Examining what possibilities face the Celtics ahead of Feb. 9 trade deadline
Forsberg: Evaluating trade assets, targets and possibilities for Brad Stevens originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
That’s the instruction that Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said he delivered Brad Stevens in advance of the next week’s NBA trade deadline.
Grousbeck even hinted last week that he’d be OK to splurge on a rental-type player when he said, "The conversation that I've had with Brad is, it's about this year. It’s not about, ‘This will pay dividends in three years,’ or, ‘This will do this next year.’ It is this year. Muscle up and let's go get the job done."
A green light to splurge is an interesting proposition. The Celtics, when healthy, have a well-defined eight-man playoff rotation and some emergency depth pieces. An injury to a core player, especially at a big-man position, complicates matters a bit.
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So how might Stevens and his front office staff proceed over the next 10 days?
Let’s start by taking inventory on the Celtics’ assets to make a deal:
The Celtics traded their 2023 first-round pick to Indiana as part of the Malcolm Brogdon trade this past summer. That also means they cannot immediately trade their 2024 first-round pick because the Stepien Rule prevents teams from trading consecutive first-round picks. Once the 2023 draft passes, Boston could then trade the 2024 pick because it owns all its future picks moving forward.
So if the Celtics wanted to use a first-round pick on any deal before the deadline, 2025 is the first available option. Let’s say the Celtics wanted to make a really big splash and send out three first-rounders; then you’d be looking at something like the ’25, ’27, and ’29 picks -- this after already agreeing to a pick swap with San Antonio in 2028.
Boston does have a potentially solid second-round pick coming from Houston (protected for spots 31 and 32) that could be dangled, though the Rockets currently own the worst record in basketball and would instead deliver that pick to the Pacers.
Even if Boston doesn’t get the Houston pick, Boston still projects to have multiple second-round picks in this year’s draft. That includes a mid second-round pick from the Trail Blazers (currently slotted at No. 41) and the less favorable of Miami and Dallas picks (currently projected at No. 52).
The Celtics still have five traded player exceptions but four of those are valued at $2.1 million or less, making them unlikely to be utilized. (A friendly reminder, TPEs cannot be combined.)
Boston does have the Dennis Schroder TPE worth $5.89 million. The Celtics can trade for any player making that salary (or lower) without necessarily having to match outgoing salary.
This opens an intriguing pathway to add a player at a modest salary for depth purposes. Sitting roughly $24 million into the luxury tax and looking at a near $60 million tax bill, Boston would likely hope to send out some salary but it could be a less cumbersome path to adding an impact player.
Disabled player exception
The NBA awarded the Celtics a $3.24 million disabled player exception after Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL before the season. The Celtics have until March 10 to utilize it. Boston can either sign a free agent for the remainder of the season or trade for any player in the final season of their contract making that amount or less.
The biggest advantage to the DPE would likely be using it as a means to outbid other rivals for any impact player that landed on the buyout market. We’d simply remind you that history suggests a limited impact for buyout additions, as it’s been 15 years since PJ Brown aided Boston’s run to Banner 17.
If we operate assuming the Celtics wouldn’t want to trade one of their core players, then Boston’s best available trade asset would likely be Payton Pritchard. A playoff contributor last season, Pritchard has seen inconsistent minutes and recently hinted at a desire to spend next season with a team that can offer him a bigger role. Even with him under team control next season, the Celtics need to consider his future given his obvious desire for a bigger role.
Boston, given the injury histories of players like Marcus Smart and Brogdon, might prefer to keep Pritchard for emergency depth this year. He’s been a luxury when Brogdon and Smart have missed time recently.
Pritchard is earning $2.2 million, which could make it hard for the team to find ways to get a player of his potential in return. Boston could also ponder including someone like Justin Jackson to help increase total outgoing salary but, even by pairing those two contracts, it doesn’t land you at a salary level above the Schroder TPE.
The one wild card here: Would the Celtics be willing to send out Gallinari in any deal? He reveled in the chance to join Boston and has attacked his rehab with hopes of a rather improbable playoff return. Alas, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be ready for that stage and the Celtics might need his bulky salary to facilitate any big-splash move before he can even play on the Garden floor in green.
Moving Gallinari and his $6.5 million salary is slightly complicated, however. Gallinari has a player option for next season, which, combined with his age and injury status, makes him bit of a negative asset. A team would likely insist on additional draft assets to take on his money.
Still, the bottom line is that there is no assurance that Gallinari can help this team this year and, if the Celtics can move him for someone who can, the team must absolutely consider that deal.
One thing to keep in mind when crafting any potential swap is Boston’s tax status. While Grousbeck is signaling a green light to splurge, there’s a tax bill that will grow rapidly from its current $60 million projection. Adding impact talent at a high salary seems unlikely, though the quality of player could certainly entice ownership to go all in given Boston’s obvious place as a legitimate title contender.
So how does it all play out? How do the Celtics 'muscle up?'
It would be easy for the Celtics to ride the status quo. They have the best record in basketball. They survived the opening months of the season when Robert Williams III was rehabbing from offseason knee surgery. They have more depth now than they did during last year’s Finals run.
And yet we can’t shake the feeling that they ought to take a swing at the trade deadline.
It’s simply rare to get to this juncture of the season and feel like you have a definitive chance at a title. Those moments must be embraced. And when your owner goes on TV and says to muscle up, you might as well take advantage of his willingness to let you spend.
Yes, it feels harder to construct an impact move than in past seasons. But it’s on Stevens and his front office crew to find something that moves the needle.
Boston could take smaller swings by adding a depth big to help manage Williams III and Al Horford to the finish line of the regular season, or finding another trustworthy wing who might give interim coach Joe Mazzulla another body to extend the rotation on occasion.
There should be ways to improve this team with only the assets available. It’s hard to know what other teams might be willing to do but we’ve been proponents of calling a team like the Timberwolves, with their overstocked frontcourt, and seeing how much you’d have to splurge to pry out a Naz Reid. Even if you didn’t retain Reid beyond this season, it would be a luxury to have a dynamic third big for the rest of this journey.
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We’ve suggested calling the Hornets about PJ Washington or Jalen McDaniels. Would the Kings take on Gallinari’s money if you took on Richaun Holmes’ money? Is there anything you can pry from the Pistons or Rockets as the Race for Wembanyama heats up?
The ultimate goal here is trustworthy depth. We fret about the minutes that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are piling up. Maybe the solution is as simple as leaning a little harder on Derrick White and Grant Williams. But splurging on a defensive-minded wing who can be a surefire rotation player in the postseason would likewise be a good thing for this team.
One more thing to leave you really daydreaming: The Celtics, despite all their talent and their growing payroll, still have at least one more big swing of the bat. The ability to combine three future first-round picks puts them in the game for any big name that comes on the market.
So if the Raptors elect to move OG Anunoby, do you at least kick the tires? There’s no roadmap to that move that doesn’t involve giving up one of your prime assets like a Smart, Brogdon, or White given Anunoby’s bulky $17.4 million salary. And maybe he’s not even the right player to take that swing on.
But there could be players of that caliber who quietly become available. Admittedly, it's easier for Boston to wait until the summer and ponder the best option for that home run swing.
The Celtics have a long history of not overpaying but there’s a case to be made that, given the opportunity in front of them, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to splurge a bit. Other rivals are going to make moves to bolster their rosters.
The Celtics have an ability to stand pat at the deadline, make a small buyout addition, and ride what they’ve got. They've got to think bigger. They’ve got think about muscling up.