On Thursday, the Boston Celtics announced that they had completed a three-team deal in which they swapped their $10.3 million trade exception, acquired in the Brooklyn deal last summer, for guard Marcus Thornton, big man Tyler Zeller and a first-round pick. At first glance the trade looks to be more nifty work from general manager Danny Ainge in his never-ending quest to stockpile assets.
Thornton is a large expiring contract, Zeller is a young center who can contribute when given minutes and the draft pick adds to a swag of first-round selections piling up for the Celtics in coming years. However, taking a closer look at the players involved in the deal, there is a good chance that both Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton could have a significant impact on the Celtics 2014-15 season.
Last season, one of the Celtics’ major roster issues was the lack of true centers. This forced the likes of Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and rookie Kelly Olynyk to fill minutes at the 5 despite not having the skill set or size to play the position consistently.
While Zeller is not a traditional defensive anchor, at 7 feet tall and with good mobility, he is able to defend the paint, affect shooters around the rim and rebounds the ball at a high level.
The 17th pick in the 2012 draft, Tyler Zeller is just 24 years old and has shown flashes of being a real contributor when given minutes. He has averaged 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds thus far in his career but has had inconsistent playing time in his two seasons with the Cavaliers.
As a rookie, Zeller averaged 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds; however, in his sophomore season had his minutes reduced. He did see a boost in his efficiency where he converted .538 from the field and had a strong showing to end the season.
During April, the final six games of the season, Zeller averaged 12 points and 6.8 rebounds while playing 21.7 minutes.
While the Celtics have a number of solid big men on the roster, the only real centers on the team at this point for Zeller to contend with are veteran Joel Anthony and second-year Brazilian big man Vitor Faverani. As the team aims to get Sullinger and Olynyk playing more minutes at their natural 4 spot, Zeller could immediately find himself with a big role in coach Brad Stevens’ rotation.
When given the opportunity to play a larger role, Zeller has been a solid contributor. In games where he played more than 20 minutes last season, he averaged 10.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and shot .540 from the field.
Zeller is one of the best big men in the league running the floor on offense and could be the benefactor of many Rajon Rondo-led fast breaks. He has a nice mid-range jump shot, solid moves in the paint and a high basketball IQ.
Zeller has proven he can handle the rigors of the NBA season, playing in 77 and 70 games respectively in his first two seasons. With an impressive training camp, don’t be shocked if you see Tyler Zeller line up as the starting center for the Celtics on opening night.
Marcus Thornton, meanwhile, is largely viewed as an expiring contract and a necessity for the teams to complete the trade. Thornton, a 27-year-old shooting guard, is in the last season of a deal that will pay him $8.5 million and will be looking to impress as he heads into free agency.
Thornton is a flat-out scorer, the 6’4” former second-round draft pick has averaged 13.4 points over the course of a five-year career to go with three rebounds and shoots .361 from 3-point range.
After being traded to the Brooklyn Nets last season to bolster the bench, Thornton averaged 12.3 points while knocking down two 3-pointers a game at .380 shooting. He has proven that he can be an impact player off the bench and a source of instant offense against second units.
For the Celtics, a team that often struggles through scoring droughts, having someone with the mindset and ability of Thornton coming off the bench could be huge.
While the backcourt in Boston is starting to get crowded, Thornton has proven the ability to score in the NBA. In the 2011-12 season, Thornton started all of his 51 games and averaged 18.7 points per game while playing for the Kings.
Other than Gerald Wallace in the 2007-08 season that 18.7 points is the highest season average of anyone on the current Celtics’ roster.
Rajon Rondo and a recently re-signed Avery Bradley are likely to start at guard this season, but Thornton actually proved to be better as a reserve than a starter last season. His points and his shooting efficiency both improved as a reserve for the Nets and the Celtics could use his scoring ability coming off the bench.
Ainge may well look to move Thornton and his expiring deal in a larger trade later on, but if he remains on the roster you could see the 27-year-old make a surprising contribution on a young Celtics team.
With just days to spare before the trade exception expired, Ainge has once again proven why he is one of the best general managers in the NBA by acquiring two solid players and yet another draft pick essentially for nothing. He continues to stockpile assets in the quest to return the Celtics to the top of the NBA and this trade is just another step in the ladder.
While the eyes are certainly on a prize much bigger than a Tyler Zeller or Marcus Thornton, Ainge has subtly added two valuable pieces to his team that could really make an impact on the 2014-15 season.