Celtics now in driver's seat in quest for Anthony Davis

Celtics now in driver's seat in quest for Anthony Davis

BOSTON — The NBA’s trade deadline has passed Thursday without an Anthony Davis deal, which catapults the Boston Celtics to the front of the line among suitors with hopes of acquiring the All-Star big man this summer.

The Athletic reported a few minutes before Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline that Davis will not be traded. Davis’ representation pushed hard for a deal that would have delivered Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers and paired him with fellow Klutch Sports Group representative LeBron James. But the Pelicans appeared unmoved by Los Angeles’ offers, all at a time when Boston couldn’t make a deal because of a snag in the collective bargaining agreement that prevents teams from acquiring two players signed via the designated player exception (or often referenced as the "Rose Rule”). Teams cannot acquire two such players via trade and Boston already had one in Kyrie Irving.

When Irving opts out of the final year of his current contract after the season, it will pave the way for the Celtics and Pelicans to talk unencumbered about a potential trade package. Boston has an assortment of young talent, headlined by 2017 No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum and 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown, along with multiple future first-round draft picks that might have encouraged New Orleans to tread cautiously at Thursday’s deadline.

The Celtics could get competition in the Davis pursuit depending on how the ping-pong balls dance in May’s draft lottery. A team like the New York Knicks could inject themselves into the race should they emerge with the No. 1 pick in a draft that’s expected to be headlined by Duke standout freshman Zion Williamson. Other teams will have motivation to make a charge based on the successes or failures of the 2018-19 season as a whole.

But as the rest of the Eastern Conference powers loaded up for a playoff push, the Celtics exercised patience, likely in hopes of making the biggest splash possible this summer.

Boston shifts to the driver’s seat in the quest for Davis. Boston and New Orleans, who league sources indicated had conversations in advance of the deadline with reports suggesting that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge pledged to be aggressive this summer, can continue those discussions with the possibility of putting the parameters of a deal in place even before July 1 (especially if Boston uses some of its 2019 draft stock to select players for New Orleans with eyes towards completing a deal once eligible).

The Celtics can headline any trade offer with some combination of Tatum, Brown, and their available draft picks, which include a 2019 first-round pick from the Kings (though that pick has slipped in value with Sacramento’s success this season), a future Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick (maybe the new gem of the bunch, particularly as Marc Gasol is traded to Toronto), and a lottery-protected future first-rounder from the Los Angeles Clippers. 

The tricky part is making salaries match. The Celtics should be reluctant to include the likes of Marcus Smart, Al Horford, or Gordon Hayward to simply match dollars (particularly if they have to eat a bulky contract as part of the deal). Alas, these are the pain points in constructing a deal to acquire a top talent.

The Celtics have to hope that Tatum and Brown continue to trend upward the remainder of the season to bolster their trade values. That, though, would also make it harder to part with them in a deal, but Ainge has been shrewd when it comes to acquiring top-line NBA talent.

The past two weeks have seen repeated suggestions that Davis does not desire to sign a long-term deal with Boston and his father chastised Boston about its lack of loyalty when it traded Isaiah Thomas for Irving. Ainge, again, is unlikely to be deterred as the Celtics have operated confident that, once a player comes to Boston, they won’t soon desire to move on. It also seems likely that the narrative will shift about Davis’ interest in Boston now that the deadline has passed and Boston is on equal footing in terms of when they can acquire him.

The Celtics have additional motivation in securing Davis as it would provide the necessary confidence for Irving to sign his own long-term extension here. Irving’s future has been in question the past two weeks, even if some of it was simply spin to plant seeds of doubt with New Orleans about Boston’s future, and Irving knows a top-tier running mate could be key in Boston’s title goals, especially in an East that got beefed up at the deadline.

Boston’s focus, in the short term, should simply be on finishing the season strong. The Celtics have played some of their best basketball in recent weeks while surging to the No. 3 spot in the East. The best way to sell Irving on any future here — regardless of how the Davis drama plays out — is another deep playoff run in which this core showcases its abilities.

That task got tougher this week with East rivals Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Toronto all making moves to beef up their rosters.

Still, getting past Thursday’s deadline was maybe the biggest moment of the deadline for Boston. It eliminates one of the bigger hurdles in the quest for a chance to land Davis. The Celtics may have the best odds in the league now and, should they desire to make it a reality, they have the necessary assets to make the sort of offer that can deliver the star big man.

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Celtics center Tacko Fall meets John Cena at Friday Night SmackDown

Celtics center Tacko Fall meets John Cena at Friday Night SmackDown

Tacko Fall has quickly become a household name despite playing very little in the NBA. The 7-foot-5 center for the Boston Celtics became a star in the Las Vegas Summer League and since that time, the star hasn't faded.

Everywhere Fall has gone, attention has followed. It was Tacko Time, all the time at NBA All-Star Weekend. And every time he checks into games, home or away, he gets a massive round of applause.

Fall has mostly been focusing on improving his game in hopes of signing a non two-way contract ahead of next NBA season but has humbly embraced his star status, too. And his modesty was on display when he met another celebrity on Friday night, professional wrestler John Cena.

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Fall met the WWE star at Friday Night SmackDown in Boston. Here's a clip of the two meeting, via the league's official Twitter account.

This is a really great moment for the two and it seems that they share a mutual admiration. And it was nice of Cena to take some time to meet Fall before the game.

Fall, for one, won't forget this moment. And he surely seems to think that his grandmother will be excited that he got a chance to meet Cena.

Fall is currently dealing with a toe injury and sat out his last G League game with the Maine Red Claws. With Robert Williams rejoining the Celtics, it seems likely that any minutes he gets at the NBA level down the stretch of the season will be late in games that are already decided. But nonetheless, it'll be an opportunity for him to continue to develop.

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Why Robert Williams is the Celtics' wild card

Why Robert Williams is the Celtics' wild card

BOSTON — It’s unfair to expect too much from Robert Williams when he returns to the Boston Celtics’ active roster Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, but Williams is undeniably a wild card for the Celtics and their hopes of title contention down the stretch of the 2019-20 season.

Williams, the 27th overall pick in the 2018 draft, has missed the last 35 games due to a sore left hip. The team shut him down for two moths starting in early December hoping to combat the lingering issue, then ramped him up for much of February.

A scan Thursday showed no degradation from the recent uptick in activity and coach Brad Stevens said Friday that Williams has been cleared to return to play again. The team formally listed him as probable against the Rockets.

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So what can the Celtics reasonably expect from Williams?

Stevens said Williams would be “very limited for the first couple of games.” Williams, who was only averaging 14.2 minutes per game in 19 appearances earlier in the year, will undoubted display some rust but his adrenaline should carry him early. Stevens said that energy was evident at Friday’s practice.

“He had a little extra bounce in his step today,” said Stevens. "You can tell, he’s been antsy to go for a while now, so we’re happy that he’s going to be able to be back.”

Added Stevens: "We’re excited, nobody moreso than Rob.”

Boston decision-makers have offered encouraging updates on Williams in recent weeks. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had routinely noted that Williams looked spry in small-group work. Stevens said earlier this week that Williams was dunking “at 13 feet,” suggesting he still had his pre-injury explosion. Teammates gushed about the loud alley-oop dunks that Williams threw down after returning to full-team practice before the recent west coast trip.

Williams noted that, during his time away, he worked on being more disciplined. One of Williams’ biggest weaknesses early in his pro career has been leaving his feet and chasing blocks. Williams, who is averaging 1.2 blocks per game for his career, has pledged to be more selective when trying to swat shots.

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The Celtics, with their perpetual injury woes, have a need for depth. As good as starter Daniel Theis and backup Enes Kanter have been in tag-teaming the big-man minutes, Williams can provide a different look and verticality at the center position. Williams’ lob-catching potential will be a welcome addition to a bench that’s offered limiting scoring output, particularly recently with Kemba Walker sidelined and Marcus Smart elevated to a starting role.

Williams projects as part of Boston’s top 8 rotation, though his playing time could hinge on how effective Theis and Kanter are on certain nights. A team like the Rockets, with their micro-ball ways, might be exactly the sort of situation that Williams can help the Celtics (at least when he’s at full health).

Offensively, Williams’ passing will be a nice addition to the second unit, and he can facilitate from the high post when he’s not rim running. Williams doesn’t need shots and is content to score off lobs and putbacks. He does need to be more careful with the ball and avoid some of the careless turnovers that took away from his quality play early in the year.

A return Saturday gives Williams seven weeks to ramp back up before the playoffs arrive. He played sparingly a year ago (13 minutes in three appearances) but is at least familiar with playoff intensity, unlike the rookies at the end of Boston’s roster.

Williams isn’t going to radically alter the Celtics’ ceiling but he can help and maybe more than any buyout candidate might have. How appropriate, too, that a man nicknamed Time Lord is making his return on Leap Day.

Expectations should be low, but Williams can still be very impactful in a small role. There’s been glimpses of his potential already this season, like a loud performance in San Antonio in which he registered 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting while adding seven rebounds and six blocks in 22 minutes during a lopsided Boston win.

The Celtics came into the season with big hopes for Williams. The injury has set him back. It’s unfair to expect too much from him the rest of the way, but he can still very much impact Boston’s quest to contend based on the team’s overall collection of talent and the unique lineups they can trot out.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.