Kemba Walker sits on the second half of back-to-backs and the Celtics lose. Jeff Teague can’t replicate Walker’s scoring average, 16% of Boston’s total.
So Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown play mostly every minute of every game, with 14 scheduled in 31 days since Feb. 24. The Celtics lost eight of them, sputtering below a .500 pace. Their best players, including a battered Marcus Smart, regress defensively with larger offensive loads. When they look to the bench, the best scoring options are Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. Brad Stevens plays two centers together to keep the best players on the floor.
That would’ve been the final assessment of the 2020-21 Celtics, bound to narrowly make the playoffs and lose in round one, or worse. Even if Stevens started Robert Williams III, a popular solution to Boston’s problems that energized the team on Friday, the logjam at center and depth issues at wing remained. A running joke among analysts held that a “trade exception” square in an excel spreadsheet sat on the bench, unable to enter games, while Stevens searched for a fifth starter.
A team begging for reinforcements following the Gordon Hayward departure received one on Thursday from Danny Ainge. The Celtics traded two second round picks for Evan Fournier, controversially sacrificing the full Hayward “TPE” to give a team sliding toward exhaustion and failure a NBA starter.
Ainge could’ve blamed Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for not doing more, or rested on his assumption the team doesn’t have championship aspirations. He could’ve fired Stevens. Instead, admitting the role his mistakes have played in Boston’s regression, Ainge gave everyone a second chance to make a postseason run.
“I want our players to feel hope and I want our coach to feel hope,” he said. “I sensed some discouragement internally with our guys, so that was one reason we did something now as opposed to waiting.”
The Celtics had as long as one year from last November to use the TPE, when they sent Charlotte two second round picks to first acquire it. Adding Fournier for four seconds, compared to the potential of acquiring Myles Turner and Doug McDermott, or a better piece later shocked some. Ainge can’t think in terms of sunk cost though. Given the vast amount of talent and assets lost in recent years, he needed to find creative ways to improve with little flexibility going forward and maintain faith within the team.
It cost most of the TPE to do so. Only $11 million remains, enough to acquire a role player like Larry Nance Jr., but likely thwarting hopes of a major, long-term acquisition. Boston reportedly tried and failed to trade for players like Harrison Barnes and Nikola Vucevic. There was a cost to waiting four months to find the next target.
First, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic got dealt, taking two potential options away. Dream targets like Bradley Beal and Karl-Anthony Towns make more than the TPE. Jayson Tatum, who becomes a max salary next season, prevents Boston from executing sign-and-trades since large ones will propel the team above the hard cap. If there were few option and exorbitant prices with greater competition from buyers and teams with cap space in the offseason, Ainge could’ve watched the $28 million expire.
There is reason to think Fournier, traded for two second-rounders, is not valued enough around the league to be signed away from Boston. The Celtics retain flexibility to keep him and add a bench piece later, improving their wing minutes significantly over a player like Semi Ojeleye now and save this team from capsizing physically or mentally.
Ainge also cleared the way for younger players on the roster to get involved by dealing Daniel Theis, Javonte Green and Jeff Teague. Robert Williams III immediately had his best game in his first start, a key player in this team taking its next step.
This season has already led to Stevens facing questions about his job, forcing Ainge to sprint to the local radio station to take responsibility. Brown, whose knee has hurt for over one month, wonders why he can’t do more. Tatum, feeling the effects of COVID two months later, runs for nearly 40 minutes each night out of necessity. The team’s deficiencies increase their chances of getting hurt or one day looking elsewhere.
“That was one of our issues in January and February,” Stevens said yesterday. “We played so many games where it went right down to the wire, maybe there were a few where we could’ve pushed it out and a few where we didn’t. There were a few where we came back from big leads too ... we’re not really in a position to worry about how many games are on our schedule ... we have to play great.”
Walker and Tatum raced back into a game against the Raptors on Feb. 11, one where the Celtics led by as many as 19, when the fourth quarter lead shrunk to five. Brian Scalabrine joked about facing a similar moment during his career when Aaron Nesmith and others shuffled to the bench past the starters after blowing a big lead.
It’s not as funny for a frustrated roster and staff. All four of the Celtics’ stars have become less efficient, turned the ball over more and been pressed to create more offense individually. They’ve tried to integrate teammates, breaking a record when Payton Pritchard and Ojeleye each hit six threes in that Toronto game. Other nights those players provide nothing.
Walker and Smart have shuffled in and out of the lineup, pressuring the Jays further. Their all-star starts have faded, creating speculation they’re not good enough to lead the team, don’t mesh or are selfish.
While neither are LeBron James, they have proven themselves as central figures in two east finals runs with the respect of their peers. Fournier will allow both to score more off the ball, give them a reliable kick-out option and let them rest while others lead second unit minutes. They may be able to sit out a game if Boston secures a playoff spot in coming weeks. That’ll be complicated if Fournier (COVID protocol) misses significant time before his debut.
Fournier already missing time shows the risk of acquiring him. If he fizzles and leaves Boston, the final asset to improve the team around Brown and Tatum disappears. Perhaps Ainge could’ve consolidated more toward acquiring Aaron Gordon and Fournier. Losing Smart to do it proved controversial and presented a tradeoff with uncertain upside. The Celtics also have problems beyond depth.
Kemba’s health, Smart’s expiring contract after next season and now the front court after trading Theis could hurt the team later even if Fournier thrives. Fournier gives this group a chance though, which Grant Williams, Theis, the younger players and Ojeleye couldn’t as fifth starters despite their own improvements and adjustments to do so. They’re all fine bench contributors. Too often, they were starters.
Ainge gave them a chance. Now it’s their turn. The team, shocked by the changes, responded with the best win of the season.
“Our team has not lived up to it,” Ainge said. “This is a team I put together, I’m the one responsible for it.”