It is hard to tell which direction the Boston Celtics will go during the remainder of the season. I’m not so sure Danny Ainge has any idea, either.
According to Marc Stein of ESPN, the Celtics have shown interest in Atlanta forward Josh Smith, but Stein also indicates that any deal involving Smith leaving for Boston would have to include Paul Pierce in the return package:
NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com on Monday that the Boston Celtics have, indeed, registered their interest on the Smith front, with the caveat that they also remain highly interested in the Clippers' Eric Bledsoe.
Yet a Boston deal for Smith, sources said, would almost certainly have to be built around Paul Pierce, because Kevin Garnett isn't waiving his no-trade clause to go to the Atlanta Hawks if he's not willing to waive it to go to Clipperland. And the prospect of Celtics front-office chief Danny Ainge exiling Pierce to the Hawks for Smith, after everything Pierce has done to restore the Celtics to glory over the past half-decade, is still hard to imagine.
Let’s take a step back.
Entering the 2012-13 season, Boston had high hopes for another shot at a title—perhaps the last chance Pierce or Kevin Garnett would have before they rode off into the sunset. The season hasn’t gone as planned, though, and a Rajon Rondo ACL tear has threatened to derail the entire campaign.
Since Rondo’s injury, the Celtics have experienced a resurgence of sorts. They ripped off eight wins in their last nine contests before the All-Star break and sit comfortably in the No. 7 position in the Eastern Conference. Barring a major collapse in their final 30 games, the Celtics have a chance be in the mix for a comfortable playoff seed at season’s end.
So why the trade talk?
It is understandable that Ainge wants to improve his roster for this season and the future. Boston isn’t getting any younger, and this season could mark the end of two incredible NBA careers. If Pierce and Garnett choose to hang up their shoes at the end of the season, the Celtics become a rebuilding project. This season is perhaps their last chance at a championship in the foreseeable future.
It is a good thing the trade deadline is less than two days away, though. On February 22, Ainge and the Celtics will have to be all-in one way or the other—with a push toward the playoffs or a rebuilding effort for the future.
When the deadline passes, there won’t be any more speculation. And at least the Celtics will have some idea of their direction.
It is hard to understand why Ainge would be interested in acquiring Smith if the move came at the expense of one of Boston’s biggest stars. Smith is younger (27) and more productive in a lot of facets of the game, but his contract will expire at the end of the season.
Even if there was a guarantee Smith would make the Celtics better this season, would it be worth losing Pierce and potentially losing Smith in free agency as well?
Aside from Smith’s youth, there is no reason Boston should be considering such a deal. There isn’t a large enough disparity in their production to justify the move as anything more than a rebuilding step for the future.
Maybe that is Ainge’s endgame. Perhaps the general manager has given up hope for a title run this season, and he is looking ahead to the future of the team.
It is hard to fault an executive for forward thinking.
But unless the stars align and Smith immediately re-signs with the Celtics (should a trade occur), losing Pierce isn’t worth the risk. It would be a lateral move with limited upside, and a slap in the face of Boston fans still holding out hope for a championship run this season.
The NBA is a business, and tough decisions have to be made. In fairness to Ainge, general managers are on the hook for a lot of unpopular moves.
This just wouldn't be the right one to make.