Rebuilding is often accomplished through a variety of creative measures, but Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge kept it very simple with his latest deal.
According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Celtics have agreed to trade swingman Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies for combo guard Jerryd Bayless. The deal isn't official and not all the parts are finalized yet, but it sounds like it will come soon enough:
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
Lee, 28, has been enjoying the best offensive season of his six-year career, posting career highs in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, points per 36 minutes and PER.
Bayless, 25, has done almost the exact opposite for the perimeter scoring-starved Grizzlies, shooting just 37.7 percent from the field through 31 games.
From a pure talent and production standpoint, this is a downgrade for the Celtics, even when you factor in the strong possibility that both players are experiencing outlier seasons. Lee is a more versatile and well-rounded player than Bayless is, and his 3-and-D skills on the wing are harder to find on the open market than those of a score-first combo guard.
In reality, though, that likely matters very little to Ainge and the Celtics at this point. The motivations behind this deal were clear, and they had almost nothing to do with the talent being returned.
Ainge recently shed some light on his trading mentality to Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com. Although his quote was in regard to the Omer Asik rumors, it applies to this deal as well:
We’re just opportunistic. When you read our name out there, sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. The reports are embellished for sure right now, but we are having discussions and seeing what opportunities there are out there.
This was, for all intents and purposes, a very opportunistic salary dump. It was well known that Memphis was desperate for wing talent because of injuries and a playoff push, and the Celtics jumped on the chance to sell high on Lee.
Although Lee's contract has two years and $11 million total remaining, the value of the deal is in the eye of the beholder.
Through the lens of Ainge, Lee's deal needed to come off the books. Paying a 28-year-old role player with a limited ceiling over $5 million a season isn't all that enticing during a rebuilding period, particularly if that contract is the difference between being able to offer a max contract in free agency or not.
Even if you disregard free agency, cap space can be used in all sorts of ways by a rebuilding team. The Utah Jazz, for example, were able to earn two unprotected future first-round picks from the Golden State Warriors just for having the ability to take on a few bad expiring deals.
The cap space Lee's deal was set to occupy for the next two seasons wasn't just about the money, it was also about the potential for lost opportunities in trades elsewhere. Even if nothing bigger materializes, Lee is exactly the type of player a little over $5 million a year will get you in free agency.
At least from an asset standpoint, the Celtics stand to lose very little by trading Lee and his salary. Although it's the future years that made his contract unattractive to the Celtics, moving him this season will help as well.
Before this trade, Boston was dangerously close to the luxury-tax line, coming within $381,000 of being a tax-paying team. That's not the kind of financial flexibility a rebuilding team needs.
Depending on the salary of the other player the Grizzlies include (the Grizzlies need to send at least an additional $422,500 in salary to make this work), moving Lee will help the Celtics shed roughly $1.5 million in salary, which will keep them safely away from the tax. The Celtics should also gain a small trade exception, which could be valuable at some point next season.
Given the drastic differences in direction for the two teams, it makes sense that Lee's contract can be simultaneously viewed as being damaging and fair.
For Memphis, Lee fills a big hole on the wing with Quincy Pondexter out for the season and Tayshaun Prince deteriorating. Surprisingly enough, the size and length of his deal is actually beneficial as well.
That's primarily because Memphis wouldn't have had the means to acquire a player of Lee's caliber in free agency next year since it will almost certainly be over the cap. All the things that made Lee's deal poisonous to Boston made him appetizing for Memphis.
On the other side, the same applies for Jerryd Bayless. The Grizzlies had no guarantee they could retain Bayless, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The prospect of losing something for absolutely nothing when you're a contending team is a scary one.
But when you're a rebuilding team? Losing long-term salary and games is what it's all about. With that in mind, it's hard to say that Bayless fits better with Memphis' goals this season than Boston's.
Temporary talent downgrades like these, even minor ones, are a necessary evil for the Celtics. Financial flexibility is king, and Ainge created a lot of that with this deal without having to forfeit any other assets. This is a loss on the court but a victory in the books, and it's easy to understand why the latter should take precedent for Boston.