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A Celtics trade primer primer

It’s trade season, but Boston may not go hunting right away.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s December 15th. Welcome to trade season.

For Brad Stevens to consider a deal and more specifically, one that addresses winning this season, his staff has to identify an area of need. On the surface, that may be difficult. Despite their mediocre record, is there an area of the roster that they could realistically improve on and become contenders? Let’s review.

On the wings, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are set in stone as starters in the present and foundational members of the future of the franchise. For now, all the noise about splitting them up is just that. Josh Richardson has found his game that alluded him in stops in Philadelphia and Dallas and been a valuable utility player off the bench.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

As unconventional as the point guard duo of Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder is, it’s more or less working. Neither are exactly huge creators in the pick-and-roll, so Boston has become a big drive-and-kick team. They’re 8th in the league in drives per game (50.2) in large part to Smart (9.5) and Schroder (15) making a concerted effort to penetrate and pass.

The big rotation is set. Al Horford and Robert Williams start together, but as the game wears on, they’re usually splitting time on the floor as the 5. They’re averaging only 11 minutes a night side-by-side to start the first and third quarters. Grant Williams and to some extent, Enes Freedom, have carved out roles as that third big off the bench, depending on whether the game needs more shooting, defensive versatility, or a big body on the block.

If Brad Stevens stood pat, that’s a competitive 8-9 man rotation that would compete in the postseason. We’ll get a better sense of how far over the next two months before the trade deadline. Every NBA team would welcome improvements, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just where Boston needs improvement and more so, how they could realistically address it. Ideally, with the Celtics’ offensive style, more shooting is always welcomed. Sure, a versatile big in the Horford mold could help the second unit. However, with the constraints that the Celtics are under — the luxury tax, extensions to Smart and Williams hitting next season, etc. — there may not be many avenues to do it before 3 pm on February 10th.

So, what does Stevens have at his disposal? In addition to all of Boston’s future first round picks, there are three considerable TPE’s: $6.9 million, $9.7 million, and $17.1 million. Richardson ($11.6 million), Schroder ($5.9 million), and Juancho Hernangomez ($6.2 million) are on short term contracts that could be moved, too.

For Boston’s front office, the tipping point for a potential deal might be timing. Through December, the Celtics will deal with a minefield of contenders on their schedule. However, right before the new year, they’ll play 10 of 13 in TD Garden and could make a push up in the Eastern Conference standings. Their record and confidence in their roster would then heavily weigh in on any potential deals.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

As previously stated, Schroder and Richardson are key rotational players, but they’re also the most likely trade candidates because of their contracts and future prospects with the team. The day he signed a one-year deal for the full mid-level exception, Schroder has widely been considered a rental. Even though he signed an extension and added a year to his deal, Richardson is in the same boat. They’d either need to be replaced by the incoming player(s) or someone currently on the roster.

There’s reason to believe that their production could be re-created with some combination of Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard. Langford has played regular minutes as the team’s 9th Beatle. Against the Bucks on Monday with Richardson unavailable and in the league’s health and safety protocols, he played seventeen strong minutes and scored seven points. With just one year left on his rookie deal, it’s as good a time as ever to see if he can be a regular rotation member. The timeline on Nesmith and Pritchard affords them a longer runway to become contributors. They’ve been mired in sophomore slumps, but there’s no reason to believe that they can’t pick up where they left off from last season if they’re afforded more minutes this season.

So, while December 15th is upon us, it may be a while until we know what the Celtics’ front office is up to because, well, we don’t know what the Celtics on the floor are capable of. The team has plenty of time and a favorable January schedule to prove that they’re a “win now” trade away from raising Banner 18. Otherwise, they have pieces that could be moved with 2023 and beyond in mind.