As the NBA’s February 8 trade deadline approaches, the Boston Celtics are sitting atop the league with a 26-7 record. The concern of depth hasn’t presented itself as drastically as some anticipated before the season began, but as is always the case for title contenders heading towards the trade deadline, monitoring the market will be crucial.
Of the Celtics’ potential needs, the center position jumps out at first glance. Behind Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford, there is a steep drop-off to Luke Kornet and two-way big man Neemias Queta.
However, adding an upgrade at the 5 is much easier said than done.
“First of all, adding a rotation center, that would have to be one hell of a player, right?,” President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens said at Celtics practice on Thursday afternoon. “When you think about [it], we’ve got really good players. I think what we’re looking for and what we most likely [will do], especially with where we are from a tool standpoint, there’s really not a ton [of big things] we can do without touching our main guys, right?”
Boston’s primary tool heading into this year’s trade deadline is the Traded Player Exception they received in the Grant Williams trade over the summer, which comes out to roughly $6.2 million.
Not only would it be difficult to add a quality player at that salary, but finding a team willing to trade a player on a deal like that makes things even more complicated.
Stevens noted at practice that guys making less than that amount are either on minimum contracts, small contracts, or rookie-scale deals that “teams aren’t exactly excited to move on from yet.”
And perhaps more importantly, he’s been happy with the play Boston has gotten from their current center rotation.
“We’ve obviously [gotten] good play, great play out of Kristaps. I think Al has been good. I think Luke and Neemy, when called upon, have both added great value. And so, you know, if we end up adding somebody, you know, I don’t know that it will be a game-changer in the way that you said it from the rotation standpoint.”
Porzingis and Horford have always been filed away as big-impact players, but Kornet and Queta came into the year as question marks. However, their effective play this year isn’t a surprise to Stevens.
“No, they haven’t [surprised me],” Stevens said. “They’re good players. And when you’re surrounded by good players, especially our guards and wings that we have, the job’s a little easier. You get to the rim, they’re either gonna throw it up to you or they’re gonna throw it out to the other guy for a wide-open three because your guy is on you. They’ve done a good job of fulfilling their roles.”
Kornet came into the year as Boston’s go-to third-string center, but an injury in warm-ups sidelined him for an extended stretch in December. During that time, Queta stepped up and proved himself worthy of more opportunities.
He’s averaging 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 12 games this season, but still on a two-way contract. Queta can only be active for 50 games this season and is ineligible to play in the playoffs.
Queta has made a case to earn a standard contract, and the Celtics have one roster spot open. However, maintaining flexibility could be crucial as the trade deadline rapidly approaches.
“We have discussions every day about how we’re gonna move forward with those other spots in our roster, right?” Stevens said. “We have one open spot right now. You have to carry 14. I think it’s helpful to go into a trade deadline or whatever with a little bit of flexibility from a roster standpoint. But we have those discussions every day.”
Stevens said that Boston has communicated with Queta from the jump that he could be an important member of their big-league squad rather than just a G League project.
“He’s made a great case,” Stevens said of Queta. “He’s a hard worker. He’s been a really good player for us. We anticipated and communicated to him when we got him that he was going to be in Boston a whole heck of a lot more than Maine because we were gonna have Al sitting on back-to-backs, because Kristaps was gonna sit a little bit here and there.
“We didn’t anticipate Luke getting hurt in warm-ups a couple of weeks ago. But now that he’s back here, we feel a little bit more secure there. He’s done a good job, and it’s been obviously noted.”
The Celtics’ limited trade tools make it difficult to envision any significant additions at the center spot, or at any position, for that matter.
Some names that jump out at the center position purely because of salary and potential availability include Chicago Bulls big man Andre Drummond, Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards, and, depending on their deadline plans, LA Clippers veteran Mason Plumlee. That said, none stand out as significant upgrades over Boston’s current group.
Boston has been pleased with how things have been going in-house, and it seems as though the center position may look the same come February 9.