WALTHAM – Al Horford believes that by signing with the Boston Celtics, the doors have been opened for “many other big free agents” to join the team in the future. But owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have been adamant that -- at least for this summer -- the Celtics aren’t quite done yet.
“Well, I feel the phones are definitely ringing. Danny is definitely talking to people for sure, and has indicated that our work is not yet done,” Grousbeck said at the Celtics practice facility in Waltham. “But I’ve got to say that I feel good about this team and I feel patient. We have draft picks coming up. We have a long-term strategy. I don’t just want [Banner] 18. I want 19 and 20.”
Ainge supported those comments, telling reporters in Utah, “We are still looking at doing deals and we’re certainly not finished for the summer.”
The Celtics are aiming to build a dynasty, not just be in the conversation for a title, and maybe win one. Ownership and the front office are thinking big, so should fans should too -- at least with the understanding that it may be an extended process before reaching that level.
So if the Celtics actually aren’t done, who are they aiming for?
Grousbeck spoke on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Felger & Mazz on Thursday and suggested it's a player they had previously targeted.
“We were just talking about a trade earlier today where the asking price from the other team was for a difficult player, and I’m not going to say who, but it’s dropped pretty significantly since draft night," Grousbeck said Thursday. According to various reports prior to and after the draft, the Celtics reportedly targeted Chicago wing Jimmy Butler, Milwaukee wing Khris Middleton, Sacramento big man DeMarcus Cousins, and Philadelphia centers Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.
Butler is likely off the table due to their recent signings of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, and the Bucks would be without a shooter if they dealt Middleton. However, Okafor, Noel, and Cousins could still be available, and both the Sixers and Kings are in need of a point guard, which the Celtics have a surplus of. Cousins has long attracted the Celtics, and perhaps the Kings would be more willing to move him, especially considering their immense depth and youth at the big man position.
Cousins averaged 26.9 points per game last year as one of the NBA’s most ferocious scorers. He can score effectively from all levels of the floor and is a much better defender than he credits for. He would immediately elevate the Celtics to contender status.
But personality-wise he's a shaky fit. Cousins hasn’t clashed with coaches, teammates, executives, and referees. He’s an egotistic player who might operate well in a winning environment, but he also might not. The Celtics’ team chemistry is fluid and Cousins could taint it.
The demand in a trade would also be significant. Unless the price has fallen off a cliff, the Celtics would likely have to include one of their talented point guards (Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier), as well as the 2017 Nets swap and/or 2018 Nets first, and probably even more.
Cost/risk analysis might prove to be too significant for the Celtics to commit to Cousins being the player to help bring a banner.
So what about the Sixers? They wanted to draft Kris Dunn, but they were reportedly asking for the No. 3 pick and more for Okafor or Noel, which is outrageous. Grousbeck said the price has come down "pretty significantly" on the player they were discussing, so maybe it's them.
Both Okafor and Noel can’t space the floor, and the Sixers drafted another non-shooting forward/big in Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is also expected to return, so they now have an overflow of depth in the frontcourt. The Sixers are almost forced to make a trade or they risk having an unbalanced roster. The Celtics have plenty of picks they can part with in the future, though they’d prefer to hold onto both Nets picks. Philadelphia also needs a point guard, so both Smart and Rozier should be intriguing to them. Rozier’s emergence in summer league has also helped make one of them somewhat expendable.
By using process of elimination and context clues, it’s reasonable to assume that Noel or Okafor could be the Celtics’ target that Grousbeck has been hinting at.
Of the two, Okafor is more likely. Though Noel would be a tremendous fit next to Horford, the Celtics insist on remaining flexible, and Noel would prevent them from doing that. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and will demand a max contract, so the Celtics would be locked into a roster including Noel as a core piece. If you keep in mind Grousbeck’s comments about Banners 18, 19, and 20, that path wouldn’t get them to where they want to be.
But Okafor could. The second-year center doesn’t hit restricted free agency until 2019, so if the Celtics were to acquire him, they would still retain the cap space to sign another max level free agent next summer.
Okafor would give them a go-to scoring option as well. He averaged 17.5 points per game as a rookie and is already a dominant low post scorer. When most teams are zigging by going small, the Celtics could zag by adding one of the league’s young, great interior threats. They haven’t use the low post frequently in the past (sixth-least in post ups last year, per Synergy/NBA.com), but Okafor is still a weapon that can be used to their advantage. He’s a beast in the paint, and a significantly better passer than he showed last season. Plus, the Celtics like to run their offense through their bigs.
“We play through our bigs a lot and that’s something we have a desire to continue to do,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said when asked about Horford. “It’s great from a fit standpoint in a lot of ways, but certainly in the way we play.”
Though Okafor has his limitations as a defender and he doesn’t space the floor offensively, Horford helps mitigate some of those flaws as one of the rare bigs that can both stretch the floor and protect the rim.
It would’ve been a bad idea for the Celtics to deal the No. 3 pick for a player with Okafor’s limitation, but if the price is actually down, then he makes a great deal of sense as a low-cost, high-upside player that would still allow them to make noise in the trade and free agent market next summer.
Kevin O’Connor can be followed on Twitter: @KevinOConnorNBA.