What Should the Celtics Do With All of Their Assets?
The present day Boston Celtics are in as good a position as any non-title contending team in NBA history. The Celtics were defeated by the Cleveland Cavalier in the Eastern Conference Finals in a season in which they finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Their only pricey long-term contract is Al Horford ($88M for the next 3 seasons), but he is still a very productive player. Boston’s only other long-term contract belongs to Jae Crowder, but his deal is arguably the best value in the league (3 more years for just $22M). The rest of Boston’s players are on rookie scale contracts or will expire either this summer or next summer. And most importantly, the Celtics have the best future draft assets in the NBA along with the Philadelphia 76ers. In this upcoming draft the Celtics will have the first overall pick along with three 2nd round selections (37th, 53rd, and 56th). In future drafts the only picks that the Celtics owe are their 2018 and 2019 2nd round picks, and they only lose these picks if they are between selections 55-60. To add to their embarrassment of riches, Boston has the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 1st round pick, the Los Angeles Clippers’ lottery protected 2019 1st round pick, the Memphis Grizzlies’ top-8 protected 2019 first round pick, the Detroit Pistons’ 2019 2nd round pick, and the Miami Heat’s 2020 2nd round pick. To top it off the Celtics have the draft rights to several players overseas, including Marcus Thornton (45th pick in 2015), Abdel Nader (58th pick in 2016), Ante Zizic (23rd pick in 2016) and Guerschon Yabusele (16th pick in 2016).
The only “problem” with having so many assets is there isn’t room to keep all of them. That is a big part of the reason why the Celtics used two 1st round picks last year on players who would stay overseas and not take up a roster spot and cut RJ Hunter just one year after selecting him 28th overall. This also helps explain why impatient fans wanted team president Danny Ainge to cash in some of his chips for an established star i.e. Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline. Instead Ainge has thus far resisted win now moves with an eye towards the future, and it has paid off tremendously. Without sacrificing any future assets the C’s were able to finish atop of the east and win two playoff series. As currently constructed the Celtics should be a perennial 50+ win team, and there is still plenty of help on the way. While I commend Ainge for his patience and smart decisions, I believe this summer is the time to start to make bigger moves.
As long as the Celtics keep the 1st pick in this year’s draft (which they should), it seems safe to assume they will select Markelle Fultz. The problem is the Celtics backcourt is already stacked with the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier. All four of these guys deserve at least 20 MPG, so there isn’t enough playing time to keep all of these guards while adding Fultz into the picture. Fultz should be considered untouchable, especially when factoring he will be on his rookie contract for 4 years before he becomes a restricted free agent. Terry Rozier also has great value with 2 more years at just $5M total left on his deal before he too becomes a restricted free agent. That leaves Smart, Bradley, and Thomas left in the backcourt, three of the Celtics five best players from this season. All three players will be free agents following the 2017-18 season (Bradley and Thomas unrestricted and Smart restricted). If I were Ainge I would attempt to trade Isaiah Thomas, despite his immense popularity in Boston
First off, I want to make it clear that the Celtics are a much better team with Thomas than without him. I know they won Game 3 against the Cavs and were competitive without him in Game 4, but they would not have advanced this far without Thomas. Thomas is coming off a season in which he was 3rd in scoring, 2nd in FT%, made his second All-Star team, and received 2nd team All-NBA honors. Thomas is due just $6.26M next season before heading into free agency. Isaiah’s value will never be higher than it is now (unless, he requires surgery for his hip injury) which is why the Celtics should capitalize on him now. Boston’s lack of turning assets into players this past season shows that the front office understands that they need to wait out LeBron James’ dominance. They should try competing with the Cavs the next few years, but it's not worth giving up their assets to try and beat one of the top-5 players of all-time in his prime. The Celtics need to be ready to compete with the 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and other Eastern Conference teams on the rise in 1-3 years when LeBron might finally start to slow down. The problem with Isaiah is that he too might be on the decline when James begins his slide. Isaiah’s contract makes him a bargain for next season, but he will be looking to be rewarded handsomely in free agency. According to Sam Amick from USA Today, Thomas will be eligible to sign a max deal with the Celtics worth nearly $180M over five years. Thomas will be 29 ½ when eligible for this deal, and the contract would increase annually, meaning he would make the most in the final year of the deal when he is 35 years old. Thomas is the Celtics best player, but he is a huge liability on defense. Bradley and Smart are much better two-way players, especially when Smart can shoot like he did in Game 3 against Cleveland. This game was a perfect example of why the Celtics should move on from Thomas. Smart was having the shooting game of his life (7-10 from three), so he was able to replicate Isaiah’s scoring. The big difference for Boston in that game was they didn’t have to worry about what player Thomas was matched up with on defense. Rozier is a solid defender while Smart and Bradley are arguably the two best backcourt defender in the NBA. Fultz won't be able to walk into the league and match Isaiah’s scoring prowess, but in due time he has a good chance at becoming a better overall player and would help alleviate the loss of Thomas. Against a juggernaut like the Cavs or Warriors you need to have players that can play both ends of the floor, and Thomas simply isn’t that kind of player. Isaiah is a great story as such a diminutive player and the last pick of the 2011 draft. It is truly incredible the level he has reached as a player and fan favorite in Boston, but this shouldn’t blind the Celtics from making the best moves for their franchise. Of all of their guards Thomas will be by far the most expensive as well as the oldest and the least complete all around player. All of this adds up to him being the best option to trade.
The trade market for Isaiah should have many interested suitors, but it's hard to predict who will really want him until we see where many of the top point guards are drafted and sign in free agency. Some teams that could be interested include the Denver Nuggets, the Brooklyn Nets, the Indiana Pacers (if they lose Jeff Teague), the the Dallas Mavs, the Toronto Raptors (if they lose Kyle Lowry), and the Los Angeles Clippers (if they lose Chris Paul). The most interesting of these teams is the Pacers. Which teams says no to a trade of Isaiah, Crowder, the Nets unprotected 2018 pick, and the Clippers lottery protected 2019 pick to Indiana in exchange for Paul George and Myles Turner? The scary thing is the Celtics still have plenty of leftover resources to add to that hypothetical deal if necessary.
Since Boston has so little committed in salary to its current roster, the Celtics could have about $25M in salary cap room even after accounting for the salary of the 1st pick. This cap space could come down a bit depending upon if they keep any of their 2nd round picks and if they bring over any of their overseas players, but they should still have at least $20M in cap room. The Celtics will have Kelly Olynyk as a restricted free agent, as well as Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson, and James Young as unrestricted free agents. Most of these players have all been solid rotation players and had some big moments this postseason, but none of these free agents will significantly alter the Celtics trajectory if they leave. As many know, Gordon Hayward, who famously played for Celtics coach Brad Stevens at Butler, will be the Celtics top free agent target. It appears Hayward will either go to Boston or re-sign with Utah, and his decision will be huge for the Celtics. Hayward only recently turned 27 so his prime years should still fit in well with the rest of Boston’s young core. Hayward is much more than just a scorer, but adding an All-Star like Hayward, who just averaged 22 PPG, in addition to bringing in Fultz, should ease the burden of losing Isaiah’s scoring (if they did trade him). Hayward is the only unrestricted free agent who is young enough for it to be worth it for Boston to offer a max contract to. If they can’t manage to sign Hayward they should preserve some of their cap space and look to add a veteran rebounder on a short-term deal. Taj Gibson, Zach Randolph, or Nene Hilario could be a great addition in one or two year deals. Kelly Olynyk is the best of their free agents, and the Celtics will be able to match offers since he is restricted, but they shouldn’t overpay him. After a strong postseason, including his incredible performance in Game 7 against the Wizards, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some team sign Olynyk to an outrageous offer sheet. If that’s the case, Boston should let him walk.
Boston is set up so well that there really is not a wrong path for them to follow. It’s more of a matter of preference of which path they believe is the best option. The Celtics already have 17 NBA titles, the most in the league, and they looked poised to add more banners over the next decade.