The 32-23 Boston Celtics sit third in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break, but that shouldn't encourage general manager Danny Ainge to unplug his phone as the Feb. 18 trade deadline nears.
Boston is in a precarious situation.
The team has jelled well under the leadership of head coach Brad Stevens, and breaking up the current core would appear inadvisable. However, even though the Celtics are a joy to watch, the itching desire to acquire a superstar lingers. Is it possible to accomplish both?
Joel Cordes, Bleacher Report’s Associate NBA Editor, reached out to me with several intriguing scenarios to ponder upon. Keeping the Celtics' best interests in mind, I'll attempt to dissect the hypothetical trades and determine whether Boston should pull the trigger.
To Boston: Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza
To Houston: David Lee, Amir Johnson, Dallas' 2016 first-round pick, Boston's 2016 first-round pick
Boston wants star power but doesn't want to pay star prices for it. That means the team is kicking the tires on aging names or sullied reputations.
Dwight Howard is both, but he can absolutely still play and would allow both Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger to operate with impunity in their given roles. Boston sheds David Lee's expiring contract, provides the Houston Rockets with a playable Amir Johnson and absorbs Trevor Ariza's deal, essentially allowing the Rox to hit the free-agent market hard (again) a year early.
Houston has plenty of depth up front and should spend this middling year featuring Clint Capela, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones anyway, especially if the team believes Howard is leaving in the summer and that his departure eases the current chemistry crisis.
The Celtics also must give up their own pick and the Dallas Mavericks' selection this year, but those are both mid-level slots in what looks like a weak draft. They still retain all their core players while also keeping the prized Brooklyn Nets picks, both of which will likely be in the top three during the next two seasons.
Boston is once again expecting Stevens to win over a "troubled" player, is poised for its playoff run this year, has a head start on re-signing Howard and gets Ariza's veteran three-and-D routine. This is the rare trade that could be a steal for both teams.
The Rockets are openly shopping Howard, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, but even though the proposed deal looks tempting, I'm a little on the fence.
Big men who rely on athleticism are ticking time bombs past their 30s, and Howard is undoubtedly on the decline. You can bet that any team paying his next contract will feel anxious about it, and it could look ugly in a couple of years. Even though having a solid rim protector is nice, Boston employs an aggressive defensive scheme with plenty of switching, which doesn't exactly play to Howard's strengths.
I'm also not entirely sure of Ariza's fit, as the Celtics already have Jae Crowder. Perhaps the two could share the court in some crunch-time lineups, but finding playing time for both would be tough.
On the flip side, this isn't that steep of a price to pay for a glimpse at what Howard has left in the tank. Stevens could slot shooters around him, and Boston would be better equipped to challenge in the East immediately.
Would the Celtics be able to secure a guarantee that Howard, who can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, would stick around? Would they even want that? I feel like this could turn out to be a rental, and perhaps Boston is better off distributing its assets in other means, even though the price is reasonable.
Swooping on a Breakup
To Boston: Al Horford, Thabo Sefolosha
To Atlanta: David Lee, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, James Young, Jordan Mickey, Utah's 2017 first-round pick, Brooklyn's 2017 first-round pick
To Utah: Jeff Teague, Lamar Patterson
According to Chris Mannix of Comcast SportsNet, the Atlanta Hawks have been rumored to be gauging Jeff Teague and Al Horford moves in separate deals, though actual transactions seem unlikely. A lot could be accomplished in this three-way trade if they're truly looking to blow things up.
Boston has to give up two prospects that it likes (James Young and Jordan Mickey), along with next year's Brooklyn pick to Atlanta, so it's a steep price for what could be a Horford rental. But he has seemed to be a loyal guy throughout his career, and jumping aboard as a centerpiece for this rising Celtics squad during a playoff run could be just what he needs to re-sign in green this summer.
Thabo Sefolosha is a useful veteran defender who may not have to play much, but Stevens' Celtics can always use another stopper.
The Utah Jazz get the point guard they have reportedly been coveting at the price that's also been rumored (Trey Burke and Alec Burks), in addition to their 2017 first-round pick. So, the Hawks acquire a couple of prospects and selections (they'd have three first-rounders in 2017) while hitting the reset button around Dennis Schroder and Paul Millsap. This could open the door for trading the latter and Kyle Korver too.
I adore Horford's game, and he'd be an exceptional fit in Boston. He's a fantastic passer, can score in the post and even has added a semi-reliable three-point shot to his arsenal. He is also an underrated defender, whose fast feet and ability to stick with perimeter players would complement Stevens' scheme.
Horford's versatility and calm demeanor would glue the Celtics on both ends of the court. He doesn't mind stepping aside when the backcourt players take charge, but he's also reliable enough as a go-to guy when needed. He may not be a superstar, but he's in the tier just below.
Boston would have to get some kind of an assurance from Horford's camp that he'd stick around past this season, but it's not unreasonable that he would. The Celtics have a solid core in place and should be able to contend for years to come with a couple of key additions. This would be a big step in the right direction.
Giving up a Brooklyn pick hurts, but at least the Celtics would still have their own 2016 selection and the 2017 swap with the Nets. Mickey is also an intriguing prospect who Boston would love to keep, but there likely wouldn't be enough time to develop him anyway with Horford in town.
This would be an absolute steal of a deal for Boston.
To Boston: Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson, Chris Copeland
To Milwaukee: David Lee, Amir Johnson, Norris Cole
To New Orleans: Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez, Terry Rozier, Johnny O'Bryant III
The Celtics are paying for a Ryan Anderson rental in their playoff push here, doubling down on shooting, and what does it really cost them?
Lee is a goner either way. Johnson is nice but expendable, and Terry Rozier is (rightfully) never going to get minutes on a Celtics team that features Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas. Ryan Anderson is definitely the type of player Boston should consider in free agency anyway, so getting him in the door for a postseason run is wise.
Even if Omer Asik's contract scares people with its length, it's still cheaper than Johnson's, and he provides a rim-protection option the roster otherwise lacks. He's an expensive backup, but that will change with the rising cap, and Stevens can turn straw to gold.
New Orleans finds a taker for Asik and brings in Greg Monroe to play next to Anthony Davis. This could be a fantastic fit, as AD is stretchy and defensive enough to cover for Moose, while the latter can manufacture post offense. The Pelicans also get looks at Rozier and Johnny O'Bryant, who are the type of prospects they should be checking out at this point in the season anyway.
Milwaukee is essentially hitting the reset button on the Monroe signing, but Johnson also provides the defensive chops that its identity is supposed to be about.
You're right that the price for an Anderson rental is cheap here, but I'm still not convinced.
Anderson is a great offensive player and would definitely help the Celtics, but perhaps this deal is presented a couple of months too late. The Celtics aren't quite as desperate to bolster their offense at this stage of the season, as Stevens has solved a lot of the issues by downsizing with Crowder at the 4 in crunch time.
The outgoing talent isn't an issue here, but taking on Asik's contract is. He has become borderline unplayable in the modern NBA. He can sag on pick-and-rolls and meet opponents at the rim, but he has slow feet and can't cover the necessary ground that Stevens' scheme requires while bringing nothing of actual value on the offense end.
It's hard to justify taking on Asik's deal even with the cap rising, as he'll make eight figures in two of the next three seasons. It's feels like too much dead weight to pick up just to have a look at Anderson. I can't sign off on this one.
To Boston: DeMarcus Cousins
To Los Angeles: Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker, Seth Curry
To Sacramento: Blake Griffin, Brooklyn's 2017 first-round pick
To Phoenix: Jamal Crawford, David Lee, Brooklyn's 2016 first-round pick, Boston's 2016 first-round pick
According to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe, the Sacramento Kings supposedly won't give up DeMarcus Cousins (unless landing another superstar?). Ditto for the Los Angeles Clippers and Blake Griffin, per ESPN's Chris Broussard (h/t Tommy Beer of Basketball Insiders). What if they both got a monster deal, and so did Boston?
The Celtics would send Sacramento the rights to swap first-round selections with Brooklyn in 2017, but what the Kings really should care about is nabbing Blake Griffin, their new face of the franchise and a better fit with George Karl, Willie Cauley-Stein and, basically, everyone.
The Phoenix Suns unload a lot of their long-term money here, plus the Markieff Morris headache. Better yet, they receive Brooklyn's likely top-three slot in this year's draft, along with the Celtics' own first-round pick.
The Clippers are winning without Griffin right now, and they'd continue to do so without a done-for-the-season Eric Bledsoe. But Morris and P.J. Tucker could definitely aid their current playoff run, and just think how stacked that team could be by next season with this augmented core. J.J. Redick moves to the bench, and Bledsoe becomes both the starting shooting guard and Chris Paul's eventual successor—just like he was supposed to be before the Clippers stupidly traded him to Phoenix a few seasons ago.
Most importantly, the Celtics get their star without having to break up their current core of players. Their roster was already too full to bring in more high-profile draft picks anyway, so unloading that coffer is the right move.
Cousins is a superstar and could elevate the Celtics to legitimate title contention sooner rather than later. If you're telling me a universe exists where they could land a top-10 NBA player and only really give up future draft picks, Ainge should be looking for a space portal to said universe immediately.
Concerns about Cousins' attitude are well-founded, but it's not something that should be an issue. He has been in a dysfunctional environment ever since entering the league, and the personnel turnover (five head coaches in six seasons) has deprived him of an opportunity to have a trustworthy figure to look up to. Having a likable guy such as Stevens filling those shoes would be a great start. Besides, Boogie did look like a reformed person when playing under Mike Malone, one of the coaches he actually liked, but the Kings screwed that up too.
Boston would naturally have to go through an adjustment period when adding such a high-usage player. Stevens would have to scratch a lot of his regular plays and cater to Cousins' post game, but that's about it. Since he is developing shooting range, he'd be able to feast on open threes. The Isaiah Thomas-Cousins pick-and-rolls with competent floor spacers and slashers on the perimeter would be virtually unstoppable.
Cousins is still only 25, which falls just in line with the age of Boston's current core. Perhaps another team says no, but the deal looks fine from the Celtics' point of view.
All salary information is courtesy of Basketball Insiders.