Yesterday, I tweeted that if these Atlanta trade rumors are true, the Celtics will literally be last year's Hawks. It was a joke at the time, but the more and more I thought about it, it didn't make sense. One of the narratives coming into this season was that Boston had a chance to mirror Atlanta's success from last year as a team who succeeded playing good team basketball without a superstar. The Hawks would eventually finish 60-22 but get swept by the star-studded Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals after a rash of injuries decimated their depth and, eventually, their chances.
This year, they've been a disappointment. They're a game behind the Celtics as the #4 seed, and now there are rumors that management is willing to break up their core to find younger players and push back their championship window if this season doesn't turn around. Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver are reportedly on the block, and teams like the Magic, Pacers, Nuggets, and yes, Celtics are interested in their services.
They're attractive players that would fit in instantly in Boston. Mike Budenholzer's system is very similar to Brad Stevens', and it would be easy to plug those guys in, but there's always a price. This morning, Ainge spoke with Toucher and Rich and admitted that the team as currently constructed wasn't ready to compete with the NBA elite. Adding any combination of those Hawks could push them closer, but there's always a price. Danny's been gathering assets for two and a half years, and this is the kind of opportunity that he's been waiting for, but I'd argue that the team should stay the course. If anything, the Hawks should serve as a cautionary tale with three important lessons to learn and consider before the trade deadline next week.
Timing. Atlanta did a good job finding/keeping players that fit Budenholzer's system. When they broke up that first-round-and-out Hawks team that featured Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, they looked for players that would compliment their team philosophy. Those moves included retaining Horford, signing and re-signing Paul Millsap, drafting pass first point guard Dennis Schroeder, picking up DeMarre Carroll, and trading for Thabo Sefolosha.
They've all been savvy transactions that paid off big last year, but is it possible that the Hawks peaked at the wrong time? The Cavaliers--despite all their warts--should be perennial conference champs for the next 2-3 years and if you can even get past Cleveland, odds are you'll have to face a Warriors or Spurs team who is even better. It makes sense that they'd be looking to reshuffle the deck. Sometimes, you just have to be patient and wait your turn. Can they compete with the upper echelon teams today or are they better suited cashing in their assets now and planning for down the road?
Not everything that glitters is gold. When DeMarre Carroll signed with the Toronto Raptors, it didn't seem like a huge loss to the Hawks on the surface. Despite the fact that he was their best perimeter defender, Carroll was their fourth leading scorer (just ahead of Korver) and Atlanta had Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to lean on for D. Now in retrospect, letting him go looks like a big mistake. Carroll was the team's heart and soul and for a team finally gelling together, he was the mortar for all the bricks in their rebuild.
Jae Crowder is our DeMarre Carroll. There have been several rumors that have linked the Celtics to stars like Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony, but any deal for a player of that caliber would certainly have to include 99 Problems. Forget the fact that Crowder is blossoming into a versatile two-way player or that he's on a very team-friendly five-year $35M contract. Crowder has filled the Kevin Garnett-sized hole and been the grit and balls of the Celtics. Boston doesn't have an official team captain, but the team has turned to the 25-year-old for leadership. In addition to stepping up against the league's best, he's been vocal whenever the Celtics have not played to their potential. In short, he's a keeper.
Exercise patience and trust the process. One of Atlanta's potential trade partners is Orlando. There have been rumblings that the Magic are looking to add more "seasoned" veterans to their roster to speed up their rebuild like potentially moving promising young guard Victor Oladipo for Teague. I can understand that instinct. Moves like this have propelled teams forward like Ainge turning Al Jefferson into Kevin Garnett and eventually a banner in 2008. An Oladipo-Teague swap would not be of that caliber, but it's just an example of a team trying to skip steps and avoid the growing pains.
Unfortunately, you can try and shortcut to success, but the NBA is an unforgiving cycle especially with the current CBA. If you mortgage your future, you're going to have to pay for it at some point, but if you draft well and hit it right in free agency, you can bigger contention windows. The Warriors did it with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala. They haven't won a championship yet, but the Thunder have stayed relevant for years by sticking to their plan. And of course, there's the Spurs. All three teams have made trades to benefit the now and the later, but more or less, they've been smart and not done anything too drastic.
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So what about the Celtics? Without another game between now and the trade deadline, they're in a curious time right now. Chemistry-wise, they're playing at an all-time high and you'd think that Ainge wouldn't want to disrupt that. However, if something blew him away, he'd have to consider it. Let's consider his (alleged) interest in Horford and/or Teague. He's said that he isn't interested in adding players in their thirties, and they're 29 and 27 years old respectively. The Celtics' core players' average age is just over 25, so those guys would somewhat fit the timeline. What would Ainge have to give up? ESPN Insiders have suggested that a package of Kelly Olynyk, David Lee, and picks could net Horford. I'm a little skeptical that that would be enough. Budenholzer would have to insist on Marcus Smart and like Crowder, Smart's a dealbreaker for me. Even Olynyk is borderline. For me, I'm absolutely content seeing this thing play out without any moves (although I'd like to see some return for Lee's expiring contract). Anything substantial can wait until the summer. With cap space and a ton of picks in this year's draft, Ainge can add without subtraction. We're having fun, "they're not afraid of anybody and they've got a bunch of junkyard dogs that can play", and hey:
Isaiah Thomas: "We're at a solid area right now. The scary thing about it is, we know we can do better."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) February 11, 2016