The 2022 Boston Celtics are in a familiar position. They find themselves once again underachieving, currently teetering as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. Blessed with plenty of talent, frustrated fans have seen this movie before. They aren’t fighting for the No. 1 seed, nor are they looking at a lottery pick in next year’s draft. Instead they find themselves once again stuck in the middle, a place referred to by many as NBA purgatory. The team now faces a critical part of their season, their process, and their future at the February 10th, NBA trade deadline.
What makes matters more interesting for the franchise, is they have a first timer making the decisions. Brad Stevens, formerly the head coach, is now president of basketball operations. Having coached the team since 2013, Stevens is more familiar with his roster than just about anyone. That’s the good news. The bad? He’s never been in the position of having to make potentially season defining, and perhaps even franchise altering decisions. Which leads us to this Thursday at 3:00 p.m. when teams must have all trades filed to the league office.
Stevens and Celtics ownership face serious questions in need of answers as they chase banner No. 18. Do they break up the team’s core and find another path towards a championship? Do they decide to stand pat and just hope it’s enough? Or do they tweak around the edges hoping that a little maneuver here, and a little there, will be enough to get them to the promise land? The answer is not an easy one, and not an envious position for the franchise. But the conclusion that ultimately needs to be reached is that now is the time. With two legitimate stars in the fold, as they say at the poker table, put the rest of your chips in the middle.
For years now Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck has been very outspoken and brutally honest, saying his only goal is capturing the team’s first championship since 2008. To get there, he’s said on numerous occasions he would do just about anything, including going above the league’s luxury tax. This happens when a team exceeds the salary cap with their payroll. Grousbeck has made it abundantly clear for years now he would, and that it won’t get in the way. So the question becomes, is this finally the year?
For most of the season the Celtics have played below average basketball, hovering under the .500 mark, while depressing the fanbase and raising serious questions about the construction of the roster. However in recent weeks, there have been signs the team has turned a corner. Head Coach Ime Udoka seems to finally have gotten his team to buy in, and the results have been obvious. Currently in the midst of a six game winning streak, the Celtics are playing better basketball. There appears to be more urgency to share the ball, lock down defensively, play together, and put teams away in the fourth quarter. Everything the team was doing poorly up until the beginning of January.Grousbeck and Stevens must now decide if this current group is worth investing in, and adding too, before Thursday. As currently constituted, this roster is not championship caliber. But with stars Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way, the right moves around them could easily put them in that conversation.
Another factor this season, is that the Eastern Conference does not have a powerhouse team. Pre-season favorites the Brooklyn Nets, have had all kinds of issues and are seriously struggling to find an identity. Last season’s Champion the Milwaukee Bucks, aren’t dominating the way they were last year. Philadelphia, Miami, and Chicago all are legitimate playoff teams, but not world beaters. Outside of Golden State and Phoenix in the West, there isn’t a team you look at right now and say, “There is no chance Boston can beat them.” The window with Tatum and Brown won’t be open forever. If you want to take a shot before it closes, take it when the opportunity presents itself.
So what moves must be made? Outside of the J’s, no one should be untouchable. The team’s three most tradeable assets are Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroeder, and Robert Williams. Smart, the most tenured Celtic, has been a lighting rod of controversy during his time in Boston. Many believe that if the Celtics want to take the next step, Smart must go. He takes bad shots in the clutch, he criticizes the stars for selfish play, and has had anger issues off the floor. But he is also the heartbeat of the team. Regardless of his shot making abilities, he’s the player you want on the court at the end of the game. He makes the play no one else wants to make. Dives for that ball no one else will. Guards the opponents’ best player with the game on the line. In the offseason, he signed a 4-year/$77 million dollar contract which in NBA terms, is a very tradeable deal. Other teams are not only going to be looking for his skills, but by trading for him, you have him locked up for three more seasons.
Schroeder is also a piece rumored to be moved by Thursday’s deadline. The guard has been perhaps the most valued bench piece, scoring at will when he’s on. He’s on a one-year/$5.9 million dollar deal. By moving him, it would allow the team to get under the luxury tax. But by trading him and not getting value in return, you also risk sending a message to this year’s team. You’re not worth it.
Williams is arguably the team’s most talented player outside of Tatum and Brown. At just 24-years-old, the 6’ 8’’ center is a valuable piece that in the right package could bring back that third star Boston has long coveted. Rumors swirling in recent weeks have suggested the team isn’t willing to move him. With his inability to stay on the court, there is zero reason Williams shouldn’t be included if a deal to land an all star to pair with Tatum and Brown is made available.
The remainder of the Celtics roster includes no untradeable players. Veterans like Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Enes Freedom, inconsistent forward Grant Williams, second year players Aaron Nesmith and Peyton Pritchard, and underachieving first round draft choice Romeo Langford all need to be put on the table.
Who’s the target? Minor moves such as last year’s deadline acquisition Evan Fournier were nice. But nice doesn’t help hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. In an ideal world, the team makes a move for a superstar like Damien Lillard. He has been rumored to be available for the right price for quite some time. However, acquiring him would require giving up Tatum or Brown which the Celtics insist isn’t happening. So who then?
Here are three players that make sense. All three are likely on the trading block, and each could be brought in without giving up Tatum or Brown if you get creative.
1. Pistons forward Jerami Grant. One of the NBA’s rising stars, Grant is a lethal scorer who is young and athletic, and can defend at an elite level. Putting him on the floor with Tatum, Brown and Time Lord would be scary for opponents.
2. Hawks Forward John Collins. Collins is one of the league’s best three-point shooting bigs, is under 25, is one of the most under-appreciated talents in the league, and is locked up for the next five years.
3. Rockets guard/forward Eric Gordon. The Celtics need an elite shooter and more toughness. Gordon brings both. He shoots a ridiculous 46% from three, brings grit on both ends of the court, and is a legitimate playmaker. A chiseled veteran who knows how to win, he’d be a perfect fit on this roster.
If Grousbeck and Stevens want to send shockwaves through the NBA, they will be in on a superstar like Lillard, but don’t hold your breath. That deal would require giving up Brown, and that’s not happening. So get a Grant, Collins, or Gordon, and give this team a real shot at an NBA Finals. Simply trimming around the edges or doing nothing before Thursday, will leave Celtics fans wondering if banner No. 18 is nothing but a pipe dream.