Never underestimate general manager Danny Ainge. Never. Ever. He won't be lulled into a false sense of security because his Celtics are exceeding expectations. While we're all looking the other way, he'll strike.
That's exactly what he's done with Courtney Lee's contract, according to a report from ESPN's Marc Stein:
Trade call on Boston's looming acquisition of Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee, I'm told, is being scheduled for Monday. Deal is happening— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 5, 2014
Unloading Lee, who has two years worth $11-plus million remaining on his contract after this year, is no small feat. Bringing in Bayless also fills a hole at the point guard position, ultimately saving Boston money while setting the stage for more departures.
Crawford's Trade Value
Crawford has, for the most part, thrived under rookie head coach Brad Stevens, averaging 13.7 points and a career-high 5.7 assists per game.
In Rajon Rondo's absence, Crawford has been something of a surrogate point guard, a reformed chucker frequently tasked with running the offense in between inefficient relapses. But while his shot selection—much like milk within a day or two of its expiration date—remains questionable, this is still the best version of him we've ever seen.
Shouldering more responsibility has elevated his ceiling, even if only slightly. Stevens has given him an identity and the means to grow even further.
"He's done a good job," Stevens said, via USA Today's Sean Highkin. "Like anybody else, he has his moments of things he can improve on, but he's really done a good job."
Once on track to become a J.R. Smith-Nick Young amalgamation, Crawford is swiftly developing into a fertile combo guard capable of quarterbacking the offense of a team willing to endure pithy stints of quicksilver decision-making.
Those unaware of Crawford's erratic on-court past will see that as an insult, when it's really the ultimate form of praise.
Other teams have noticed his improvement, too. Before Boston set its sights on Bayless—or rather, pawning Lee off on the Memphis Grizzlies—Crawford commanded the Miami Heat's attention, according to the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence:
Miami is looking to deal for a young wing player who can score and take some of the load off Dwyane Wade. A few GMs have identified Boston’s Jordan Crawford as a player the Heat will go after in the coming days/weeks.
Not surprisingly, Miami's interest hasn't spearheaded serious negotiations. The Heat don't have much, if anything, in the way of tangible assets. They also don't have a first-round draft pick to trade until 2019.
ESPN report of Heat seeking trade for backcourt depth makes sense, but the greater issue is what Joel Anthony actually could/would fetch.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) December 6, 2013
Funny that we should even mention a first-rounder. One year ago, such an asking price would've seemed insane. But now, nearly halfway through 2013-14, Crawford has shown enough promise to warrant an actual return from an outfit—not Miami—with draft picks to spare.
Why Trade Crawford?
Boston tried to tank.
Yes, "tried." Past tense. But the Celtics, through no fault of their own, have failed.
The Eastern Conference is horrible. Worse than anyone expected. Trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for draft picks and fill-ins should've ensured the Celtics would lose in excess. Instead, it's left them within one game of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
That kind of failure incites one of two actions: 1) Ainge could attempt to reboot his tank job gone mediocre or 2) the Celtics could try for a playoff berth now.
No. 2 is the easiest play. Wait for Rondo to return, then embrace glorified mediocrity, keeping this roster intact. Simple. Easy. Safe.
But rebuilding isn't about playing it safe.
Boston, Crawford included, is better than expected. If the Celtics wish to remain in the hunt for a top-seven pick, dealing productive components like Crawford makes sense.
With Bayless in tow, they're no longer desperate for the playmaker Crawford's become. Not with Rondo still on the roster and angling for a comeback this season.
Beyond unofficially tanking, Crawford is playing himself out of Boston's offseason price range. He'll enter restricted free agency this summer, at which point he's bound to receive an offer more lucrative than the $3.2 million he's slated to make next season.
Aware that rebuilding doesn't allow for inexplicable expenditures, the Celtics aren't likely to meet Crawford's market value. As good as he's been, he's not someone they can build around.
If his departure is inevitable, the Celtics would be smart, and presumably inclined, to capitalize off it sooner rather than lose him for nothing later.
Someone else will become available in Boston, but who?
Conventional wisdom suggests it will be Crawford, who's generated interest and is now expendable, for lack of a better word. But there are other ways the Celtics can exercise their new flexibility at point guard.
For starters, they could stand pat, fancying themselves legitimate Eastern Conference threats. Lee was averaging under 17 minutes per game and wasn't an integral part of their system anyway, so swapping him for a reserve like Bayless makes them deeper and therefore, more dangerous in a conference where watchable basketball is mythical.
Next to Avery Bradley and Rondo, Crawford and Bayless make for a dynamic backcourt rotation. We also must remember Rondo won't be playing extensively upon return, rendering additional weapons necessary regardless of Boston's collective state.
"I’m not coming back playing 38 minutes a night," Rondo said, per the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett. "I will have an impact on the game, but not like I used to have when I first come back."
Let's not ignore the elephant in Boston's locker room either: Rondo's future.
There are a number of sticking points in any potential Rondo deal, the most important of which is clearing Boston's books of any lengthy pacts. Until recently, Lee was one of those long-term contracts. With him out of the picture, the Celtics can essentially force Gerald Wallace's albatross deal upon any interested team.
Bayless also makes it so Boston can accept any number of different packages. If the Celtics elect to retain Crawford in any deal, it negates the need (not preference) for them to land another point guard in return.
What is the Celtics' next play after acquiring Bayless?
That's getting ahead of our ourselves while also ignoring the obvious: Bayless' arrival could have no impact on Crawford's immediate future. It could strictly be a salary dump, designed to maximize Boston's financial tensility.
More likely, it's some combination of both: an attempt from the Celtics to shed salary while positioning themselves for another, more tank-friendly move.
"I definitely want to be here," Crawford said of remaining in Boston, via Highkin. "But it's the NBA. You never know what's going to happen."
If the Celtics' primary goal is to continue their rebuild, we have some idea of what's going to happen.
Someone else will be moved, and with Bayless in green and Rondo on track to return this season, that someone could be Crawford.