Celtics general manager Danny Ainge recently said his priority for the team was that they get healthy. He said the team would entertain trade possibilities, but didn’t feel it was a necessity for them to make a move. In addition, both Ainge and Brad Stevens have indicated a high level of belief in their roster when healthy.
However, several of Boston’s direct rivals were already good or got better at the deadline. The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers made moves to strengthen their rotations. The Indiana Pacers got their trade deadline “addition” in the form of Victor Oladipo’s return from injury. The Toronto Raptors have proven to be very good when healthy. And, of course, the Milwaukee Bucks are having a historically dominant season.
One of the challenges for the Celtics in trade talks was a lack of roster spots. They had a full 15-player roster and only three players don’t have guaranteed money, or an option, for the 2020-21 season. Boston’s desire to not eat dead money on next year’s cap sheet was a factor in not making any moves.
Unfortunately, that desire to manage for the future may end up costing the Celtics now. Looking to the start of 2020 free agency Boston has the following:
· Guaranteed Contracts – Jaylen Brown, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Vincent Poirier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Grant Williams, Robert Williams III
· Non-Guaranteed Contracts – Javonte Green, Daniel Theis
· Player Options – Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter
· Team Option – Semi Ojeleye
· Free Agents – Brad Wanamaker (restricted), Tacko Fall (Two-Way restricted), Tremont Water (Two-Way restricted)
So, let’s imagine that Hayward and Kanter forgo opting out of good money because there aren’t enough good teams with cap space to be realistic players for them. And the Celtics guarantee Theis’ because he’s a major value at just $5 million. And they pick up Ojeleye’s team option at the minimum, because he’s a value for that amount. That’s already 13 players under contract. That’s before you get to making decisions on Green or Wanamaker. And don’t forget about Fall and Waters, who the Celtics love.
Basically, all of Boston’s roster spots could easily be spoken for without the team doing much at all.
And…Boston projects to have three first round picks and one second round pick.
That’s 21 players in the mix for roster spots. Offseason rosters cap at 20 players. And at least three to five of those spots are usually non-guaranteed camp invites. Even if you waive Green and let Wanamaker, Fall and Waters walk, the math is still too tight.
The reality is that the Celtics have too many players and picks for them to reasonably manage keeping all of them.
That’s why the time was now to make a move. If the asking price really was two first round picks for Davis Bertans, Ainge should have met it, while also including a couple of players for salary matching. That’s the kind of consolidation trade that makes Boston better right now and helps clean thing up down the line.
If there were bigger deals available, and Boston wouldn’t move on from picks or young players, it was also a mistake. This was the year for Ainge to make a trade even if it wasn’t a slam dunk winner of a swap for the Celtics. This was the time to take a risk.
And the funny thing? Ainge isn’t risk adverse. He swung big for Kyrie Irving. He’s got the nickname “Trader Danny” in the first place by making a million trades during the 2014-15 season. And to start it all, he went big for Ray Allen which led to getting Kevin Garnett. And that set of trades got the Celtics a 17th banner.
This was another time for Ainge to take a risk. And for the fifth straight trade deadline, Boston stood pat. Maybe Ainge and Stevens are right and Boston just needs to be healthy. Only time will tell if that’s enough to be NBA Finals contenders. But we know for sure that the Celtics playoff path this season got more difficult. And it didn’t have to.