The Boston Celtics failed to make a major splash in free agency this summer, but that did not prevent them from pursuing some help on the trade front Wednesday.
ESPN’s Marc Stein was first to report that the Celtics will send forward Gerald Wallace to the Golden State Warriors for power forward David Lee. A non-guaranteed minimum contract such as Chris Babb will likely also be included in the deal by Boston for salary-matching purposes.
On the surface, the acquisition of the 32-year-old power forward by the rebuilding Celtics creates more questions than answers. But here's the good news: Boston was able to dump Gerald Wallace’s $10.1 million expiring contract in the deal for a useful player without sacrificing any future assets.
Lee is overpaid at $15.5 million in the final season of his six-year contract, but he has more in the tank than Wallace. As Doug Gottlieb of CBSSports.com points out, the financial aspect of the deal ultimately helps Boston from a business perspective:
Lee, a two-time All-Star, only averaged 7.9 points and 5.2 rebounds for the Warriors in 2014-15 after losing his starting job to Draymond Green, but he showed his value in the NBA Finals as a floor spacer in Games 3 and 4. Lee averaged 10 points off the bench in 14.4 minutes for those two contests.
In Boston, Lee immediately becomes the Celtics’ top offensive option at the power forward position. He excelled while paired in the pick-and-roll with speedy guards in Golden State, and he'll have players in that mold waiting for him in Boston with Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.
As a strong mid-range shooter and capable finisher around the rim, look for Lee to be utilized frequently as a screener in Brad Stevens' pace-and-space offense. He does not have three-point range like Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk, but he's a more consistent and efficient scorer inside the arc than both youngsters.
Lee's career may be on the decline in his 30s, but he’s still only one year removed from averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while starting for a playoff team.
No one within Boston’s young, crowded frontcourt has proven capable of reaching that kind of production, so there’s little doubt that Lee will be a strong candidate to start and upgrade the roster immediately. The opportunity to earn major minutes and rebuild value ahead of his impending free agency in 2016 also makes Boston an ideal destination for Lee, as his agent Mark Bartelstein told NBA.com’s David Aldridge:
They pursued him for a long time. [Warriors general manager] Bob Myers worked very hard with me to try and get David to a place he wanted to be. Boston is a great basketball town, great history with that franchise. It's an up and coming team. Everywhere David has been--Golden State, New York and now Boston—there has been a great basketball tradition. Every player wants to go where they can have a huge impact on a team's success.
Adding Lee also indicates that the Celtics are intent on building upon a surprise playoff berth last season with an eye toward the future, rather than falling back into the lottery. With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking steps forward in free agency this summer, the Celtics needed their own upgrades to stay relevant.
Bringing back free agents Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder was a step in that direction, but those moves failed to make dents in Boston’s scoring and rebounding problems. The same can be said for Amir Johnson. Lee has the career track record to show he can help in those departments and get Boston over the .500 mark next season.
The need for the franchise to show growth in 2015-16 looms as a larger factor than ever ahead of next year’s offseason. The Celtics struck out on top targets like Kevin Love this summer, whom Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported they were interested in, but Boston is now positioned to have more than $50 million dollars of cap space to chase free agents next summer.
However, many other teams around the league will also have significant money to spend given the rising cap. In order for Boston to stand out in the pack, the franchise must prove it is a team on the rise. Lee’s acquisition will help it achieve that goal without sacrificing any future flexibility.
But Danny Ainge's job not yet done this offseason, if he wants to move the franchise past relevant and into a new level of contention. Bringing Lee into the mix creates a sizable glut in the frontcourt with Jerebko, Sullinger, Olynyk, Johnson, Zeller and second-round pick Jordan Mickey all fighting for minutes.
There are simply not enough minutes to go around to keep everyone happy, so the expectation here is that the Celtics will look to clear out a body or two.
Sullinger and Olynyk are the best candidates to be dealt, since they would be easy to move on their cheap rookie contracts, but Ainge would be selling low after an inconsistent 2014-15 season for both big men. Zeller could be offered up as well, but as the only true center on the roster, he makes more sense to keep around long-term.
Boston also has a logjam in the backcourt after drafting Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter in the first round, so it’s possible Ainge will look to package a guard and big man together to make an upgrade on the wing, an area in which the team could use more depth.
With Smart set to take over point guard duties next year and Thomas coming off the bench, Evan Turner is a name that could pop up as trade bait in the upcoming months as well.
Ainge still has plenty of time to clear out some roster space, but more importantly, he helped Boston's prospects in a big way for next year by adding Lee to the fold. With another move or two, the Celtics could be working their further way into the Eastern Conference playoff mix next year while keeping their options open for the future.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for Bleacher Report.