It was a relatively quiet trade deadline for the Boston Celtics, but they did manage to add some depth to the front court in the form of Mike Muscala.
Boston traded Justin Jackson and two second-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for the big man, a player they had been keeping their eye on for a while.
“As you go through the league, you just keep tidbits in your mind of how you think guys would fit,” Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens said. “I mean, when people describe Mike that I knew well, whether in coaching or whether it’s playing with him or whatever, they always talked about the way he approached his work, the way he was as a teammate, the way he competed to win, and that’s what’s the most important thing. Anybody that played with him would tell you, they love playing with him, which is like...an alarm goes off in your head. That’s a person you want to have around. And so, I think that he was a guy that we’ve been talking to OKC for a little bit about.”
Muscala appeared in 43 games for the Thunder this season, playing 14.5 minutes per contest. The Celtics are confident in his ability to impact winning on both ends of the court.
“We thought he was a guy that can fit with really any combination of our bigs,” Stevens explained. “And, in the last couple of years, we’ve been good when we’ve played big. He’s versatile enough to do some different things defensively, but he’s also obviously super skilled and makes the right play. The ball doesn’t stick in his hands very long.”
The big man rotation in Boston consists of Al Horford, Robert Williams, Luke Kornet, and Blake Griffin, and now, Muscala. When healthy, he’ll likely fall down the depth chart, but he gives them a quality fallback option for when players aren’t available.
Horford and Williams have both missed time this season and will almost certainly continue to do so throughout the remainder of the season. Having Muscala on the bench will allow the Celtics to give those two some relief without sacrificing too much over the final 26 games.
“Rob’s only played in 20 games or whatever this year, so you got to be alert to that,” Stevens said. “We are going to not play Al on the second night of back-to-backs. That’s going to be the way it’s going to be the whole year. And so you got a couple more of those. And then, we put a lot on our other guys. And, like I said earlier, there [are] going to be nights where Mike Muscala is going to be asked to play a big role because of the way that he can impact that particular game or that particular matchup, and there are going to be other nights for where somebody else is. That’s the good part about this. We just wanted as much versatility as possible.”
Muscala may have been brought into the fold as extra insurance for the Celtics’ bigs, but he’s also capable of playing alongside them.
“The idea again of ‘can we get one more guy with size that can stretch the floor’ that can play with any of our guys,” continued Stevens. “It’s hard to find guys that can play with Rob, can play with Al, can play with our other bigs.”
Muscala has been a knock-down shooter from distance throughout the course of his career, making him a useful offensive option to pair with Williams, Horford, and any other mix of Boston’s guys.
That being said, Stevens also stressed the importance of having a player who won’t need to get regular playing time. With Muscala, his usage will depend on the situation, and the Celtics need players who are okay with that sort of role.
“The other thing that is kind of the hard part about this team is, if we were going to make a move to bring in a person that was going to play a ton of minutes, you almost have to subtract somebody else that plays a ton of minutes,” Stevens stated. “Our team has a good way about itself. I think we’ve got good depth. I think we’ve got thirteen players that can play and impact each other in a really good way. But we also have a bunch of guys that don’t need to do it every night. And so that ability to play, but not have to need to play is a big deal. And I think that’s what we need to have as a team. It’s not about an individual. This is about a goal. I think Mike understands that, and our other players understand. I think our guys on our team this year have shown that.”
Stevens singled out Blake Griffin, who poured in 15 points in Boston’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night, as a great example of this mentality.
“Sometimes he doesn’t play for a couple of games. Then [he] just comes back to work and then has a huge game the other night,” Stevens said. “The only reason we stayed close to the game the other night is because Blake hit a few threes and gave us a chance.”
The Celtics still have one roster spot available to fill, and there should be plenty of options available to them on the buyout market. Danny Green, Will Barton, and Justin Holiday are a few names that come to mind.
That being said, the tricky part about filling those spots is finding players who are willing to accept the diminished role they would likely play in Boston.
“It’s a hard needle to thread, right?” Stevens said. I” don’t blame anybody that wouldn’t want to fill that role. I think we’re really deep right now. And we already have a bunch of guys that are giving up for one cause. If there was something that moves the needle even differently, then we have to consider it obviously, but I think that that’s probably the most likely thing. And so, you’ll look at it, and you’ll decide, ‘is there somebody that fits that need and is really excited to be here?’ Or is it, you feel like you’ve got that all filled and maybe invest in a younger player. We’re going to assess all that over the next few days and try to figure it out.”
The buyout market could provide the Celtics a chance to add some extra depth behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the wing, especially with the recent injury to Brown.
Brown collided with Tatum on Wednesday night and suffere a facial fracture in the process - an injury that will likely sideline him for multiple weeks. However, it seems as though Brown has avoided the need for surgery.
We’re going to see how he feels over the next few days. He’s already been fitted for a mask,” Stevens said. “He’s still feeling it. [He] doesn’t feel great. So, we’ll see how he feels when he starts moving around, and then we’ll get together early in the week and kind of figure out what’s next. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to be too long, which is a good thing.”
Previous reporting indicated that Brown would be out through the All-Star break and the injury would be reevaluated at that point. If Brown doesn’t need surgery, it could accelerate his timetable for a return, especially if he wears a mask on the court.
Meanwhile, the Celtics are also still waiting on the return of Marcus Smart, who has missed eight straight games with an ankle injury.
“Marcus is feeling a lot better,” said Stevens. “He’s been out on the court. I haven’t talked to Phil Coles (Executive Director of Performance) today about what exactly the next step is, but he’s got a little bit of pain. It’s that same ankle that he sprained last year and then reaggravated in the fall.”
With Smart out, the Celtics have had to rely on their guard depth with Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Payton Pritchard stepping up. Stevens specifically mentioned Pritchard as a useful commodity, noting his ability to step up when his name is called.
“Payton is really good,” Stevens said when asked why the Celtics didn’t attempt to trade Pritchard for extra wing depth. “And inevitably, last year, we played several, or at least a couple of playoff games without Smart. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And Payton’s a good player. He’s proven he can play in the playoffs. And it’s not an easy situation for him, but like I said earlier, we can play him at point, bump others up to the wings, and those have been good lineups because they’re good players.”
While injuries have plagued the Celtics this year, Tatum has been an iron man. In fact, Boston has attempted to make him sit out games this year, but the superstar doesn’t like to miss games. Tatum was questionable heading into Boston’s Friday night game against the Charlotte Hornets, but after warming up pre-game, he ended up playing.
“He’s going to want to play,” Stevens said with a laugh. “He just doesn’t like to sit. I can tell you already, we’re going make him sit one of those games. We’ll probably make him sit Wednesday just because of the toll that he’s already taken. But he’ll fight us on that, too.”
After the Celtics’ playoff run last year, Tatum admitted to being exhausted. Boston wants to get him some rest during the regular season, but Stevens also mentioned the importance of getting some 40-minute games in, too.
“I think the reality is, we need to balance it right, but we also need to make sure that he gets enough high-minute games, too,” Stevens explained. “So, it is a balance. I think the idea of having a night or two for playing a little bit less is all good, but you also need a few, especially heading into the playoffs, a few 40-, 42-minute games to get ready for those games.”
And in a league where players and teams are criticized for load management, Stevens believes players like Tatum should be celebrated for their desire to play every night.
“He wants to play, and I’m really happy,” Stevens said. “I think he really should be celebrated for that because he’s one of those. I don’t know if it’s throwback or whatever, but he does not like to sit.”