Isaiah Thomas nearly became the latest ring chaser to join a contending team. He ended up signing a veteran minimum contract to reunite with his former head coach in Denver after the Celtics--the team he arguably single-handedly built into a free agency destination--declined interest.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for IT, but he was willing to take it. Knowing a contract with Boston would require sacrificing minutes and shots to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy, Thomas still inquired about a spot on the Celtics, a winning environment he elevated several years ago that attracted Al Horford and later, Gordon Hayward. His reported desire to return after being traded last August did not ultimately materialize, but reflects well on the C’s becoming a destination for NBA vets.
If IT, after playing through potentially career-ending injury and being spurned in a trade, can come knocking on the door with hat in hand, what other ring-chasing veterans could be in the Celtics’ future? Let’s rewind back to a time when every summer or trade deadline seemed to draw an over-the-hill veteran looking for his last hoorah.
Jason Terry, Mickael Pietrus, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal highlight a laundry list of players past their primes that arrived at TD Garden attempting to raise Banner 18, but none of them could recapture P.J. Brown’s old man magic from 2008. It’s not as if Doc Rivers didn’t utilize them. He had a propensity to steer clear of consistent minutes for young players in favor of relying on veterans.
Rivers’ hesitant trust in Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo--then 23 and 21, respectively--flowered into a championship, but still, James Posey played more minutes per game than Perkins that season and Eddie House played in clutch moments in the playoffs.
Then JR Giddens played six games in 2009, Lester Hudson 16 the next and Luke Harongody 28 after him. Ainge didn’t grant Rivers peak prospects, but eventual starter Avery Bradley averaged 5.2 minutes per game as a rookie, late-bloomer E’Twaun Moore got 8.7 and Fab Melo barely touched the floor at all. Jared Sullinger could have bucked that trend, but Ainge’s most talented selection of that era fell to him because of back concerns that ended Sullinger’s rookie 2012-13 season.
With Boston tied up by Garnett’s massive salary and a lack of quality picks, the aforementioned veterans became pillars of Rivers’ rotations despite their aged legs. Wallace started a NBA Finals Game 7 following Perkins’ series-altering knee injury.
The teams that followed that game that desperately needed the youth infusion. Ainge took some half-measures to keep the team competitive like trading Perkins for Jeff Green, but it wasn’t until he made the big deal with the Brooklyn Nets that the team fully invested in the youth movement. And since then, Brad Stevens has taken an opposite approach with not just the rebuild, but in contention, too.
Marcus Smart and James Young played 67 and 31 games respectively following the first draft under Stevens. R.J. Hunter appeared in 36. Terry Rozier received 39 in a crowded 2015-16 back court. Guerschon Yabusele reached 33 last year and, most convincingly, Semi Ojeleye got 73 on a team that reached the East Finals. I’ll exclude Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum out of fairness since post-2008 Rivers teams selected only 19th overall or lower.
The current team’s long-term window and flexibility, with young assets paired alongside future Grizzlies, Kings and Clippers picks, may render it a more enviable choice than the teams of Paul Piece, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that relied on additions like Thomas for depth. This is a roster built for the future that either has chips to bet on a big addition or assets to utilize for long term success.
However, those circumstances won’t dissuade vets from making the trek east. The Warriors are still the favorites to win a championship. They were when it was just Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, but that didn’t stop them from adding All-Stars Kevin Durant, Demarcus Cousins, David West, and other veterans since their title run began in 2015. In the East, the C’s positioning atop the underwhelming Eastern Conference bodes well for a slight advantage in luring vets on a bargain.
Brad Stevens will play anybody that will help him win, regardless of age. They were different circumstances, but he made guys like Kris Humphries, Brandon Bass, and Jordan Crawford work. The decision falls on Danny Ainge: sacrifice bolstering their young locker room and try to attract experience or continue the development of Robert Williams, Jabari Bird, Yabusele and Ojeleye?
Last year, Ainge entered the season with his 15th roster spot open in a move that set up Greg Monroe’s arrival through the Disabled Player Exception the Celtics were granted after Hayward’s injury. No such space is available now following the signing of Bird, but as Boston appears set with their Opening Night roster, they maintain their full mid-level exception.
That $5.3 million at Danny’s disposal will almost certainly remained holstered as the C’s sit just above the luxury tax threshold entering the 2018-19 season. All the painstaking discussion on that $123 million line that begins the team’s repeater tax clock should they still sit there when the year ends will likely lead the team in the other direction to downsize salary.
One way to do that could be shopping Marcus Morris’ salary. In a trade that sends him out without bringing anybody back Boston could dive below the tax line by slashing his $5-million deal. But they would be losing more than cap commitment in a year where they’re aiming for a title.
Morris hit several game-winning shots, regularly scored in double figures and filled in effectively for Hayward in the team’s wing-heavy lineup. Now that Hayward returns, Morris becomes a luxury, but injuries, rest and matchups still factor him into their plans. Though there’s a chance a veteran bought out midway through the year could replicate that production for cheaper.
Then there’s the infusion of young talent through Ainge’s recent drafts that has rendered their reliance on veterans less crucial to success given the presence of Bird and Ojeleye. Ojeleye spent the summer working with Drew Hanlen, and several draft analysts including Eric Weiss remain confident that his shot will improve.
With improvement from Ojeleye and the addition of a cheap wing such as Joe Johnson or Corey Brewer the team could circumvent the tax while maintaining championship stature. It’s harder to project the value of Morris’ locker room leadership, his intensity that had him screaming in Cavaliers players’ faces through the East Finals and shutting down LeBron James in Game 1.
For now, Ainge has the wealth of possibilities he built for himself through the draft, last summer’s Avery Bradley trade to acquire Morris (and Aron Baynes) and the on-court success of a team that will have veterans excited to board the ship...if he’ll have them.