After the Indiana Pacers agreed to trade Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis hours ahead of the beginning of NBA Free Agency, the big question turned to why the Celtics did not close the deal.
According to reports from Jeff Goodman of ESPN and Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe, they made several comprehensive offers throughout the year that Indiana did not accept. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reported the Celtics offered a package at the trade deadline centered around what became the number one pick in the draft. The high price was simple for the Celtics. They would have two playoff runs with George to convince him to stay long term, despite the echoes of Lakers whispers reverberating across the NBA universe.
Reading through the tea leaves on the draft-time offer from the Celtics settles the package on the in the distance yet vaunted Memphis Grizzlies pick, which could make its way to the high lottery. Then throw in the Celtics pick in 2018 – projected to be in the mid 20s, and the Clippers’ lottery protected first which will toe the line of being a mid-first or eventually defaulting to two second rounders.
The two starters would be Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart according to Adrian Wojnarowski of
The Vertical ESPN. With Crowder duplicating George’s game with a less remarkable skill set and both Bradley and Smart entering free agency next summer, this was an easy pill to swallow for Ainge’s front office. The reporting indicates this was the deal the Celtics wanted to be heard in the open, but it matches closely with previous proposals CelticsBlog had heard from sources throughout the offseason.
After Larry Bird rejected a trade for the top pick at the deadline, new President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard surprisingly turned down more viable offers from the Celtics throughout the year. The truth on who turned down what is still fairly murky, but the reporting is consistent enough to indicate the Celtics’ abovementioned offers were rejected, not pulled off the table. Bulpett reported the Celtics as being stunned when the George trade was reported, operating under the assumption that they would have summer league to work out a deal after closing a deal on Gordon Hayward next week.
Their reaction was shared across the league, with multiple league sources telling CelticsBlog they are befuddled, through various forms of colorful language and emojis. Beyond the package Indiana received was the confusion over the timing. They traded for two players locked into long-term deals, with a team who wasn’t operating on the market.
There appears to be no impetus to make this deal now, while a bidding war between Boston and Cleveland had room to grow after they enacted their first phase of the free agency period. Oladipo and Sabonis would have been just as available two weeks from now as they were last night. Even more perplexing is that any other GM would rather just have Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder than Oladipo and Sabonis.
Ainge has done a solid job laying out a team building policy of stockpiling developing assets. He hasn’t traded a single one of the high-value picks he has accumulated over the Stevens era and has drafted his best player available each time. He was ahead of the curve on the position-less league and has no problem with perceived redundancy.
With Gordon Hayward in his sights while still carrying Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on the roster, redundancy will reign supreme for now.
But getting Hayward’s signature just became significantly more complicated. They used the promise of Al Horford to get all the way into crunch time with Kevin Durant last summer. This year it was Paul George waiting in the wings. Danilo Gallinari is out there, but his price may exceed the value of his injury track record. Hayward can see a scenario in Boston where he is a secondary player to Thomas, fighting a steep uphill battle against LeBron James. In Miami, he can have an optimal lifestyle where he is the face of the franchise on a good developing team with top tier coaching and management. He’ll have much of what he had in Utah, but you know, on South Beach.
There is no other franchise cornerstone clearly on the market at this point to advertise to Hayward. The Anthony Davis discussion can be had at a later date, but the New Orleans Pelicans locking in Jrue Holiday Friday means Davis won’t be remotely touchable unless the Pelicans have an epic collapse this season.
So Ainge has to again pick up the pieces and march forward with a franchise stuck in two different timelines. His starters are all in their prime, with Avery Bradley and sixth starter Marcus Smart hitting the market as a restricted free agent. Isaiah Thomas continues to loudly yell, “Brinks!” from the top of Mt. Twitter.
He is approaching the fork in the road where he has to pay his current roster, a team that was deconstructed at a molecular level by the Cleveland Cavaliers two months ago. Getting crushed by the luxury tax to push this team forward, even with Hayward, would be a pessimistic proposition. The Celtics see the Warriors starting down a future tax bill in the hundreds of millions and will have to dance around it.
The goal has always been to add two cornerstones in their prime this offseason while keeping at least two of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart. They also have some solid rotation prospects in Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye, Ante Zizic, and Guerschon Yabusele coming through the pipeline.
So if Ainge can’t put together a four star core -- the bare minimum to win a title in the era of the Superteam -- the two-phase development plan may need to start shifting toward phase two. Ainge can do this by just holding onto his picks and putting together a young core reminiscent of the Thunder a decade ago. But that isn’t enough for him or this franchise and never will be. They are within striking distance now, and Ainge has balked on a few opportunities to bid high and hit fast.
He is known to be risk averse in free agency, but devilishly aggressive in the draft and trade market. Whether he is holding out for his patented fleece trade, which appeared feasible this year based on the meager returns for the multitude of starts traded, Ainge will undoubtedly have his next move lined up. But opportunity windows keep opening and closing faster than the Celtics can stick their hand through to shake on a deal. At this point, it might take a GM jumping through their window to get something done.