While it may seem a little early to be discussing the Feb. 21 trade deadline at this stage of the season, Monday’s deal that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, along with a steadily increasing stream of rumors, come as a stark reminder that the insanity of the trade deadline isn’t really that far off. As we work our way through December, the players who have recently signed new deals become eligible to be traded and in a year where many teams are focussed on a stacked 2014 draft class the potential for trades is enormous. Having a general manager with the history of Danny Ainge at the helm and a roster that is far from set in stone, no one would be surprised if the Boston Celtics were one of the most active teams in the trade market over the next few weeks, but after a surprisingly positive start to the season and what has been a historically bad performance from the Eastern Conference so far, will the Celtics be looking to unload, or add talent to their current roster? Ainge’s decisions at this deadline and in the 2014-15 offseason will go a long way to determining the direction of the team for the foreseeable future and whether he plans to rely on the draft, or his ability to complete blockbuster trades to return the Celtics to the top of the East.
Rookie head coach Brad Stevens has made an impressive transition from the college game to the NBA and it seems like his ability to bring the best out of less-than-perfect rosters is also a factor in the professional game. The Celtics are playing hard, fighting for every victory and seem to be a long way from the cellar dwellers at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. With so much talk of “tanking” in the offseason, Stevens and his players repeatedly took aim at those who said that this season was a write-off, got to work and have surprised many around the league with some impressive play. Much of the reason the Celtics lead the Atlantic with a sub-.500 record and are currently a playoff team is the dismal performance of the Eastern Conference thus far, some teams are simply not putting a competitive roster on the floor and the results speak for themselves. Even if Ainge’s goal was to have a top pick in the 2014 draft, that idea seems to be losing traction as the bottom of the East continues to struggle for victories.
The surprisingly positive start to the season has given a welcome boost to the trade value of many on the Celtics’ roster. Stevens’ structure has given an opportunity for a number of the players on the roster to start the season in career-best form. Jordan Crawford is a prime example, viewed as simply a gunner with poor shot selection, Crawford was thrust into the Celtics starting point guard position and has thrived. His numbers across the board are the best of his career and capped off his hot start with a Player of the Week award. Jared Sullinger has come back from back surgery looking like one of the best young big man prospects in the league. Avery Bradley and Jeff Green have taken on more responsibility as leaders on this young roster and both have shown they could bring tremendous value to any team in the league. Veterans Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee have started the season strong, proving they could be a valuable role player for a contending team. Even rookies Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani have shown impressive flashes of their potential in the early going.
The Celtics have the pieces to make a trade and Ainge is almost certainly going to be one of the most active GMs in the league over the next few weeks. Along with those players, the Celtics own a bag full of first round draft picks belonging to themselves and the Nets for the next few years and also have the large expiring contract of Kris Humphries. The team is still waiting for All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo to return from injury which could dramatically improve the performance of the team overall. While it may have seemed like the Celtics would be making moves to shed talent and bottom out for a high pick in 2014, we now face the possibility that they could actually be buyers at the deadline and make a move to win in a shorter timeframe. Every year there are star players around the league that become available, they may not be happy in their current situation, the team may be underachieving or there may be contract concerns. Whatever the reason, there will be big names on the table and do not be surprised if Ainge is tempted to take a chance while it’s there, but who could be available?
Kevin Love – This would be the biggest prize of them all. Kevin Love has been frustrated with the lack of team success in Minnesota for a while now and despite having a roster that appears more than capable of making the playoffs, the Timberwolves are stuck in a strong Western Conference and may again be on the outside looking in. If they slide down the standings through December and January Love may force the teams’ hand on making a move. It would cost the Celtics in a big way, young talent and draft picks would be lost but for the league’s best power forward you do what you have to do.
Larry Sanders – Sanders agreed to a big extension with the Milwaukee Bucks over the offseason and it has been nothing but a disaster for either party so far. Sanders struggled through the start of the season, averaging less than three points a game and was then lost due to a thumb injury and involved in a worrying incident in a nightclub. The Bucks are one of the worst teams in the league and are looking at a top pick in 2014, with big man depth on the roster, suddenly paying Sanders such big money may not make as much sense. He would be a great fit alongside Jared Sullinger in the Boston front court.
Greg Monroe/Josh Smith – The Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith in the offseason and while the talent level in Detroit has unquestionably gone up, the fit for Smith alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond is still a huge question mark. They currently have Smith playing at small forward, which is far from the best option for him or the team, as his tendency to throw up long range jumpers is only becoming worse. Smith is getting paid big and Greg Monroe will be a free agent in the offseason, it makes little sense to pay two power forwards near-max money so one of them could be on their way out soon.
Omer Asik – The Houston Rockets will almost certainly be dealing Omer Asik prior to the deadline as he has repeatedly requested a trade and without a true role for him to play the Rockets will look for the highest bidder to add to their already impressive core. Asik offers some of the best interior defense and rebounding in the entire league and could provide a defensive anchor for any team in the NBA. If the Celtics want to speed up the rebuilding process a big man like Asik locking down the paint would go a long way towards creating a more balanced, talented roster.
So, the Celtics have options if they want to try and improve immediately, but what if Ainge is enamored with the 2014 draft class and decides to remove talent from his roster instead? If they are building for the future, the Celtics have a number of veteran players who are not only helping the team win but could bring back even more assets in a trade. Let’s take a look at the main candidates to be moved if the Celtics decide to be a seller, and unload their veteran talent.
Brandon Bass – The teams’ starting power forward, Bass is a proven commodity in the NBA with his knock-down mid-range shooting, rebounding and solid defensive effort. 28 years old and in the prime of his career, Bass could help any number of playoff teams as a potential starter or ideally as the first big man off the bench. Currently averaging 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Bass’ $6 million a season for two years is hardly breaking the bank and after a solid start to the season would likely garner a lot of interest around the league.
Courtney Lee - 28-year-old shooting guard Courtney Lee has rebounded this season after having huge troubles with his shooting in 2012-13. He is only playing a limited role for the Celtics at the moment but is providing a valuable contribution when he is on the floor. He is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three while averaging 7 points per game. An experienced guard who plays both sides of the ball could provide depth to a number of contending teams.
Kris Humphries – Humphries’ primary value comes from the fact that he is attached to an eight-figure expiring contract and could provide huge cap savings for a number of teams. The part often overlooked is that Humphries can also be one of the leagues’ most consistent rebounders and has the ability to finish at a high percentage offensively. There are a number of reasons that teams could be interested in his services but the most likely outcome is that his contract is used to backbone a deal that includes young, cheap players or draft picks.
Rajon Rondo – The unthinkable at this stage, but never discount a man that just traded Paul Pierce off the Boston Celtics. Ainge has said repeatedly that he plans on building this team around Rondo and that still seems like the most likely outcome, however once Rondo returns to full health there will be no shortage of teams calling to enquire about his availability, especially if the Celtics have shown that they want to be players in the 2014 draft. There have been a number of teams that have already shown interested over the past 12 months as well as some that are desperately trying to put a competitive product on the floor. While this remains the least likely of all scenarios, you cannot ignore the possibility that with Ainge’s history, anyone on the roster could be available for the right price.
Whichever avenue they decide to take, one thing is for certain. The Boston Celtics will be one of the most active and interesting teams to watch as we work our way towards the 2014 draft deadline and we should be ready for anything as Ainge steers this big green ship in a direction that he only knows.