The next time Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge says that no trades are imminent, you're better off not believing him.
That's not because Ainge is a dishonest guy, but rather because no one has been more active on the trade market than he has over the past six months. Trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets broke up the franchise's core, but Ainge continued the teardown process by making follow-up trades well in advance of the deadline, which is a rarity in the NBA.
There's been no hesitation to do so, either. Both Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford were having career years for the Celtics in multiple statistical categories, and now both players are in different uniforms.
Boston's rebuilding process is one that lacks any subtlety. The Celtics want to be bad, and Ainge wants to acquire as many draft picks as he can for the future. Boston has flirted with a playoff spot for much of the season, but trading one of your most productive players for Joel Anthony is a fine way to try to submarine that effort.
Ainge has done a lot in that regard, but it still might not be enough. Brad Stevens has worked miracles with the roster he's been given, and help is on the way with Rajon Rondo's return. The Celtics aren't going to take the world by storm, but they could be relatively competent for the rest of the year. In the Eastern Conference, that's enough.
Will Ainge continue to sell off parts in the hopes that it improves the draft odds this year and the future picture? What's the next step in the rebuilding process? Let's explore.
Not Starved for Space Quite Yet
Trading Jordan Crawford for draft picks signaled two things.
The first thing is that Ainge will continue to stockpile picks whenever he can. That much we already knew.
But the second thing Ainge did was add salary onto next year's payroll in exchange for those assets. While all the attention and focus was on Boston shedding the burdensome contracts of guys like Gerald Wallace, Ainge went the opposite route.
And it makes sense. If the Celtics aren't ready to contend right away and clear space in order to pay premium dollar for a free agent this offseason, why not put the limited amount of cap space they have next season to good use?
After all, it's not until the 2015 offseason when Rondo's salary will be coming off the books and Boston will have big cash to spend. With guys like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and many other high-level players possibly hitting the market then, it makes sense to wait and pair Rondo up with a star. If Rondo is already out of the picture, Boston should have the space to sign two max players in free agency at that juncture.
That essentially means Boston probably won't add any player with a salary beyond 2014-15, but it can load on guys who expire next year who teams are desperate to dump.
If the New York Knicks or Sacramento Kings, for example, wanted to clear up cap space for this offseason, the Celtics could use Kris Humphries' expiring contract worth $12 million to help them do that, so long as there were picks being sent as compensation.
Point being, Boston is in the position to use its cap space next year not to sign its own free agents, but rather to be a salary-dump destination and get rewarded with picks. It's like what the Utah Jazz did for the Golden State Warriors this offseason in the three-team deal with the Denver Nuggets that landed the Warriors Andre Iguodala (and the Jazz two unprotected future first-round picks).
The Next Candidate
Humphries feels like the most logical candidate to be dealt next, even if there doesn't seem to be a lot of teams looking to dump contracts to clear space for this offseason. There's always the chance that those teams would rather do such a deal in the offseason instead of now, anyway.
So if Humphries isn't next, who is?
The price on Rondo will likely be outrageously high, as it should be. Here's what Ainge told Baxter Holmes of the The Boston Globe earlier this year:
Ainge, known for demanding a steep price in any transaction, is adamant in his view that Rondo is the “centerpiece of our future,” a point he repeated Monday.
“Guys that are starting All-Star players just don’t come around,” said Ainge.
“The special players, the transcendent players in our league, are very difficult to find and acquire. We believe Rondo is one of those guys. He’s a very special player. We value him a great deal.”
Of course, it's also important to remember that Rondo's value to other teams isn't anywhere near its peak since he's still recovering from ACL surgery. If Stevens and Rondo can make it work, and there's been no indication that they can't, it's worthwhile for Ainge to give it a shot and be patient here unless he's bowled over by an incredible offer.
Brandon Bass, meanwhile, seems to fit in the two-year window Boston appears to be operating in financially. He should have more trade value at next year's deadline as a useful player on an expiring deal.
The Celtics would obviously love to deal Gerald Wallace, but he has one of the most unmovable contracts in the entire league. Unless he's attached to Rondo, it's hard to see him being dealt this year.
It would seem that Avery Bradley would be safe, as he's young enough to be retained as a restricted free agent this offseason. He's a perfect fit for the type of defense Stevens wants his teams to play, and at some point, Ainge has to throw Stevens a bone and let him work and mold at least one or two talented young players.
The other young guys on the roster (Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey) are all likely safe, as their contracts are very reasonable. Unless Ainge can bring back more talented rookie-scale players in return, they're likely not going anywhere.
That leaves one very interesting trade candidate out there, and it's a little surprising his name hasn't been mentioned more.
The Case for Moving Green
Maybe there will be some smaller moves in between, but the next big move for the Boston Celtics might be trading Jeff Green.
It just doesn't appear that Green fits in with a rebuilding process. He's not ancient at 27 years old by any means, but it's very possible he's reached or is at least approaching his peak as a player.
More importantly, there's the issue of his salary. Green will make $9.4 million and have a player option for the same amount in the 2015-16 season.
Here's the gamble for Boston: If Green declines his player option in order to secure a long-term deal, there's no harm in keeping him. The Celtics will have plenty of cap space to add pieces in that case.
But if Green decides to opt in and earn his $9.4 million, that might be a serious thorn in Ainge's side when he'll likely want all the cap space he can get.
Green is a talented and relatively versatile player, but he hasn't been able to piece together too many consistent seasons. His career PER of 13.2 is pretty underwhelming, and he leaves a lot to be desired defensively. He's a bit overpaid right now, and it's hard to see him being a part of Boston's core five years down the line.
There's no rush to trade Green, but it would be awfully hard to pass up a future first-round pick in exchange. Whether a team is willing to offer that much without significant restrictions on the pick remains to be seen, but Green is a player Ainge is almost certainly going to shop at some point.
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