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Finding the missing piece: Backup bigs for Boston to bring in

Could the Celtics make a trade for Xavier Tillman? Nick Richards? Andre Drummond?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, the Athletic’s Shams Charania broke the earth-shattering news that he expects the Celtics to be “active in the trade market as we get closer to February, to try to see if they can beef up their bench rotation.”

Jokes aside, it’s hard to tell if Charania is basing that assertion on actual reporting or speculation, since he didn’t specify – but there is improvement to be made at the end of Boston’s roster. (Maybe he read my piece on defensive guards the Celtics could target from last week.)

In that article, I discussed a potential Alex Caruso trade as well as two players who might be more likely targets based on what Boston can use to make a deal.

Today, I’ll focus on big men. The Celtics could use a bench big for when Kristaps Porzingis or Al Horford miss time.

Luke Kornet has been great on the offensive end, but is not a fearsome defensive presence in the paint and can get targeted on the perimeter. Neemias Queta has shown some promise across a few minutes early this season, but he clearly needs more time to learn how to navigate screens and make his presence felt on offense.

Accordingly, the Celtics might feel they need someone reliable to fill in for Porzingis and Horford and, maybe, play a limited role in the playoffs.

I have selected four candidates to cover the different directions Boston could go in approaching the Feb. 8 trade deadline. I’ll start with a young player who might not be on the market, but would be a great get for Boston.

Memphis Grizzlies (109) Vs. Boston Celtics (119) At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

BOS receives: Xavier Tillman

MEM receives: two second-round picks

Xavier Tillman is a big forward who has shown some real rim-protection talent this season. He stepped up for the Memphis Grizzlies when Steven Adams was ruled out for the season, but still plays only a limited role – alongside Jaren Jackson Jr., Bismack Biyombo, and Santi Aldama – in a crowded Memphis frontcourt.

Memphis wouldn’t move off of Tillman for a lack of talent. He’s been really helpful for them this year, averaging 8 points, 5 rebounds, a block and a steal in 24 minutes per game. He hasn’t been efficient (shooting 40% from the field, 28% from three, and 44% from the free throw line), but those numbers should come back up if past production is any guide.

So, why might Memphis be willing to move Tillman? His contract is up this summer. The Grizzlies will have the ability to resign him, but they might want to avoid giving any real long-term money to a depth big. Plus, Desmond Bane’s extension kicks in next year and will catapult the Memphis cap sheet close to the second apron. Remember: Memphis wants to be a contending team. Injuries and suspensions have made that nearly impossible this season, but they still should prioritize flexibility going forward.

Would the Celtics want to re-sign him? Should they give up draft capital for a couple months’ play from a third big? Maybe not. But Tillman would provide youth and intensity – something that Boston’s frontcourt is severely lacking. And they could get his $1.9 million salary without moving a single player to Memphis because of a $6.2 million trade exception. If Boston would rather send out a player for salary purposes or to save the exception, though, Svi Mykhailiuk and a few other players have deals that could be stacked to match.

Note: Boston also has been linked to Grizzlies forward John Konchar in the past few weeks. I don’t see the shooting guard getting any minutes in Boston, but he would fit into the exception with Tillman.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

BOS receives: Nick Richards

CHA receives: Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton, and second-round compensation

(Note: this trade couldn’t be completed until Banton is trade-eligible, beginning on Dec. 15th.)

To get this out of the way: Nick Richards’ $5 million deal fits into the aforementioned trade exception. They could use it on him, but I think they would rather send out players to avoid a luxury tax penalty upwards of $18 million that would come with an addition of that size.

With the emergence of second-year center Mark Williams, the Charlotte Hornets might be approaching an inflection point for Richards. Neither Williams nor Richards shoot the ball from deep, so they can’t really share the floor. As Williams develops, Richards will see less court time.

I put Richards in here because he’s been the subject of rumors this season and over the summer. In reality, I think the Hornets will hold onto him. He’s the kind of guy you use as part of a trade to get better, not to dump with three years left on his deal in exchange for second-rounders. He’s a massive body who would reliably protect the rim and (theoretically) play at times with both Horford and Porzingis. I just don’t see Charlotte moving off of him at this stage.

Similarly, I don’t think the Oklahoma City Thunder want to move Kenrich Williams — who many fans of contending teams seem to want — for picks. The Thunder want to get better, and Williams brings physicality that few other players on their roster can supply.

Another potential target mentioned by a few analysts this season is Precious Achiuwa. Moving for him is a possibility, given that he’s on the last year of his deal, but he’s still a pretty raw talent.

It remains to be seen if Achiuwa can be a reliable defender, and he doesn’t do much else. He’s a great athlete — and would be a fan favorite in Boston — I just don’t think he’s the guy for the Celtics right now.

A more likely candidate? Andre Drummond.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

BOS receives: Andre Drummond

CHI receives: Svi Mykhailiuk, second-round compensation

I feel bad for throwing Mykhailiuk into these trades – I think he could still contribute to this team. He’s just one of the most moveable contracts the Celtics have. The trade would work with a number of contracts at the end of Boston’s bench, or without any salary at all (because of the exception). If Brad Stevens can get rid of salary in a deal, though, he probably will.

It feels like Drummond has been in the league forever, but he’s only 30. And while he’s not the athlete he used to be, he’s become an excellent role player who does a lot of the things Boston is missing. Always an incredible rebounder, Drummond is averaging 6.6 boards in just 13 minutes per game for Chicago; 2.7 of those come on the offensive end. He’s not a big scorer, but offensive rebounding erases a lot of team mistakes.

On the defensive end, he would be a fine anchor. He’s big, he’s disruptive, and he can pull down a miss better than anyone. In a limited role, surrounded by elite wing defenders, his defense would be a big plus.

If I had to bet on any one Celtics deal happening this season, it would be this Drummond trade. He would fit well on this Celtics team, and Chicago should be happy to get anything back for the center, who is on the last year of his deal.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Lastly, I wanted to talk about a player who played in Boston last year and could be back to help out this season. Put on your tin-foil hats, ladies and gentlemen: We’re talking about Blake Griffin.

He wouldn’t come via trade – Griffin is a free agent, and might very well want to retire. He hasn’t said that outright, though. The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach reported before the season that Griffin’s return to Boston was unlikely, despite interest from the Celtics and Griffin’s apparent love for the city and the team.

CelticsBlog’s Bobby Manning said before the season started that Griffin’s decision to remain a free agent had something to do with wanting to spend more time with his family, who live on the west coast. Could he be planning on a midseason return, though, after getting a few extra months with them?

Don’t forget: Griffin is still admired by the men in green. Multiple players mentioned him at Media Day this year, and he spoke very highly of the team over the summer.

I might be reading into the team’s comments too much, but Griffin could slide right into Boston’s bench, collect a couple million dollars, and win his first NBA championship, all within six months. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig.

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