How the Celtics President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge can make the Celtics a legitimate threat to win it all in 2018.
BOSTON- Nearly four years have passed since the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets completed one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. This still haunts the Nets to this day. It is also the trade that has put the Celtics in position to compete with the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the future.
In order to do so, Ainge and the Celtics front office must make a series of deals to acquire top level NBA talent. To acquire such talent, Ainge will have to dip into the collection of young players and draft picks he has assembled.
The team payroll pictured above (via Basketball Reference) shows the contract value of each current Celtic. For the most part, this is a roster filled with team friendly contracts. With the NBA salary cap rising to a projected $102 million for the 2017-18 season, the Celtics currently do not have the necessary room to sign a max player in the offseason. This leads me to my first move that needs to be made this offseason
Trim the Fat
The Celtics number one priority should be to clear cap space in case they do intend on signing a player to a max contract either this summer of the next summer. That being said, the first move would be to part ways with the like of Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, James Young, Gerald Green, Tyler Zeller, Jordan Mickey, and unfortunately Kelly Olynyk. This is unless they would agree to sign team friendly deals to reduce their cap hit. Yet with the money that will be thrown at free agents this offseason, I doubt that any of these players (maybe Olynyk) will be back in Boston.
If the Celtics can clear that amount of cap space, that would leave them at around $61 million, giving Danny Ainge $41 million to play with. Although that may seem like a large number, it really isn’t at this point in NBA history. A max contract is worth 30.6 million under the CBA, so that means the Celtics would only have room for one max player, and then only $10 million to spend on other free agents to round out the roster.
This situation is exactly why the Celtics should focus on making trades, instead of signing free agents this summer. This brings me to my next move, which I will surely have to explain.
Trade Isaiah Thomas
Is Isaiah Thomas a great player? Yes
Does Isaiah Thomas help the Celtics win games? Yes
Should he be a part of the Celtics long-term scheme? No, and here is why…
There is no doubt that Isaiah Thomas was the main reason for the Celtics capturing the number one seed in the Eastern Conference this year. Along with being the team leader, Thomas also led the team in scoring and assists per game. Thomas was selected to the All-NBA Second team as well as the All-Star team for the second time in his short career.
His performance this year has shot his value up to new heights, which is exactly why the Celtics should move Thomas to acquire a piece of pieces for a championship team.
The trade market for a point guard is already thin, and with Thomas’s salary at $6 million any team looking for an upgrade in the backcourt (and there are plenty) would be foolish not put in an offer. I can think of 25 teams that would benefit from a trade for Thomas, but I have narrowed it down to four realistic destinations. Chicago, New York, Utah, and New Orleans.
It feels as if every other week the Celtics are engaged in trade talks with the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler, but if Isaiah Thomas is on the table it’s a whole different story. Butler for Thomas makes a lot of sense, especially if the Celtics package Thomas with Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart. This trade would give the Celtics the elite scorer they have been searching for for years as well as keep the cap open to sign a player to pair with Butler.
Perhaps the most unlikely scenario of the four would be for Boston to deal Isaiah within the division to the rival Knicks. The Knicks are a franchise in complete disarray, and after a failed experiment with point guard Derrick Rose in 2016-17, Phil Jackson is sure to move on at the position.
For the Knicks to acquire Isaiah Thomas, they would have to part ways with 7’3 center Kristaps Porzingis, a position desperately sought after by Boston. There have also been rumors of Carmelo Anthony being included in a trade to Boston, yet with his cap hit in the $27 million range, the Celtics would need to include other salaries to keep the money window open.
Utah would be another interesting destination for Thomas to end up simply because of the trade possibilities. Utah has two players that the Celtics would love to see dressed in green next season, those two being Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert. If Hayward accept his player option to stay in Utah, or agrees to a sign and trade with Boston, Ainge has the players as well as the draft picks to make that trade happen.
Last but certainly not least is a possible deal with the New Orleans Pelicans for one of their studs in the front court. Both Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins are rumored to be on the trade block, leaving the door wide open for Ainge to swoop in and steal one of them with Thomas and the draft picks he has in his back pocket. The obvious preference would be Anthony Davis, the five-year veteran who can do anything you need him to do on the court. With New Orleans far away from a top team, it is more than likely that they would part ways with Davis if Ainge presents the right deal.
If the Celtics do in fact trade Isaiah Thomas, the next move would be on June 22nd during this years NBA draft.
Draft Markelle Fultz with the First Pick
Without Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics will need to fill his role at point guard. This void will be filled by both Marcus Smart (barring a trade) and the soon to be first pick in the 2017 draft, Markelle Fultz out of the University of Washington.
Fultz’s skill set is exactly what the Celtics are looking for in a franchise point guard. Standing at 6”4 and 200 lbs, Fultz’s frame is perfectly suited for scoring and defensive purposes. So far it seems like a perfect fit, but Fultz will surely need time to learn the game. This is where Marcus Smart comes into play. His performance against the Cavaliers in the playoffs was admirable, but most importantly proved that he can lead this team in the absence of Isaiah Thomas. Smart could be of value as a teacher to Fultz while he transitions to the NBA.
Just imagine in three years the Celtics having a starting lineup of Fultz, Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Anthony Davis, Gobert, or Porzingis.
The possibilities for this team are endless, but those possibilities should all begin with Markelle Fultz
Acquire Veteran Role Players Through Free Agency
Ideally a championship roster includes a deep bench with role players that can make a big impact while playing limited minutes. This free agent class is a wild card of sorts, but if full of players that could deepen the Celtics bench.
The roles that require the most attention in my opinion are, rebounding, post-defense and three- point shooting. Among the 2017 free agents, there are a few that should be high value targets for Ainge.
JJ Reddick, the 12th year sharpshooter, will more than likely be getting a call from Danny Ainge at some point this summer. Ainge has long been a fan of Reddick’s dating back to his days at Duke. Reddick’s .415 3-point shooting percentage could help the Celtics spread the floor by giving them a serious threat from deep. His style of play fits perfectly in the Brad Stevens’ offense, which was 2nd in the NBA in three pointers attempted.
In terms of rebounding, the Celtics need a big body down low to clean up the glass. Unfortunately, this free agent class is seriously thin in this category, but players like Serge Ibaka, Nerlens Noel, and Javale McGee could be wooed away from potential suitors if the price is right.
Two value signings that could help the Celtics compete immediately would be Rudy Gay and Patrick Patterson. Gay could provide a burst of scoring off the bench behind Crowder or Jaylen Brown. Gay is an all-around type player who has had a string of extremely productive seasons in Sacramento, while averaging 17+ points per game in every season since 2007.
Patterson would be a great addition to the Celtics bench as a back-up to Horford. The 6”9 stretch-four could provide assistance in scoring and rebounding for the second unit. If Ainge could bring in Patterson at a bargain, it could be a great signing with a lot potential at a low risk.
Continue to Grow Through the Draft
The most impressive asset collected by Danny Ainge is his array of draft picks in upcoming drafts. Ainge owns four picks in 2017, three in 2018, five in 2019, and three in 2020.
In 2017, the Celtics have the number one overall selection along with three second round picks (37, 53, 56). These picks could be used to add depth to the back end of the bench or be spent on foreign players. This is a strategy used by Ainge before to keep their salaries off the salary cap, and allowing the Celtics more money to spend on free agency.
The key with these picks is to continue to have strong drafts, like in 2016, and hopefully 2017. Building for the future could be the best route for the Celtics, as the Cavaliers and the Warriors show no signs of slowing down in the near future. If Ainge banks these picks, and plays the game the right way, the Boston Celtics could be looking at years of success in the future.