The Boston Celtics did not strike a deal with any of the league's 29 other teams in the hours leading up to Feb. 20’s trade deadline.
On the surface, this was odd for several reasons: Boston is set on a rebuild that could take a while. Their current roster and the various salaries that make up their cap sheet is a bit unconventional for the task. They're only about $1.56 million under the luxury tax (according to ShamSports.com), with several veterans on multi-year contracts who could be of greater use on a team interested in winning today.
Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace top that list. All three are attached to more money than Boston should be trying to pay. Thus, it'd appear the team's primary goal should have been acquiring value for these players, as they likely don't fit the team's long-term plan.
Wallace was likely the most difficult to trade because of his outlandish contract. No team will take it on without accepting at least one first-round draft pick in tow. That’s how toxic it is. However, if this were actually Boston's plan they would've done it by now. Instead, Wallace remains a likely candidate for the stretch provision; a buyout option allowing the Celtics to "stretch" his compensation over a longer period than two years.
Bass is a healthy, dependable forward who’s easily in the midst of his most successful season as a Celtic. He's more versatile with the ball than ever before, can defend multiple positions and still has one of the league's purest jump shots.
Green is in the same boat: a legitimate talent who'd better fit on a contending team as a third or fourth offensive option. He can bully players in the post, knock down threes and take almost any defender in the league one-on-one off the dribble.
The NBA's Buttoned-Down Market
Boston’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline ultimately wasn’t their "decision" so much as it was a realistic read on the market. The team's goals were strapped to conditions. In a Celtics utopia, Bass, Green and, especially, Wallace would all be wearing different jerseys right now. Their contracts would be someone else’s responsibility.
Back in the real world, Boston (or any team, hopefully) won't make a trade just to make a trade. Boston couldn't find what they believed to be equal or greater value in return for those guys, so they hung on with the hope that a deal between this summer and next February can be had. Instead of settling, they'll put off the hunt until later.
Also in the real world, a team that wants to make a trade usually needs a trading partner. It’s possible nobody wanted Green or Bass, but what’s more probable is nobody wanted Green or Bass at Boston’s asking price.
The Celtics have the right to slap a premium on their own players, and that's exactly what they did. Green and Bass aren’t suffocating their cap sheet, merely making it less comfortable. Therefore, the team isn’t in a position of necessity more so than a position of desire. They’d like Bass, Green and Wallace gone, but the universe won’t implode if they stay. (Another galaxy or two may collapse if Wallace is kept, but that's about it.)
And what might the Celtics have been looking for in any deal involving Bass and/or Green? The price could easily have been a first-round pick. And "right on" to Danny Ainge for trying to find a sucker. The Celtics are already under the luxury tax, so trading either for a lesser player on an expiring deal isn’t mandatory.
Both are quality contributors who could hold higher value as trade chips once their contracts are expiring. The mid-season trade of Courtney Lee gave Boston some breathing room with regards to the tax.
Joel Anthony is another player Boston would’ve loved to get rid of, but it’s against CBA rules for him to be dealt with another player in a deal, limiting most of the flexibility on that front. The Celtics will wait to deal him this summer.
The Developing Foundation
Don’t tell Ainge the two trades he once made to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were an overnight blessing, either. Boston spent years cultivating assets, looking for the right opportunity. Luck and timing were definitely a factor, but the primary element was Al Jefferson’s development into a possible All-Star and the 2007 draft’s No. 5 pick.
The construction of every team needs a foundation, and Boston wants a sturdy one. In addition to as many as 10 first-round picks until 2018, they plucked Jared Sullinger with the 21st overall selection in 2012, Avery Bradley with the 19th pick in 2010 and Kelly Olynyk with the 13th pick last year. These are the assets today, but they’re also foundational pieces in their early 20s who’re nowhere near their ceilings as NBA players.
Each has a useful skill that could become elite or already is. All have immense contractual value. (Even though Bradley’s up for an extension this summer and will have a solid portion of his value compromised with a raise in annual pay, he’s still only 23 years old and shows steady month-to-month improvement when healthy.)
These three aren’t “off the table”—no player not named LeBron James should be—but their fees on the trade market are rightfully higher than their present-day production suggests it should be. Unless Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony or another established star is in the conversation, these three aren't going anyway.
What about Rajon Rondo?
The matter of trading Rondo is succinct. Boston is adamant they never discussed him in a deal, and it makes sense that they wouldn’t. He’s a four-time All-Star in his prime, a true superstar in a league where no form of currency is more precious.
Ainge: "We were not trying to trade Rondo in any way, shape, or form. Most of the rumors out there were completely false."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) February 21, 2014
Trading him would make a sophisticated operation even more arduous. (Again, this doesn’t mean Rondo should be “off the table,” but it’s inconceivable another team values all its own best assets less than a 28-year-old point guard coming off ACL surgery.)
In the end, several factors led to Boston failing to make a deal, but to make a long story short: Nobody was selling what they wanted to buy.
No team would rise to their asking price and no deal was dazzling enough to make the future look any better than it already does.