Despite lacking superstar talent, the Boston Celtics are an NBA enigma. What was initially a rebuilding project is starting to appear as an intriguing concoction just one or two ingredients short of a powerhouse.
At 27-22, the Celtics are fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs and outscoring the opposition by 3.9 points per 100 possessions—the third-best net rating in the Eastern Conference and the seventh-highest leaguewide figure, per NBA.com. To accomplish that with a young roster and just one All-Star in Isaiah Thomas is a sign of maturity and extraordinary coaching.
Boston could ride the season out and remain patient, but general manager Danny Ainge will undoubtedly leap at any opportunity to bring in a legitimate superstar.
He's done it before.
The Celtics improved from the worst in the East to the best in just one season with the additions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007-08, completing the impressive turnaround with a championship. This Boston team is completely different. It's already a defensive juggernaut that may be ready to take over with a healthy infusion of scoring.
It usually takes an internally dysfunctional situation for a star to become available, and it's unlikely one will hit the market before the Feb. 18 trade deadline. However, no team is better positioned (in terms of assets) than Boston to blow away the competition in a potential auction.
It's important to preface that all trade suggestions are purely hypothetical, specifically targeting star players who find themselves in tricky situations.
Even though DeMarcus Cousins has remained loyal to the Sacramento Kings, his tenure with the team has been a turbulent one. He is six years into his career and has yet to log a single postseason minute. If the Kings miss the playoffs again, the star center may start to lose patience.
Boston could offer Sacramento a tremendous midseason rebuilding package for Cousins before that happens. Here is an example (ESPN trade link):
Boston receives: Cousins, Ben McLemore, Caron Butler
Bradley, who has arguably developed into a top-10 NBA shooting guard, would fill a crucial two-way void for the Kings. Kelly Olynyk has an impressive offensive arsenal, which would complement rookie Willie Cauley-Stein's lack of shooting range. David Lee is on an expiring deal and could be bought out if necessary.
The real gems in this package would be the Nets' picks. The 2016 one will land high in the lottery, and unless Brooklyn magically improves, the 2017 selection could be just as valuable. This would give the Kings a chance to rebuild the right way instead of settling for breadcrumbs and mediocrity in free agency.
Cousins is a transcendent offensive talent, and he would elevate the Celtics to a higher level. Losing Bradley hurts, but Marcus Smart has shown improvement and fits nicely as a secondary ball-handler next to Thomas. Ben McLemore would add additional shooting punch on the perimeter.
Cousins is an excellent defender when engaged, and his addition would likely catapult Boston into top-10 territory in offensive efficiency without a major regression on the opposite end.
Carmelo Anthony has a complicated no-trade clause in his contract, and he'd have to waive it for any deal involving him to take place. Still, he is 31 and hasn't gotten past the second round of the playoffs, excluding the 2008-09 Western Conference Finals appearance with the Denver Nuggets.
Kristaps Porzingis is a phenomenal talent, but he'll be entering his prime when Anthony is on the tail end of his career. If Anthony can contend for a championship now, while the New York Knicks patiently build around the Latvian talent, a split-up could be mutually beneficial.
The Knicks are short on draft picks, and that's something Boston can help out with. Involving a third party, in this case the Atlanta Hawks, would make a lot of sense (ESPN trade machine link). The Hawks are rumored to be looking to move Jeff Teague, with the Knicks reportedly interested, per ESPN.com. New York has few assets it could offer to tempt Atlanta, but a bigger package could make sense:
Boston receives: Carmelo Anthony
New York receives: Lee, Olynyk, Jeff Teague, Mike Scott, 2016 Brooklyn first-round pick
Atlanta receives: Jae Crowder, Kyle O'Quinn, Jerian Grant
In this scenario, the Knicks receive a solid starting point guard in Teague, an intriguing big in Olynyk and the highly valuable Brooklyn pick. New York can add another young stud through the draft while opening up even more salary space for potential free-agent signings this summer.
The Hawks accomplish their goal, as well: They move Teague in order to add toughness on the wing. Crowder has a strikingly similar skill set to that of DeMarre Carroll, who was the glue guy for Atlanta before moving to the Toronto Raptors last offseason. Grant would add some backcourt depth, and O'Quinn is a decent rotation big.
Anthony would add the missing scoring element to the Celtics frontcourt. He is a more willing passer this year, which would make him an even better fit in head coach Brad Stevens' offense. Boston desperately needs a go-to guy in crunch time, and Anthony has never been shy with the clock ticking down.
The Los Angeles Clippers are in a precarious position. They are the fourth-best team in the Western Conference, but there is a long way to the top.
The Clippers can't realistically convince themselves that they can win eight games against the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs over a postseason. It's unlikely head coach Doc Rivers would blow up his roster midseason, but he has admitted that another second-round exit could be a firm signal for change.
Blake Griffin was recently involved in an off-court incident that resulted in a broken hand. If the Clips opt for radical roster turnover and decide to build around Chris Paul, they could perhaps auction off Griffin (ESPN trade link):
Boston receives: Griffin, Lance Stephenson
Los Angeles receives: Lee, Olynyk, Crowder, 2016 Brooklyn first-round pick
The small forward position has long been a weakness of the Clippers, and they'd address that by adding Crowder. They would also pick up a nice two-way big in Olynyk, and Brooklyn's pick would provide Rivers with the flexibility to swing more deals and reshape the roster immediately.
Meanwhile, the Celtics would receive an elite power forward. Griffin is arguably the best passing big in the league, and he happens to be a monster in transition, a crafty pick-and-roll player and a handful in the low post. It's difficult to imagine a better fit for Stevens' offense.
All statistics are accurate as of Feb. 1.
All salary information is courtesy of Basketball Insiders, unless noted otherwise.