Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the news that Paul George has informed Indiana he wants out.
Sifting through the rubble of Saturday night’s news of a groundbreaking trade, figuring out where the Celtics go from here has become even more unclear. Perhaps it’s the cloud of dust in the air, or the mass of destruction laying in the Celtics’ wake. They have churned and churned their assets to the point that it’s hard to even see where the path may be.
Danny Ainge looked long and hard at the tantalizing prospect of drafting Markelle Fultz and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Yet with the Celtics trading the number-one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for the third pick and the rights to the Los Angeles Lakers’ protected 2018 top pick, they are now in a unique position to make another trade. They have more valuable pieces to move, with options to either blow away an unwilling trade partner or make a good trade with more assets in the vault.
They have a chance to make a big trade while still maintaining a max salary slot and keeping multiple assets to build off of in the future. Much is made of the tricky task of carving open a full max slot, but there are several ways for this to be addressed. The initial factor is that while the cap is projected at $101 million, this is not the final number, and its potential movement affects the Celtics more than almost anyone in the league.
Boston may have to trade Terry Rozier to squeeze the full max slot at the current figure, but the number may contract even more due to the limited number of playoff games this year. If the Celtics were to make a trade on draft night, they can send out 20% more salary than they are taking in, thereby helping to open up that max slot. Of course, they can always convince Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin to take a slight haircut to sign.
With these new picks in tow, here is a look at the potential structure of some major trades for the Celtics to make a title run. Any one of these deals would make signing Hayward or Griffin that much more likely, demonstrating to each of them that they are the missing piece of the next NBA Super Team.
The Long-Anticipated Jimmy Butler Deal
Jimmy Butler to Boston for the #3 Pick, 2018 Nets Pick, Jae Crowder, Terry Rozier, Tyler Zeller, Demetrius Jackson, and Jordan Mickey
This deal has been in the works for a long time and it may be the right moment to pull the trigger. One name conspicuously absent here is Jaylen Brown, who the Bulls covet in this deal. But the Celtics are going to need to negotiate toward the middle, and keeping Brown out of the deal seems to be the only feasible compromise both sides can accept. This would mean replacing Rozier with Brown, which would be a bad deal for Boston, but open up an extra $3 million in space for a free agent.
Chicago demands two unprotected picks and gets them here, so adding a third top prospect would be too onerous for the Celtics to cave in. Chicago wants Brown in the package, but it’s just too much for Boston to surrender. Crowder goes in the deal because he and Butler do not work together, and the Bulls need someone in the deal to fill the void left by Butler. Rozier serves as a nice little bonus with more upside than any of their current guards and a cheap contract. While the Bulls would probably waive the rest of the haul, they may give Jackson a chance to see if he can develop.
But for Boston, they sacrifice depth of potential stars to lock in a dominant player in his prime. It allows them to flirt with max space and bring in either Griffin or Hayward, who both could fit well next to Butler. By including Zeller in the deal, the Celtics would likely then need to move Avery Bradley into someone else’ cap space or find another way to shed somewhere around $8 million to reopen that max space. This would elevate the Celtics’ offense to the historic levels we just witnessed in the Finals, but they would still not be title favorites. This trade at least allows Boston to keep Brown and the Lakers/Kings pick to build off of in the future, but essentially gives them a five-year championship window that runs parallel to the tail end of LeBron’s nearly infinite prime.
By the time LeBron is too old to hold down the fort consistently in the East, the Celtics may be between development timelines. They would have several of their draft picks coming into their primes while their core fades out of its prime. The repeater tax already means they could be looking at an eight-figure tax bill to carry that squad if everyone gets paid around market value when they hit free agency, so the feasibility to pull it off is incredibly murky.
The Not-Supposed-to-Happen Paul George Trade
Paul George to Boston for #3 Pick, 2018 Nets Pick, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Jordan Mickey, Demetrius Jackson, and Tyler Zeller
Similar in structure to the Butler deal, this is contingent on an extension with George being worked out much in the way the Cavs pulled off with Kevin Love. George may be even more desirable than Butler in some ways, although being a year younger has minimal impact. When reports come out saying George won’t be moved this summer, that’s often just leaks from Indy’s side trying to regain leverage. The reality is if George is serious about getting out of there—which he should be with the state of their franchise—this is one of the few ways it happens.
This is a mutually beneficial deal, allowing the Pacers to have two cornerstone picks, a new point guard to replace free agent Jeff Teague, a reliable vet in Crowder to put next to CJ Miles this year, and various contracts to shed or keep. With Larry Bird out and Kevin Pritchard in, the Pacers are facing a house clearing, and this would be the ideal way to kick it off.
UPDATE Sunday 4:00 pm: In light of the report that Paul George has informed the Pacers he will leave next year, the Celtics have enough leverage to acquire George for even less than two picks. This has now become a very real possiblity, with the Celtics looking to do this deal during the offseason so they can have a window to negotiate an extension with George informally before executing the deal. The price for George will drop significantly, as he is a guaranteed one-year rental for almost every other team in the NBA now that his intentions to leave for the Los Angeles Lakers have been leaked.
The Possibly Impossible Anthony Davis Deal
Anthony Davis to Boston for the #3 pick, 2018 Nets Pick, Rights to 2018 LAL/2019 SAC Pick, Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, and Tyler Zeller
This end result would be the most logical explanation for the Philly trade, giving the Celtics enough picks to try to pry Davis away from a refusing Pelicans organization. Multiple sources said the Pelicans will not move Davis at least this season, although the pressure can turn up come deadline time if they fail to win again. While that may be the position the Pelicans are taking, Davis is always going to be available for an extremely high price. The Celtics just happen to be able to pay that.
Davis is an MVP-caliber player in his age-24 season, making him perhaps the most desirable trade target in basketball. Boston can build any kind of contender around him and a have a legitimate shot at the title during the Warriors’ dynasty. This would mean that Blake Griffin would be out of the cards and their hopes would be placed on Gordon Hayward to sign. It would potentially give Boston a lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Jae Crowder, Anthony Davis, and Al Horford, certainly dangerous enough to battle the Cavs and Warriors for the next half decade as they all grapple with the luxury tax bill.
The Celtics are the only trade partner now that can give New Orleans a complete fresh start. They would still need to move DeMarcus Cousins to get that full fire sale, but this gives them an entirely new team and identity. They get four high lottery picks including Jaylen Brown, plus an ideal veteran in Avery Bradley who they will sign long-term. They could build a great young team essentially overnight and have an optimism that has been missing for years.
This trade only happens if Davis tells the front office he wants out, something that requires some back-channel signals and a lot of pressure and leverage. Pelicans GM Dell Demps has been on his last legs for a long time, with the lack of change more due to owner Tom Benson’s interest in maintaining profitability over basketball success. Demps could see this as an exit strategy from the turmoil he is stuck in, selling it to ownership as a low-cost way to keep the fanbase excited while creating more momentum toward winning. This trade is extremely unlikely, even at the deadline, but something the Celtics front office will pursue. They can still make the third pick and keep this move in the works, as the Pelicans would have such a clean slate that fit wouldn’t matter.
Screw It, Draft Them All
The top of next year’s draft looks to have another class of three to four elite prospects. That view always morphs over the course of the year leading up to the draft, but Michael Porter Jr., Luka Doncic, Mo Bamba, and DeAndre Ayton all present incredibly unique and diverse skill sets. The ideal path may be for Boston to draft either Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball, or Jayson Tatum this year and then pick up Doncic/Porter and Bamba/Ayton next year, giving them one of the most unique young teams in the modern era. But this is too far out to project and find any solace.
Once again, it is time to wait.