MIAMI — Payton Pritchard caught a pass going away from his body toward half court, turned and fired a potential game-tying shot that fell short of the basket. The heave might’ve marked his largest remaining opportunity before the trade deadline.
The Celtics don’t approach Feb. 9 with significant needs, but may find opportunities to reassess their back-end depth. Multiple reports indicate league-wide interest in Pritchard. Danilo Gallinari sits injured with a small glimpse of hope that he’ll return for the postseason. Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin currently split limited backup center minutes and Justin Jackson rarely played until Tuesday’s loss.
“(Pritchard’s) extremely valuable to us,” Jayson Tatum told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at shootaround in Orlando. “He has extreme confidence and he can play. He’s not in an ideal situation, but he’s on the best team and winning is everybody’s priority. When guys are out or guys aren’t available, we always know we can plug Payton in at any time of the game and he’s going to produce, and every team can’t say that. So, we’re extremely grateful to have him on the team.”
The Celtics held off on moving Pritchard for now, intrigued by his development and ability to produce in recent spurts while Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — who’s expected to miss at least one more week — sat out. He’s also got another left on his rookie contract.
Pritchard averaged 8.8 points on 52.9% shooting across five wins in November, 6.0 PPG on 35.7% FG in four games earlier this month and 9.0 on 37% over his last three. Joe Mazzulla praised his defensive growth.
He fit comfortably into the closing lineups at Miami and Orlando, and the Celtics finished 14-4 in 18 games where he played more than 12 minutes. Boston doesn’t use him when they’re at full health though, and recently leaned into larger lineups that bump Brown up to the two.
“Payton is a very professional guy,” Smart said. “He comes in every day and he works like he’s a rookie. When you’ve got a guy like that, his time’s gonna come ... you’re not playing on this team, you’re not getting the moments you want and think you deserve, which you do, because we’re so stacked, but there’s 29 other teams watching you. They understand your situation. They want to see how you handle this. I just constantly tell him, ‘when your time is called, and it’s time for you to go up there for your opportunity, take it, because you may never get it again.’”
Sam Hauser’s struggles opened another path for Pritchard to play on the wing that he showcased in a win this month at Brooklyn. Both players sat during a playoff preview against the Warriors, underscoring their defensive limitations against high-level competition.
Hauser escaped his slump in Orlando with a 13-point effort, then finished 0-for-6 in Miami despite blocking shots and making several plays in both games. Jackson managed a corner three-pointer against the Heat and the bench unit providing a fun 11-0 run into halftime despite struggling offensively. It wasn’t a night that generated enormous confidence in the group otherwise.
“It started off great,” Hauser told CLNS/CelticsBlog earlier this month. “It’s hard to maintain that high of a level for anyone shooting it that well. It’s my first time really being in the rotation and playing all these games, getting used to that whole lifestyle is probably part of it, but I’m taking good shots. I’ve gotten good looks. They just haven’t really gone in and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my mechanics or anything, it’s just, people go through slumps and mine has been a little bit of a longer one. You keep shooting and taking good shots and making the most of whatever shots I get.”
The Celtics love Hauser despite him shooting 28.9% from three since Nov. 30. It’s hard to imagine them moving him, since he’s on an excellent three-year, $5.7 million contract that holds him under team control for two more seasons with a 2024-25 team option. Pritchard, Gallinari, Kornet and Jackson allow Boston to bring back $16.2 million in a trade together while keeping Hauser, with Pritchard and Gallinari alone able to return roughly $11 million.
Kornet helped in the first half against Golden State and proved his defensive reliability in some matchups by posting a 106.1 rating so far this season, the same as Robert Williams III. The larger, physically imposing Magic challenged him and forced Griffin and two-way center Mfiondu Kabengele into action, then Bam Adebayo dominated Kornet. There’s a case that he’s the most viable playoff contributor over Pritchard and Hauser, and that Boston still might need a more proven insurance option behind injury-prone Williams III.
The team’s reported interest in Jakob Poetl isn’t surprising, since any absence between Al Horford and Williams III places a significant burden on the other. It remains unclear whether Grant Williams and Kornet could provide center production in the playoffs. They also could use some perimeter size if their belief in Hauser waned into 2023. It is less likely they’d need another wing in the postseason when the rotation tightens. Part of the appeal of Hauser and Kornet is their willingness to sit when necessary. That’s not the case for all players.
Pritchard, who’s extension-eligible this summer and signed through 2024, represents the only expendable player out of that group that could return any amount of value. That conversation around him becomes the most difficult for the Celtics. He helps only in an emergency, where multiple players go down and struggled last postseason in a larger role before Brogdon arrived, and he’s only shooting 40.4% FG and 33.3% 3PT.
Boston should consider maximizing on any opportunities his current value allows them. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum eat most of the wing minutes each night in the postseason and can’t be insured by anyone. Backup wing might be the weakest spot on the roster. Center needs the most insurance.
The back court can sustain a short-term injury without Pritchard and Brogdon helps fill any gaps at wing if Hauser can’t play. There’s also Gallinari who hopes to return from ACL surgery before April, but it’s also hard to count on him following two ACL surgeries in his left knee at his age. He originally joined the team to bolster the front court depth.
His salary is crucial to pursue more expensive players, and it is possible he could return to San Antonio in a trade for Poetl or anyone else. The second-year option on his deal probably renders him negative value in any deal. Teams holding cap space into the future or not paying luxury tax, like the Spurs, could more easily waive his contract than others.
“I saw him jogging on the treadmill, and I was like, ‘I haven’t seen you run much faster than that in a game,’ so I thought he was playing tonight,” Mazzulla joked to CLNS/CelticsBlog. “Credit to him, his mindset every day and the approach he has coming in. He’s very determined, he’s working hard at it and I’m really happy for him.”
The Celtics couldn’t have expected better from their organizational depth in Gallinari’s absence. Hauser and Kornet became rotation players after only participating regularly in Maine last year. The Griffin signing worked and he both accepted a small role and helped Pritchard persevere through his. His spot starts for Horford proved a pleasant surprise.
The chemistry in the room appears excellent and they’ve won many games with multiple key rotation players out, including a Grant and Brogdon-led thriller in Toronto capping a nine-game win streak last weekend. The Celtics don’t need to act urgently, which is important since they lack the ability to trade their 2024 and 2028 first-round picks and already dealt their 2023 as the Spurs demand two firsts for Poetl and his expiring contract.
They also have important immediate and future considerations to address at the deadline. A championship is the bar this season, and anything short of that, even considering role player injuries, won’t be acceptable given their standing in the league. They need to set themselves up as well as possible to sustain any losses in the playoffs.
“I think we always have to be looking at how we can improve because … I think we’re in the mix and I think we’re good, I think we’re hard to beat, but there are other teams that are like that, too.” Stevens told 98.5’s The Sports Hub.
Boston also needs to maintain or supplement its organizational depth as Grant approaches free agency, an under-discussed consideration considering their limited future draft capital and the increasing cost of the roster as Brown and Tatum work to earn super max contracts. Jarred Vanderbilt, Javonte Green and others earning less than $5.9 million fit into the Dennis Schröder TPE, the team’s open roster spot and don’t require salary-matching.
“It was good (to) get back in the rotation,” Hauser said in Orlando. “With guys out, it was a good opportunity for some of us to come in and provide productive minutes. I tried to do my best out there ... honestly, not playing the last couple of games, it motivates you to work harder. When you get your chance, you don’t want to take it for granted.”