It’s been a bit of a slow week for Celtics’ basketball in the wake of their disappointing five-game road trip; Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls was their first since Sunday night, meaning they’ve been mostly inactive heading into this weekend’s back-to-back. If you’re anything like me, these stretches are monumentally dull; what does a person even do when the Celtics aren’t playing?
Let’s work through this boredom together with a bit of a thought experiment. Consider this hypothetical from Andy Bailey of SB Nation’s Utah Jazz affiliate, SLC Dunk:
Alright, let's say there's an expansion draft after this season. Tell me the eight players your favorite team would protect (in other words, not allow to be drafted in this hypothetical expansion draft).— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) November 14, 2018
Before we get started, there are also some rules that need to be kept in mind:
You don't have to do eight! Eight is just the maximum... https://t.co/sWhH7MUg0Z— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) November 14, 2018
The latter of those two tweets doesn’t necessarily matter from Boston’s standpoint (unless you’re going WAY outside the box), but the former matters quite a bit. Not being able to protect players headed for unrestricted free agency eliminates two key players that would almost certainly be obvious choices otherwise: Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris. It also eliminates Brad Wanamaker, but considering he’s played a total of six minutes so far this season, that doesn’t necessarily move the needle very much.
In this instance, Kyrie’s unrestricted free agency may actually be a boon for the Celtics. If he is indeed locked in on re-signing with the Celtics in free agency, he would be able to do so after the expansion draft and functionally be their ninth protected player. Morris, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess; I’m not sure the Celtics will be paying up to retain him this off season and he may well want to find a greater role with another team anyways.
So, with that trio out of the way, let’s get down to business: who are we protecting?
#1 — Jayson Tatum
Without a doubt, Tatum is the biggest no-brainer of this exercise. Even considering his early season slump (which he appears to be pulling out of), Tatum is the team’s top prospect and definitely represents the future of the franchise. He’s got two more seasons on his rookie contract, and he’ll certainly land an extension before restricted free agency even becomes a question. Ainge made one of his boldest trades specifically to land Tatum, and he’s not about to let him go.
#2 — Jaylen Brown
A month ago, this would have been basically as much of a no-brainer as Tatum, but I suspect that Brown’s miserable start to the season has dropped his stock as a prospect just a little bit.
Even if I was one of the people souring on Brown — and I assure you, I’m not — “just a little bit” is FAR from enough to kick him off this list. He’s due for positive regression, and even if he doesn’t return to the offensive heights of his 2017-18 season, combining even merely average shooting with his prodigious perimeter defense would make him a tremendously valuable asset. He’ll also only turn 23-years-old in the early weeks of next season, with restricted free agency ensuring a team could keep him for several more seasons to come. He clearly stays.
#3 — Al Horford
Al Horford has a player option for next season, so he’s eligible for this list on sort of a technicality. At 33-years-old, and commanding a salary of $30 million next season if he picks up that option, Horford isn’t exactly the player an expansion team would specifically target, but he’s too important to the Celtics’ short-term success to risk losing. Remember, we’re still trying to win games after this is all over, and the team isn’t ready to move on from him yet. He stays.
Horford’s option opens up an intriguing bit of gamesmanship, though. Similar to Irving, if Horford commits to signing a new contract with the Celtics, you could have him decline the option and hit unrestricted free agency, thus making him ineligible for the draft. In real life, we’ve already seen some talks that Horford could potentially decline that option and take a long-term deal with the team for less annual money, so in our fantasy NBA, that strategy would come with an added bonus of allowing the Celtics to retain an extra player from the expansion pool.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say he picks up the option and gets protected.
#4 — Gordon Hayward
This is where our expansion draft starts to get very interesting. Hayward has only just returned from his devastating injury to open last season, and he’s still a long ways away from his All-Star form with the Utah Jazz, which has begun to inspire some frustration from Celtics fans. He’s also expensive, under contract for two more seasons after the draft at an average of $33 million annually.
One thing to remember: this draft would be happening this coming summer, not right now. We would have a much clearer idea of just what Hayward will be at that point in time. You could make the case that, if you believe he’s not going to return to his previous form, this is an opportunity to get out from under his hefty contract. There’s some sense to that. However, I would contend that, if his play is concerning to the point that you’re considering that, odds are an expansion team isn’t going to want to take the chance on him anyways.
Regardless, I believe Hayward will be back to form before long, and for that reason, he stays.
#5 — Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart is another very easy protection, and considering we just endured an entire off season dissecting his value as a player, I won’t go too in-depth here. Smart will be just 25-years-old by the start of next season, and signed for three more seasons at an eminently reasonable price. Considering he’s the emotional leader of the team, there’s no way he goes anywhere.
If by some chance he were to go unprotected, he’d be a savvy target for an expansion team trying to build a strong locker room culture.
#6 — Terry Rozier
I’ve already fully braced myself for some comment section outrage with this pick. Though his rookie contract will be over, Rozier is eligible for this list due to his pending restricted free agency, and considering the Celtics’ crowded cap situation and his uneven play to open the year, his long-term status with the team is up in the air even in real life, let alone in our fictional timeline.
That said, there’s just no incentive not to keep Scary Terry. Though I can’t see him staying in Boston after this season, his qualifying offer gives the team a lot of flexibility moving forward, which is something Ainge values. The Celtics could keep him on hand in the event Irving doesn’t re-sign, orchestrate a sign-and-trade with a potential suitor or even enjoy another season with him for the qualifying offer if for some reason a market doesn’t materialize. If you’re going to let Rozier leave, it’s just better to do so on terms you have more control over.
A note: if Irving were to re-sign before the expansion draft and thus become eligible for protection, Rozier is the player I would replace on this list for him.
#7 — Robert Williams
This is a bet on pure upside. Relatively deep on productive front court players right now, the Celtics have chosen to take it slow with this summer’s first round pick. Williams hasn’t seen the court very much thus far this season, and barring something unforeseen, odds are that he still won’t have by the time the expansion draft rolls around.
Let’s not forget the kind of prospect Williams is though. When the Celtics picked him, they were lauded as having found the steal of the draft. Williams was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC, and he’s a prodigious athlete who could build a long career for himself as a defensive anchor and offensive rim-runner. When a guy is getting Clint Capela comparisons, you don’t want to let him go. The Timelord stays.
#8 — Semi Ojeleye
The Celtics’ final protection slot could go a few different ways depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re thinking strictly long-term, the best option may be Ojeleye, while Aron Baynes contributes the most to winning basketball right now and Daniel Theis provides a bit of a mix of both. I’m going with the first option.
My reasons for picking Ojeleye are twofold. First, he’s already a useful (albeit limited) NBA role player at 23-years-old, and second, Baynes isn’t exactly the kind of player an expansion team would necessarily want to target — and he’s decently replaceable if they do. What Ojeleye provides is a bit more unique, as he’s an athletic wing player with 3-and-D upside who already has a bit of playoff seasoning. He’s shown some clear improvement this season, and I’m rolling with the hope that he’ll continue to grow moving forward.
Unprotected — Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele
Yes, the Celtics’ front court gets a bit of a culling here. However, I think there’s a strong chance that, at a minimum, at least one of these players goes unselected in an expansion draft and returns to the Celtics — most likely Baynes, considering his age. Theis is a restricted free agent after this season, and considering he has the upside of “third big on a good team,” he’d be a bargain for an expansion team. Yabusele could also make for an intriguing late-round pick. he’s still largely an unknown quantity after seeing the court very little so far during his Celtics career and has another year on his rookie deal after the Celtics picked up their team option with him earlier this year.
Now, it’s your turn: sound off in the comments below to let me know just how terribly wrong I might be and what you’d do instead.