I didn’t think I’d get to write much about the Boston Celtics this year, because I wasn’t sure if there’d be any interesting news to report. After all, since they traded away the rest of their stars, the only time they really make news is on draft day. Not so. Boston has been wheeling and dealing more than any other team this season, selling off many key pieces in an effort to get younger and stockpile draft picks. And as they come upon the halfway point of the season, I have a feeling the deals aren’t done yet.
In their most high-profile move of the season, the Celtics sent star point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for forward Jae Crowder, center Brandan Wright, and guard Jameer Nelson, along with a conditional first-round pick in the 2015 draft and a conditional second-rounder in the 2016 draft. As much as it hurts to get rid of a player of Rondo’s caliber, I understand why Boston made the trade. The Celtics’ rebuild is going to take a while. Probably around 3-4 years. By the time the team was relevant again, Rondo would probably be on the downside of his career. In addition, to keep him they would likely have had to sign him to a massive, long-term contract that would have severely limited their salary cap space, and thus their ability to sign free agents. I was also never a huge fan of Rondo, because he did not always seem like the best teammate or leader. I was afraid he would become a clubhouse cancer. He now gets to play for a contender with a chance to win another title, as he did with Boston in 2008.
But the Celtics didn’t even come close to stopping there. Here’s a recap of their other trades:
- Three weeks after trading Rondo, they shipped Wright to the Phoenix Suns for a first-round pick. A little surprising, given that he’d been a solid young bench player for the Mavs, and I thought he might fit into the long-term plan.
- Then they sent leading scorer Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies for veteran forward Tayshaun Prince and a first-round pick. The Celtics also acquired underachieving point guard Austin Rivers from the New Orleans Pelicans in the trade.
- Boston quickly flipped Rivers to the LA Clippers (where his father Doc, the former Celtic head coach, now holds the same position) for a second-round pick, center Shavlik Randolph (who they had waived earlier in the season), and guard Chris Douglas-Roberts (who they waived after acquiring him).
- In the midst of all that, they traded Jameer Nelson (who was shooting an awful .250 in six games with the team) to the Denver Nuggets for forward Nate Robinson, who they immediately bought out of his contract, allowing him to become a free agent.
Whew! Still with me? Good. Let’s take a look at what the Celtics look like now. Here’s their depth chart to keep it all straight.
Let’s start with the starters. Evan Turner has chipped in decent minutes for the Celtics this year, and his shooting percentages on twos and threes are higher than his career averages this year. I doubt he’s part of the team’s future, but he’s a good holdover player until they get someone better. Jared Sullinger is now the leading scorer at 14.0 points per game and has pulled down 8.1 rebounds a game. Overlooked by many in his draft year because of back problems, I think he can develop into a good player, but he is a bit undersized for his position at 6’9’’. It will be interesting to see how the team uses him in the future. Avery Bradley is one player I hope we keep long-term. Always known for playing tough defense, he has found his shooting stroke the last two years and is now capable of contributing on both ends. He’s the sort of scrappy, hard-working player who could be a veteran leader once the team gets good again, as he’s only 24.
Looking into the second-stringers, there are reasons for optimism. Marcus Smart is the point guard of the future and has thankfully stayed out of trouble off the court. I’m cautiously optimistic that he could become a star. Gerald Wallace and Brandon Bass probably should be unloaded for future draft picks, though Bass is a good locker-room leader and could mentor some of the youngsters. I’m also not sure how much value Wallace could really fetch in a trade. I’m a little puzzled as to why the Celtics are giving minutes to Thornton and Wallace, whose best days appear to be behind them, instead of James Young, who may very well factor into future plans. I understand not wanting to heap too much responsibility on a rookie, but at least give him some playing time off the bench so he can learn. Probably the backup player I’m most excited about, though, is Kelly Olynyk. I attended a game in Atlanta when the Celtics came to town, and Olynyk was flying around the court, snagging rebounds and driving to the basket with 100% effort. That kind of intensity will serve him well as he develops his game, and I can easily see him being our center of the future. Advanced stats agree with this assessment, and show a lot of potential in Sullinger too.
Okay, now let’s take a look at another chart, which shows the draft picks the C’s have accumulated in the past year or so.
This is a complex chart that makes a simple point: Boston is loaded with draft picks. They also have around $32.9M in salary cap space after dumping a lot of big contracts, a number that will only go up in future years as almost no one is signed to a long-term deal. I have a feeling general manager Danny Ainge is going to pursue a twofold strategy: get some good young talent through the draft, then acquire a star player as the crown jewel of a contending team. The summer of 2016 is set to be a banner year in free agency, with Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Mike Conley, Joakim Noah, and other big names on the market, with several more as restricted free agents. If the Celts can’t sign them (and they probably can’t) they can always package some of the young talent they draft along with their remaining picks to trade for a star when the time is right. This is the strategy that netted them Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, which produced a title in 2008 and near misses in 2009 and 2010.
So while the product on the court isn’t so great right now (though amazingly only 2 games out of a playoff spot in the putrid Eastern Conference), the future is bright in Boston. As long as the team doesn’t accidentally qualify for the playoffs (and thus lower the value of their own draft picks), they should be able to lay the foundation for Banner 18 and beyond.