It is tough to call a sub-.500 team barely holding onto a playoff berth in the dismal Eastern Conference a “feel-good story,” but that is exactly what the Boston Celtics were throughout the first third of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Unfortunately, the shine has worn off somewhat with a recent three-game losing streak, and the team is now in the position where they need to seriously consider whether or not to make a move prior to the fast-approaching February trade deadline.
The holiday season is often when teams reveal their true identities, as hot starts and luck fizzle out while the playoff picture begins to come into clearer focus.
Per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, the C’s are still in talks with the Houston Rockets to potentially acquire Omer Asik, but given the amount of assets and unwanted contracts Boston possesses they could do a lot more than just deal for a disgruntled 7-footer.
The Celtics are quite clearly in the awkward middle stage of a rebuild and while they are set up for the future better than many other teams—thanks to the three first-round draft picks they are owed from the Brooklyn Nets—they are currently stuck in the grey area between bottoming-out and attempting to make some sort of meaningful playoff run.
In order to properly assess whether making a pre-deadline deal is the right course of action for Boston, we really need to take into account the team’s current situation, their goals going forward and what kind of moves they could realistically make.
So let’s get started.
At 12-17, Boston is tied with the Chicago Bulls for the eighth-best record in the comically weak Eastern Conference, a mark that would have them 13th in the West.
If the New York teams can’t get it together, it is not out of question that Boston could win the Atlantic and lay claim to the fourth Atlantic, though it is unlikely it could make any kind of noise in the postseason.
Boston’s minus-1.9 point differential is currently the lowest of any team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and the C’s rank just 24th in points per game at 95.0.
Rookie head coach Brad Stevens has been a revelation, engineering a terrific defense that is fifth in points allowed at 96.9, and his team both does a great job of running shooters off the three-point line and strongly contesting mid-range jumpers.
Still, his club is at a talent disadvantage almost every time it steps on the court.
The success of Jordan Crawford at point guard and the improvements made by Jared Sullinger have helped, but lottery pick Kelly Olynyk is not playing well on either end of the floor, and Jeff Green has not exactly turned heads as Boston’s first option offensively.
Stevens is still running a very deep rotation, often giving 11 guys meaningful minutes, but that is not a recipe for success in the playoffs.
Of course, the big unknown for Boston is the return of Rajon Rondo, but the mercurial star has not exactly been forthcoming with information about when he’ll suit up.
According to The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn, Rondo still will not commit to a date and recently said he may not be back until after January.
The return of Rondo would give the C’s their best player, but it could also hurt the team in the short term as Stevens has to tweak the rotation while he waits for Rondo to reacclimate himself to the speed and pounding of live NBA play.
Additionally, Boston has never been a particularly good offensive team with Rondo, and that likely won’t be the case after having replaced two Hall-of-Fame forwards with Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.
The Celtics are currently 23rdin offensive efficiency at 99.4, but were just 24th in 2011-12 (98.9) and 17th in 2010-11 (104), Rondo’s last two mostly healthy campaigns.
And as we’ve all learned from players like Derrick Rose, coming back from an ACL injury is rarely simple and straightforward.
So now that we have an idea of where the Celtics stand, let’s look at the two kinds of moves they could make: moves to make them better in the short term or moves to make them worse while looking towards the 2014 lottery and the future.
Conventional wisdom is that this is not the route in which the Celtics are willing to go. Rather, the team seems far more likely to deal rotation pieces for future assets instead of assets for a proven player.
Still, going for an immediate remedy is not inconceivable.
But that is far from a logical move. Gasol is in the last year of his deal, could bolt in the offseason and would just serve to take away minutes from the improving Sullinger and the developing Olynyk. Even with Gasol, the C’s would not be a title team, and they would likely have to offer at least one of their prized first-round picks to pry him away from L.A.
Another option would be Thaddeus Young. Although CSN Philly’s Dei Lynam reports that Young has denied requesting a trade, the versatile forward does not seem to fit with the Philadelphia 76ers' plan of a grand rebuilding project.
He is still just 25 years old and having a career season scoring the ball and shooting from deep, so the Celtics would certainly need to give up some picks to acquire him.
Unfortunately, Young would create somewhat of a logjam at the 3 and 4 spots. He may be an improvement over Green, but the C’s would have made a significant financial commitment to the former Thunder forward, and it is unlikely Philly is willing to take on long-term salary to get rid of Young.
It’s a better option than Gasol, but dealing for Young does not make much sense.
There are definitely other options out there besides Young and Gasol, but the reality is that making a short-term move aimed at improving their 2013-14 win total is not the way to go for the Celtics.
The organization probably feels the same way.
If the C’s do end up making a deal it would make far more sense for them to free up some cap space and send one of the many decent, but not exceptional, role players out of Beantown.
Players like Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Kris Humphries are all having solid 2013-14 campaigns, but it’s not as if any of them are going to be Celtics five years from now.
If Boston can find a contender in need of one more rotation piece and who is willing to take on the rest of their contracts, the C’s would be foolish not to pursue a deal.
A package of Bass, Lee and a protected future first-rounder wasn’t enough to get Asik, per Yahoo! Sports’ Mark Evans, but it was the exact kind of offer the C’s should be making since it would have helped clear the cap sheet going forward.
Dealing Gerald Wallace is obviously ideal, but the market for a 31-year-old player averaging 4.3 points and owed $30 million is surprisingly scarce, and it may be impossible for the team to trade “Crash” until his contract is closer to expiring.
There were rumors in November that Boston would’ve been willing to take on Amar’e Stoudemire’s cumbersome contract in exchange for Wallace and Lee, per CBS Sports’ Matt Moore, but nothing concrete ever materialized.
A deal like that would hurt Boston in the short term. Still, there are a couple of positives from such a move: It would give the Celtics not only a better selection for the loaded 2014 draft but also clear up cap space for the 2015 offseason.
Obviously the biggest move the Celts could make to get worse in the short-term would be dealing Rondo, but it is difficult to gauge his value since he has not played a single minute of basketball this season.
Rondo is too good of a player to for Boston to accept an underwhelming offer to acquire the point guard. And dealing him would significantly lengthen the C’s rebuild.
Acquiring Brandon Jennings, a first-rounder and an expiring contract from the Detroit Pistons is not exactly four quarters on the dollar for a player who averaged 17.3 points, 6.7 boards and 11.9 assists on 46.8 percent shooting in the 2012 playoffs.
He does turn 28 years old in February, but Rondo is still young enough that he could be part of the next era of Boston basketball if the franchise can surround him with enough talent over the next few seasons.
Unless a Rondo deal either gets Boston a blue-chip prospect or allows the team to send out Wallace’s contract while acquiring a slew of picks, it is simply not the right move at this time.
At this point, going for a home run deal unless it is clearly in the Celtics’ favor does not make sense.
If the team can package some of their young pieces and assets into a player like Kevin Love that is one thing, but there is little chance that ends up happening in 2013-14.
The best move for Boston given its current circumstances would be to deal some rotation players for future assets and accept its fate as a lottery team this season.
Dealing Bass, Wallace, Lee or Humphries will certainly lower the team’s win total for this year, but it is the most logical move, especially if the Celtics can get another young player or a draft pick as a result.
The C’s may be out of the running for Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, but losing a few more games this year could be the difference between nabbing Rodney Hood and ending up with Doug McDermott.
If the team stands pat and Rondo returns to play 30-plus games this season they likely won’t end up with a top 10 selection in this draft, so making a deal to weaken the current roster is the best way to ensure themselves a quality pick.
With all of their mid-level contracts, Boston could also serve as a facilitator in a more complex three-team trade that could get them another asset.
The Celtics are by no means under a mandate to win now, and making a trade at or before the deadline that ships one (or two or three) of their veterans to a contender in need of added depth could allow them to get better positioning in the draft while clearing up cap space for the monster 2015 free-agent class.