I have seen and heard many people, in both comment threads and articles, bemoan the state of the Celtics frontcourt, specifically at the 5. I have heard wailing and gnashing of teeth, as people gaze around the league at the myriad rim-protectors that patrol the paint for other teams and say; why doesn't he play for our team? Why don't we trade for that guy? Countless armchair-GM's have targeted many defensive-minded centers who are in the league already, or who are still playing at the college level, and have begun to scheme up ways to get that player onto the Celtics. As with all discussions centered on the future (pun kind-of intended), the best course of action we have in front of us is to take a deep breath, slow down, and stop putting the shot-blocking horse before the cart.
Currently, there are a number of Centers in the NBA who could fill the role of rim-protector on the Celtics. Putting aside the year that Tyler Zeller has had, which has exceeded most reasonable expectations, we still lack a forceful deterrent in the paint. If we are assuming that our Center of the Future is not currently on our squad (and I think we can all agree he probably isn't), then there are three ways we can go out and get him. We can trade for him, sending some of our plethora of assets to a team on which this player no longer fits. We can draft him, pinning our hopes onto one of the first-round draft picks we will have in the next couple of years. Finally, we could draw him to Boston in free agency, and make a compelling pitch based on the Celtics's storied franchise, talented young coach, and positioning for the future.
The Trade Route
If we want to trade for a 5, there are a few that are definitely obtainable. Larry Sanders, with his questionable dedication, and his off-court issues, seems to be rapidly falling out of the Milwaukee Buck's rotation. He received a 10-game suspension from the league for violating their anti-drug policy, hasn't played in the last 15 games, and has only played more than 25 minutes in 6 games all season. However, he is averaging 1.4 blocks per game for the season, and 1.8 per game for his career. However, his salary is $11M per year through 2017. That is a pill that is likely too large for the rebuilding Celtics to swallow, especially with so much risk attached to it. Other centers that are likely available include Enes Kanter, who is not much of a rim protector (average of .4 BPG), and Javale McGee, who's issues are similar to Sanders's, but even more egregious. John Henson would be a good bet, as he is currently averaging 1.6 BPG this season in only 15.6 minutes per game. However, none of these players are a sure thing. In fact, there are almost no players in the NBA who are a sure thing; the ones that are are certainly unavailable. Almost every player in the league is influenced more by the system the play in than most people are willing to admit. The tales of Rudy Gay's transformation when he got to Sacramento, and Dwight Howard's drop in production and effectiveness in Los Angeles are well-documented, and can easily be attributed to being poor fits. This is the fundamental danger with trading for a center; what happens if you spend those assets to acquire them (likely a not-insignificant number of assets, too) and then they don't fit well into Brad Steven's system?
The Draw Route
Many of the issues that we find with the trade route are the same with the draw route. If we manage to bring a center to Beantown in free agency, they may still not fit well with Brad Steven's system, and with the players around them. If we've learned anything from the Spurs of the past few years, the Lakers of 2012, and from the Pistons of 2004, we've learned that the most important part of a team is that all of the pieces fit together well. An incoming free agent would need to fit perfectly with the system and their teammates. More importantly, and certainly less probably, a player would have to really want to come to Boston. As much history as this team has, the bitterly cold winters of Massachusetts are considerably less inviting than the warm seasons of a Miami, or an LA, or a Houston. Additionally, a rebuilding situation is hardly a desirable situation for a high-level player. Drawing our center of the future to come to Beantown in free agency is possibly the least likely route.
The Draft Route
Building a team through the draft is the most plausible and viable way to ensure that your players are good fits for the team, and that they are on inexpensive contracts for the first several years of their career. Historically, the Celtics have had inconsistent success in the draft; they have found a lot of good talent in the middle of the first round, but have drafted their fair share of busts as well (Fab Melo comes to mind, but don't forget about JR Giddens). With that being said, there is a good chance that the Celtics find their center of the next several years in this upcoming draft. The board is stocked with big men, from Okafor and Towns to Cauley-Stein and Turner and Upshaw. Now, there is no guarantee that any of these players will turn out to be the next Hakeem, and in fact it's exceedingly unlikely. In fact, there's only one of them that will even project as a truly great rim-protector and defensive center. Fortunately for the Celtics, that player is the one that should fall to them around the range of the 6th pick; Willie Cauley-Stein. Now, the argument for drafting WCS will have to wait for a different article, but he is certainly a defensive-minded big that can be obtained but the Celtics in the draft, with a relatively inexpensive contract. The problem still remains though, to some degree; how well will he fit with the C's?
While this armchair-GM will say that we should target WCS through the draft, rather than try to package some assets to trade for a rim-protector, or hoping that one decides that cold Boston winters are just their style, it doesn't really matter how we acquire a defensive-minded center. In fact, there is great risk involved with getting a center in any of these three ways, for one simple reason. It doesn't matter how good they were at the last place they were playing. It only matters how good they become after they put on the green and hit the parquet. We have a good coach, we have a lot of good young pieces, and we have a creative and intelligent GM. Rather than focusing on the things that we don't have (that we'll have in the future), we should be focusing on the development of Avery Bradley's shot, on the progress of Sullinger's shot selection and consistency, on Evan Turner's evolution into a solid point guard, and on Tyler Zeller's emergence as a high-quality rotation center. Let's pay attention to the development of our present; our future will arrive soon enough.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics from ESPN.com