The Boston Celtics entered July with a ton of trade assets and a superstar target: Kevin Love. That option is off the table now that Love is headed to the Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics still have a burlap sack filled with draft picks at the ready, though, and it leaves them with two primary options: (1) Wait, be patient and keep them for actual use in the draft, or (2) trade all/some for immediate help.
Boston has as many as nine first-round picks through the 2018 draft, plus attractive youngsters like Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, James Young and Marcus Smart (though it’s unlikely the latter two are involved in any deal that doesn’t bring back a top-10 player), which gives the Celtics the option of trading a few picks while keeping others.
By unloading a few assets for established, productive weapons who can contribute right away, Boston isn’t sliding off track so much as it's accelerating the train. Here are three players who can help make it happen.
The polarizing big man had a mostly terrible end to last season, but he is still only 27 years old and is intimidating a rim protector as currently exists in the NBA.
He’d be a perfect fit in Boston, where the center position cratered after Kendrick Perkins was dealt at the trade deadline back in 2011. The Celtics need an anchor back there. They have no true center on the roster, forcing the likes of Sullinger and Olynyk to develop out of their natural position.
Hibbert is also on this list because he’s available. Paul George’s gruesome leg injury knocked the Indiana Pacers out of title contention this season, forcing Larry Bird to either bottom out or play the year out as a lame duck, then go after the crown again in 2015-16. Here's what ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote about the possibility of Indiana looking to trade Hibbert way back in May:
There is said to be some thought on both sides—management and Hibbert's—that a fresh start would be beneficial for everyone after the big man's second-half decline.
Hibbert's camp hasn't outright asked for a trade, sources say, but word is that it wouldn't exactly oppose one if the Pacers decide to actively shop their center.
If the Celtics offer a pair of first-round picks for Hibbert (who has a $15.5 million player option next season), along with Jeff Green (a temporary “replacement” for George?) and Keith Bogans’ completely non-guaranteed contract, the Pacers just may bite.
All of a sudden, the Celtics put themselves in position to become one of the Eastern Conference’s most formidable defensive teams and push themselves one player closer to actual title contention.
The worst-case scenario is if both Hibbert and Rondo leave after the 2014-15 season. But the Celtics will have plenty of cap space to afford both, and there’s always the possibility Hibbert opts back in.
The Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers aren’t in identical situations. The Hawks have no incentive to throw in the towel on the 2014-15 season before it begins. They’re a very good team, and trading Paul Millsap—their second-best player—knocks them down a peg in a wide-open Eastern Conference they could legitimately make some noise in come playoff time.
But Millsap’s contract situation makes things dicey. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer who will be looking to make up lost money from his last deal (the two-year, $19 million contract Millsap signed in 2013 was one of the most team-friendly bindings in recent memory).
Under Danny Ferry, the Hawks are defined by their flexibility, and locking Millsap up on a four-year deal hinders that quite a bit. It’s likely the two part ways.
But the Celtics shouldn’t mind having a player like Millsap around—a 29-year-old bruiser who made 35.8 percent of his three-pointers last season. In a vacuum, giving up future assets for a solid, but unspectacular, one-time All-Star who’s about to enter unrestricted free agency doesn’t make much sense, and another issue is the positional overlap Millsap brings to an already loaded frontcourt.
Boston could use the upgrade, though. It could stand to pair Millsap’s intangible value with Rondo and make the team a more attractive place for the following summer’s loaded free-agency class to look at.
Despite being listed at 6’11” and 285 pounds, Nikola Pekovic isn’t a traditional rim protector, but he pounds the glass, has touch and will add variety to Boston’s stale offense. Love’s former frontcourt partner is also humongous, which means Boston could use him.
He’s about the same age as Millsap and Hibbert, too, but has a safer contract to trade for. Pekovic is locked up for the next four seasons at $47.9 million, with the final season of his deal coming in $500,000 less than the previous three. It’s tradable, should things go wrong, but also stable and fair.
The Celtics would control the boards with Pekovic down low, and having him free up all their speedy guards on the perimeter with bone-crunching screens is fun to think about.
The Minnesota Timberwolves should be looking to move Pekovic, too. They should be trying to rebuild with cap space and draft picks around Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio. They also have a younger/cheaper Gorgui Dieng waiting in the wing who showed starter potential towards the end of last season. The Celtics have the picks to help Minnesota out.
With Pekovic at center and Rondo at point guard, it isn’t difficult to picture this team battling for a No. 8 seed and still having plenty of draft picks to either trade or use down the line. Pekovic is a nice player and would be a symbol to Rondo that the Celtics are serious about adding talent in the short term without sacrificing long-term prosperity. He isn't Love, but he also isn't Evan Turner.
Boston doesn’t need to trade for another high-profile player between now and next summer. The Celtics can be really bad for a second straight season, head into next offseason with two first-round picks (not including a useful second-rounder from Philadelphia if the Sixers don’t make the playoffs), a bunch of cap space and go from there.
But this route is just as attractive. It allows the team to be competitive today without losing hope for tomorrow. Pairing another All-Star-caliber player with Rondo doesn’t make the Celtics title contenders, but it does increase their visibility and make them relevant once again. It makes them a decent team that still has assets to get even better.
They can have their cake and eat it too.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.