The Boston Celtics have been stockpiling versatile wing players this summer. There is good reason for such a strategy. Forwards that can shoot and/or create off the dribble and toggle between perimeter and post assignments defensively are incredibly valuable, particularly as the league’s best teams continues to trend towards a smaller, faster style of play.
Boston has developed a deep pool of players that might be able to take on meaningful roles within such a system, and while that bodes well for the team’s ability to fit in the modern NBA, they may have amassed a few too many players with positional duplicativeness. That is to say, there are only so many minutes in a game, and the Celtics now have a lot of wing players they would like to give them too.
Boston has a strange blend of young players that need time on the court to develop (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader) and more established talent that likely gives them a better opportunity to win in the present (Gordon Hayward, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris).
Having to decide how much winning now should be sacrificed to prepare for a bright future is a great problem to have. In fact, it’s not really a problem at all, but it is a situation that needs resolution.
The Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett posited today that the Celtics depth may lead to additional trades down the line.
“The Shamrocks simply have too many people for whom they’d like to find meaningful time (“First world problem,” is how assistant general manager Mike Zarren put it), and it seems they’ll be looking to loosen up some logjams before next February’s trade deadline.
Zarren didn’t say that latter part, but it’s fairly evident that the math doesn’t work when you’re trying to fit all they have and want to use into 240 minutes.”
This inference, that more deals may be on the way once coach Brad Stevens has had some time to determine what he’s working with, is a good one. The easiest way for the Celtics to solve things would be to construct a deal that re-balances their roster. Trading one or more of the teams wings for a big would go a long way to alleviating any difficulty Boston has in allocating its minutes on the perimeter.
The other alternative would be to live into a small-ball identity by making Al Horford a full-time center, and committing to having Crowder and Morris (and possibly Ojeleye) defending power forwards all year. That’s a tantalizing theoretical option. The best teams in the league (think Golden State and Cleveland) are capable of juicing their offenses by going small, without sacrificing on the defensive end.
Those units run other teams of the floor, and typically end games with fairly lopsided victories. They also don’t play small all the time though. Asking undersized players, no matter how strong, athletic, or defensively verastile, to take a beating from traditional big men is a dangerous request. It takes it’s toll over the course of eighty-two games, and while the end result may be regular season wins, having worn down players come the end of the year is never a good thing.
That’s what makes the possibility of a trade seem so plausible. The Celtics can surrender one of their wing options to add another player capable of taking on some of the grunt work in the paint, and still have plenty of pieces to go small as much as they want, when it matters most. If that trade frees up more time for the youth movement, without hurting the team’s current prospects much, Boston is all the more wiser for doing it.
The most challenging step in the whole process will be evaluating which players to prioritize. They’ve got plenty of time before the trade deadline to do so, however, and Stevens is good enough at getting the most out of his players to serve as a certain level of insurance that Boston’s decision won’t go horribly awry. That is, of course, assuming that they do ultimately decide to make a move.
It might be a little soon for all this. Speculating about what Boston might do in February feels a bit premature, particularly given that the summer isn’t even over. The Celtics are in a very interesting spot though. They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of potential talent, and dreams of maximizing both to compete at the highest level in the present and the future. Making that become a reality is a tightrope walk, of which we won’t know the true results for years to come.
It lends itself to thinking about “what if”, “what could be”, and “what could have been.” That can be an exhausting practice, but it’s the offseason. We’ve got time. We might as well embrace those things.