or will he jump at the chance to put a possible five-year dynasty together and go for broke? While evidence suggests that the former is more likely, we can’t rule a Leonard trade out simply because the Celtics are such an obvious good fit. The Spurs aren’t trading him to LA, mark that down now. Phoenix and Philly can both make competitive offers but still can’t touch the Celtics. I would love to see Ainge pull it off, for the record. Stand pat or go for a historically dominant team? That question will be answered this summer.