The case for Celtics making a big-splash move at NBA trade deadline

The case for Celtics making a big-splash move at NBA trade deadline originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If the Boston Celtics make a move before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, there’s a good chance it will register low on the NBA Richter scale. After all, the Celtics already hit the league with some seismic trade tremors with the offseason acquisitions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

But even if thrifting with the $6.2 million Grant Williams NBA Store Gift Card is the easiest path to addition, there’s a decent case to be made for Stevens being a bit bolder.

Especially because...

  1. Stevens rarely tiptoes into roster alterations. This is a man who shipped off Kemba Walker during his first days as general manager, dealt for Derrick White at his first trade deadline, and concocted the jaw-dropping swaps that shipped out Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III this past summer.

  2. When Stevens has worked on the fringes, like last February when he acquired Mike Muscala in exchange for Justin Jackson and two second-round picks, it has done little to move the needle for Boston. Muscala helped Boston navigate the second half of the season but played just 21 minutes in six postseason appearances, mostly at the end of decided games.

  3. More stringent roster-building obstacles await this summer when the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement takes away some of Boston’s favorite paths to beefing up a championship-caliber roster. The $6.2 million Williams traded player exception vanishes if not used before this week’s deadline and the Celtics will not have the luxury of the midlevel exception. Even trades are more restrictive under the new deal. This could be the last chance to add an established player before Jaylen Brown’s big-money extension kicks in like a turbo booster.

But here’s the primary reason we think Stevens has to think extra hard about potential splashes over the final 24 hours before the deadline:

Being in this sort of position is never promised.

Sixty percent of the way through the 2023-24 season, the Boston Celtics are the best team in basketball. And by a healthy margin. Sure, they don’t always play like it -- you’re welcome for last Thursday, Lakers fans -- but the talent and potential here is undeniable.

Sometimes you just gotta go all-in, especially when Banner 18 feels like it’s right in front of you.

You can make the case that the Celtics have already pushed a huge stack of chips to the center of the table given their salary commitment to the current roster. It’s easier to write this story when you’re not the one who has to write the bulky tax checks the team is staring at for the next half decade (thanks, Wyc Grousbeck!)

Stevens should feel confident in this roster. He could stand pat and this team still might end up back on the championship stage.

But we’re left wondering about the "what ifs" from 2022. What if Robert Williams hadn’t been hindered by his knee woes? What if the Celtics had one more capable wing who could have taken some of the stress off Brown and Jayson Tatum? What if Boston hadn’t made its path so daunting with two seven-game series against the Bucks and Heat before running low on gas against the Golden State Warriors?

The Celtics’ top six -- if healthy and motivated -- is better than anything a rival might trot out. Sam Hauser’s steady 3-point shooting and Payton Pritchard’s sizzling net rating offer confidence that they can be rotation players Nos. 7 and 8, but both have to prove they can hold up better on the playoff stage, particularly on the defensive end.

So let’s say the opportunity comes along to splurge multiple first-round picks to acquire someone like Chicago’s Alex Caruso. Does Stevens do it?

Maybe Chicago’s asking price, and the competition for an All-Defense player like Caruso, makes that possibility a non-starter. Maybe the price to make a big move is simply too prohibitive. But the Celtics have to give it some thought.

Sure, there are some chemistry risks with any move, and the Celtics need to preserve at least some draft assets to add low-cost talent to this very expensive roster moving forward.

There is a case, too, to be made that small tweaks are perfectly fine. Back in 2008, the league-trampling Celtics punted at the trade deadline then simply signed P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell for veteran depth. Alas, that feels like one of the last times that buyout additions aided a title quest.

It should be noted that Boston is unable to sign anyone who's currently making north of the non-taxpayer midlevel ($12.4 million) if they are bought out after the trade deadline. Apron teams are exempt from those players. So even the potential buyout additions are likely to come from the bargain bin.

The Celtics have the flexibility to package multiple first-round picks to make a deal. They can alleviate the sting of taking on a bulkier contract by sending out of some of the end-of-the-bench players that sit outside the rotation, though needing to stack contracts does add a hurdle to potential moves.

Should Stevens fret trading what will likely be the No. 30 pick in the 2024 draft? The only concern might be getting the receiving team to value it as much as another contender’s pick, which might slot slightly higher. Yes, trading something like the 2027 pick is riskier, but so too is not doing everything possible to win a title when you feel this tantalizingly close to a title.

Win one now and all the future roster decisions get a whole lot easier. Oh sure, we’ll greedily write stories about the quest for multiple Larry O’Briens, but no one will be sweating those picks even after just one.

So call the Bulls about Caruso. Phone the Wizards about Deni Avdija (yes, there’s a poison pill, but that sweet descending structure would be ideal for future rosters). Fortune favors the bold.

Again, maybe it’s too greedy to think the Celtics need another move. Stevens did his work this summer. He’s positioned this team as a title favorite.

It’s understandable if the Celtics settle for something smaller but, at least in the ramp to Thursday’s deadline, they need to think big.