While nothing seems certain yet with the Gordon Hayward saga — at least other than the fact that his preference is returning home to Indiana — it seems safe to assume that any deal between the Celtics and Pacers would feature Myles Turner.
Now, there is always the possibility of three-team swaps and of Boston rerouting players acquired in a deal. But while we wait to see how it unfolds, let’s assess Turner’s fit on the Celtics.
There is no denying Turner’s potential. He’s got great size (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) and is an elite shot-blocker. He can stretch the floor with a penchant for the 3-point shot. Turner is familiar with the Celtics core after being part of Team USA last summer.
Turner performed well enough for the Pacers to give him a four-year, $72 million extension and yet the team has been unable to figure out how to maximize both him and Domantas Sabonis. And that’s where the concerns start with Turner.
Set to enter the second year of his new deal, Turner’s production hasn’t been in line with his $18 million-per-season price tag. The Pacers were barely in the positive for net rating (+0.4) during Turner’s 1,826 minutes of floor time last season, and that number spiked to a team-best plus-3.4 in the 1,698 minutes he was on the bench.
The question, of course, is whether that’s a product of the poor fit alongside Sabonis, or an indictment of Turner.
Honing in on the team’s on/off splits, we find the Pacers had a net rating of plus-2.1 in the 1,069 minutes that Sabonis and Turner shared the court last season. The number plummets to minus-2.3 with a 107.8 defensive rating for Turner in the 757 minutes that he played without Sabonis.
Rewinding a season suggests that this isn’t an outlier. While the Pacers were a positive for net rating with only Turner on the court during the 2018-19 season, it’s notable that the team’s defensive rating spiked from 99.2 with both him and Sabonis, to 104.9 with just Turner.
For all his talents as a shot-blocker, the numbers don’t support the notion that Sabonis is the back-line anchor that some Celtics fans seem to believe he is.
Using the NBA’s defensive tracking data, we can focus on Turner’s individual numbers from last season. Bam Adebayo was his third most common defensive matchup and the Miami All-Star generated 19 points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9 percent) versus Turner. Many of the East’s top bigs shot 50 percent or better against Turner last season.
We’ll relent that Turner might benefit from a change of scenery. Having defensive-minded players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart around him could accentuate what Turner does well in protecting the rim.
But it’s also fair to wonder if the Celtics get comparable production from Daniel Theis at $5 million per season. Salary matters here when you’re talking roster construction on a team where Kemba Walker, Brown and Tatum will soon all account for bulky salaries.
It would seem that Theis, based on his fit with the starters last year, would still project as the team’s starter. To be fair, Theis is entering the final year of his contract and the Celtics must assess his value moving forward. He’ll turn 29 next season and Turner’s timeline certainly lines up better with a young core.
The question is whether Turner’s presence would also stunt the development of Robert Williams and Grant Williams. The Celtics need to figure out just how much they can lean on those younger players, especially while they are on cost-efficient rookie deals. Turner and Theis would gobble up much of the center minutes.
The Celtics lack deals in the ballpark of Turner’s salary and, if he simply didn’t fit with the team, he could be a useful trade chip.
But that possibility is why it’s so important the Celtics get back another prime asset in any deal with the Pacers. It’s why Danny Ainge is reportedly eager to pluck TJ Warren over Doug McDermott.
Hayward is an All-Star-caliber player. Yes, he’s a snake-bitten All-Star player, but the void left in his departure would be sizable. Even if he has craved a bigger role, he was willing to defer to the Walker, Tatum and Brown. He also made those players better when he was on the court.
The Celtics, with championship goals in a beefed-up East, can ill afford to let Hayward walk away and settle for a paltry return. They must recoup value to ensure there is no drop-off. Again, Turner might be a better fit here. He won’t hesitate on 3s the way Theis did at times in the playoffs and, on paper, he should better deter players like Adebayo more around the basket.
But what the team loses in Hayward at the wing position isn’t on par with what the team stands to gain at the center spot. There’d be a new gap to fill. Marcus Smart could elevate to a starting role but it further thins a Boston bench that struggled mightily to consistently produce last season.
It’s all part of the equation as the Celtics map out a potential road forward that doesn’t include Hayward. We’ve long maintained their best path to a championship contention includes Hayward.
If he elects to move on, they have to shoot for the moon in trying to recoup assets. They have to get more than just Turner’s potential. It’s critical to this team’s championship hopes.