The Boston Celtics continue to meander through their season, exploring new and exciting ways to question reality. Just as soon as I’ve convinced myself the Celtics just aren’t that good of a team, they’ll rip off a massive win streak. Feeling good about the Celtics’ trajectory? That means it’s time for a game when everyone plays defense like they are a Red Wedding Stark. Game to game performance has taken on the the identity of a drunk ophthalmologist slurring “one or two?” and pivoting between the “suck” and “good” lenses.
The problem of identifying the true persona of the Jekyll and Hyde Celtics even trickles down to the statistics, where good signs and bad signs remain gridlocked. Even after their latest rash of bad road losses to sub .500 teams, the Celtics remain 2nd in the NBA in net rating. That said, you pull out some of the Celtics big blowouts and it’s a jenga tower that comes undone. A thin front court might have muted some of the Celtics success, but all teams face injuries and the “Hospital Celtics” of last year did some of their heaviest winning when players went out. It’s a season where neither a first round exit or Finals appearance will surprise anyone. What is certain is that this is not the start to the season Celtics fans were looking for.
Instead of ramming my head against the wall trying to differentiate what might happen game to game with the Celtics, I thought this might be an opportunity to take a step back and take a look at the big picture of the team moving forward, which will hopefully make me want to lobotomize myself less. Hopefully.
Anthony Davis and Pick Timing
Looming over the Celtics season is an escalating Anthony Davis situation, in which the Celtics, Lakers, and other teams with available asset capital will square off should the Pelicans produce another disappointing season. Dell Demps will likely be fired if the Pelicans shift into rebuilding mode again, so he has little incentive to move Davis, but ownership may force his hand if they see the writing on the wall. As has been well documented here, the Celtics can’t acquire The Brow this year due to a Rose Rule overlap between Irving and Davis. This means the earliest the Celtics could acquire him is after Irving signs a new deal following the lift of the moratorium on NBA business.
A large portion of any assets the Celtics would primarily come from the vast amount of draft capital they have acquired in the coming draft. Namely, a top-1 protected pick from the Kings, a top-8 protected pick from the Grizzlies, and a lottery protected pick from the Clippers, in addition to the Celtics own pick. This means that the Celtics could very well be selecting four times in the first round of this year’s NBA draft. That’s not ideal if you are someone who thinks the Celtics need to make a move for Anthony Davis.
Because the NBA draft happens before free agency, the Celtics are going to have hope that some of these picks end up rolling over to future years. Otherwise, the Celtics will be under a very tight window come Draft Night if they want to make a deal for Anthony Davis. Should all the picks convey this year, the Celtics will suddenly have nothing but their own picks in the asset chest. Draft picks have a sort of “new car” scenario, where the second the picks are used on an actual player, they lose a lot of their value. Unless the Celtics are talking to the Pelicans ahead of time and agreeing to terms on a deal that wouldn’t be finalized until after free agency, the Celtics will be forced to use their picks on whichever player they think is best instead of what the Pelicans want.
Now that that’s not a bad thing at all in most situations, but strictly through the lens of acquiring Anthony Davis, it means that the Celtics will really only get one crack at trading for him when all of their assets are at peak value. The exception to this is the Grizzlies pick, which will roll over with lighter protections to next year should it fall into the top of the draft. The Kings and Clippers picks will be conveying in some way or another, with the Clippers pick possibly becoming two seconds and the Kings pick (in a worst case scenario of awful lottery luck) maybe becoming the Sixers pick.
Depending on how the rest of the season plays out for the surprising Kings and Clippers, it’s very possible that the Memphis pick would be the crown jewel of an Anthony Davis trade that doesn’t include Jayson Tatum. While it’s still possible the Celtics could trade for Davis after the draft, it would meant that there was a miscalculation by the Pelicans, because they would be able to get more of exactly what they want from the Celtics by agreeing to the deal the night of the draft and having the Celtics select the players they want.
One way or another, the Anthony Davis trade scenarios highlight one very important fact. The age of the Celtics draft pick cabinet being well stocked is about to come to a screeching halt. The Celtics will have all of their own picks besides maybe their second rounder this year, going forward, but you’d hope that the Celtics aren’t bad enough for those picks to be valuable. This means that there is going to be limited flexibility going forward compared to previous years. That’s notable because…
If the Celtics Keep Their Draft Picks, the Roster Crunch Will Only Get Worse. Trade Out?
Many Celtics fans have been frustrated by the lack of minutes for tantalizing rookie Robert Williams this year. Well, the Celtics may be heading towards a timeline where that is happening in three separate instances on a night to night basis next year. Should the Celtics keep all of their picks, there will be high imperative for the Celtics to select stashable European players or simply have a roster where their rookies get no minutes on a healthy roster.
Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Daniel Theis are all rotation pieces who will have some form of free agency this off season. Irving and Horford, will likely be back barring a total catastrophe, whereas Baynes has a player option and there is no team control of his situation. Many Celtics fans would like to see Morris return to the team, but he’s likely played himself out of the Celtics tax-induced cap range. Theis will be a restricted free agent, but has been plagued by an up-and-down season that has showcased his weaknesses at times.
Accounting for the possible open roster spots of Jabari Bird and Brad Wanamaker, the Celtics will likely have between six and four open roster spots for their first round draft picks and any veteran players signed with exceptions or minimum contracts. Unlike the Celtics draft in 2016, they would actually have the requisite roster spots to fit all the picks onto the team. However, besides Guerschon Yabusele and possibly Semi Ojeleye, all the rest of the players on the rosters are starters or firm rotation players, meaning that an uninjured Celtics squad is probable really only clearing one to two rotation spots. Morris and Rozier both departing might clear two spots, but given the Celtics already crammed rotation, any veteran would be brought in to play and The Timelord would get more PT. It’s hard for me to see more than one of the rookies getting any playing time next year if things stand pat.
That’s fine of course, as there are lots of rookies who don’t get any playing time, but it’s another thing to have a situation where you might have a late lottery pick on the bench for most of the year. Not playing guys with that kind of pedigree might chafe at agents, not to mention it’s a sizable amount of money for a tax-paying team to pay a guy who sits. If Danny Ainge is forced to make these selections, it only makes sense that he might look to stash a player or make a consolidation deal.
Or, something I might consider if I were Ainge…trading back or trading out. For whatever reason teams seem to not value picks in the distant future highly, probably because there is no way of knowing what that pick will look like. That said, it’s also created a sort of a market inefficiency, where trying to get distant future picks is probably your best bet for yielding a big return. The Celtics know this first hand, as the Jeff Green to Memphis deal was made at a time when the Grizzlies probably believed they were parting with a low-to-mid 20’s pick. Similarly, it looks like the Celtics might have a shot at turning two high seconds into a mid first round pick because of a similar move for the Clippers pick.
If I were the Celtics, a team that expects (please god) to be a contender in the next three years, making trades to roll assets back and replenish the cupboard a bit would make a lot of sense, especially when it comes to spreading out the contracts of their young players and making sure you have quality rookie scale contributors in the coming years. It would solve a lot of problems for the Celtics if they could find a deal with upside you need to wait on, such as getting a 2023 or 2024 first rounder from some team, as the Celtics don’t need any help filling out the back of their rotation, at least for now.