The Boston Celtics have evolved from a curious project to a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference, but that only increases the urgency to acquire reinforcements.
Perhaps the Celtics didn't anticipate that head coach Brad Stevens could get his young players to perform at such a high level this early. Now that Boston is in the thick of the surprisingly cutthroat playoff race for a second year in a row, the front office has to entertain every possible move.
The Feb. 19 trade deadline is far away, but discussions tend to pick up as the league collectively turns over a new leaf in January. Teams discover their strengths and flaws, and identifying players who can plug holes becomes easier.
In a vacuum, none of the Celtics' players are untouchable. If the right superstar becomes available, Boston likely wouldn't think twice about sacrificing a key cog. However, general manager Danny Ainge also has plenty of attractive draft picks at his disposal, which could allow him to keep his core intact even in the case of a blockbuster.
Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com suggested that Ainge could pursue deals more actively than before:
The Celtics are not a finished product by any means and the team's offensive limitations are obvious. Boston's front-office staff, while remaining patient in its tireless pursuit of a bona fide superstar, will almost certainly be seeking offensive reinforcements should they become available at the right price at the trade deadline.
Since it appears unlikely that a prized asset will hit the market anytime soon, Boston might just tinker with smaller moves to solidify its roster. Easing the frontcourt logjam and adding more scoring punch on the wing should be high on the priority list, and certain individuals could become expendable.
The Celtics have plenty of young guards with upside—R.J. Hunter, Terry Rozier, James Young—who could be thrown into any potential deal, but the team's big men are in considerably greater danger of being moved.
He isn't a terrible fit in Stevens' pass-friendly system, but his defense leaves much to be desired. Lee started at power forward early in the year, but Stevens eventually opted for a more balanced frontcourt pairing of Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger.
Now that Boston is finally figuring out its rotation, Lee is reportedly on the chopping block, according to TNT's David Aldridge: "The Celtics have been very solid, but coach Brad Stevens has a minutes problem, as evidenced by the lack of time for David Lee—whose expiring contract is available, per league sources."
Lee is a positive influence in terms of veteran leadership and has had some decent performances in a Celtics uniform. Even so, he probably imagined a bigger role, and Boston simply has too many young guys who need minutes.
Lee is the highest-paid Celtic this season, as he is on an expiring $15.5 million deal, according to Basketball Insiders' salary sheet. That's a lot of money, but it isn't a tough pill to swallow for a title contender in need of frontcourt depth. It's unlikely either Boston or Lee can envision a long-term partnership beyond this season, and a trade would benefit both parties.
A hypothetically interesting trade target for the Celtics could be Kevin Martin, as his mobility and three-point shooting would fit nicely in Stevens' offense. The salaries don't quite match, and the Minnesota Timberwolves have no need for Lee, but Boston could theoretically pursue a multi-team trade if Martin was available.
Lee could stay put, but his name will inevitably float around when trade discussions commence.
Just like Lee, Tyler Zeller was relegated from the starting lineup almost immediately. Every single big on Boston's roster has outplayed him, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Celtics decided to cut ties.
Zeller has shown signs of being a capable rotation player but is in his fourth year and simply doesn't have enough upside to warrant much attention. He will be a restricted free agent next summer, and it seems unlikely that Boston will be willing to pay his next contract based on this season's circumstances.
Zeller is a tenacious rebounder and a solid finisher around the rim but doesn't bring anything unique that Boston currently lacks. Still, there are teams with shortages in those departments.
He would add value to any Lee-centered package, and a rookie deal is always an easy throw-in. But if the Celtics were to move two bigs, they would likely want at least one in return.
Ainge has made it clear that a go-to scorer is high up in the Celtics' wish list, via Jay King of MassLive.com: "I think the one thing that we could really use is a go-to scorer. We have some guys that have carried us. But we have got to—it would be nice to find another player that's a reliable scorer at the end of games, night in and night out."
Brook Lopez could be a theoretical option. His price tag of around $20 million per year is a little scary for a center with a long history of foot injuries, but he has looked great and recently earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. He has appeared in every game this season while averaging the most minutes since 2010-11.
Lopez can fill a huge scoring gap in the offense. The Celtics would naturally have to adjust around him, as he is an old-school center, but it's not an impossible fit. If the Brooklyn Nets were willing to deal their center for a first-round pick, Zeller's inclusion could help facilitate a trade.
Assuming Boston wants to keep its two most promising big men—Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger—Johnson becomes the third potential trade candidate.
Parting ways with Johnson is a long shot, but he is undoubtedly more valuable as trade bait than both Lee and Zeller, at least to a title contender. He is a high-energy, low-maintenance bruiser who can fit any rotation thanks to his combination of mobility and defensive chops. His $12 million salary is reasonable and feels like a sweet spot for title contenders who pursue in-season reinforcements.
The Celtics have allowed 97.8 points per 100 possessions this season, the second-best figure in the league, according to ESPN's Hollinger stats. Boston has even been better than the stingy Warriors in that category, and both teams have conspicuous similarities—cross-position versatility, mobile big men and lockdown defenders on the perimeter.
Johnson is a big part of that surge, as he adds a dose of rim protection which the Celtics previously lacked. Opponents are shooting just 45.5 percent at the hoop with him defending it, by far the best figure on the roster, according to NBA.com.
Johnson is valuable, and his contract isn't guaranteed for next year, as noted by Basketball Insiders. Boston's rim protection would take a hit without Johnson, but a solid scheme can cover it up. If dropping a couple of spots in defensive efficiency was the required price for adding a player who would significantly bolster the offense, so be it.
All statistics are accurate as of Jan. 4.
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