Who wants to make a deal?
December 15 signals the official start of NBA trade season as the 100-plus free agents that signed this past summer are now eligible to be dealt. For the Boston Celtics, players like Dennis Schroder and Enes Freedom can now be moved. Others, like Josh Richardson, who signed an offseason extension after being traded here in July, will join that mix over the next month.
The Celtics have typically spent the winter months hunting upgrades, but the team’s roster plans this season are likely a bit more fluid. The next few weeks should help first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens decide if this team can evolve into a legitimate contender worth investing in at the deadline. Or, if the Celtics linger as a .500 squad, it might make it easier for Stevens to sell off pieces in the quest for future assets.
Boston has the flexibility to maneuver in multiple directions before February’s trade deadline. So here’s our best guess at how the next two months unfold:
The Dennis Schroder conundrum
Unless the Celtics dominate the final three weeks of the 2021 calendar year, the ideal path forward might involve moving recent offseason additions with hopes of stockpiling future draft assets that might aid the quest for landing future talent.
Dennis Schroder was a steal this offseason at the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel — and it’s hard to imagine just how bleak Boston’s record might be without him this year — but there’s no obvious path to retaining him beyond this season and the Celtics have to consider moving him even if they elect to linger in the playoff hunt.
If Boston’s numbers were better when Schroder has been paired with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, maybe there would be a value in riding it out to the end of the season and holding out hope of attracting him back on limited resources. Alas, Boston owns an unremarkable plus-1.5 net rating in the 155 minutes that Schroder, Brown, and Tatum have shared the floor.
It’s a small sample but not one that suggests Schroder is some sort of keep-at-all-costs asset. What’s more, the Celtics have a minus-10.8 net rating in the 161 minutes that Schroder has played without a Jay on the court.
Because he’s an expiring deal and the receiving team won’t have his Bird Rights, limiting that team’s ability to retain him, he is unlikely to bring back a great return, at least barring a mini bidding war for his services. Still, grabbing any sort of draft asset for him would be a win and would also open a pathway for 2020 draftees Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard to play more later this season when the Celtics could prioritize player development.
One other thing the Celtics should consider: Can they ship Schroder to an upgrade-seeking contender and get back a shooter who might be retainable beyond this season? Could they call Atlanta about Delon Wright? Dallas about Trey Burke? Is that more valuable to Boston than simply a second-round pick?
Other likely trade candidates
If the Celtics decide that it’s more prudent to sell veteran pieces than maintain those players for a stretch run then Richardson could have trade value as wing depth for a contender. Richardson has rebounded from rough stops in Philadelphia and Dallas to play steady two-way ball in Boston. A receiving team would also have him under contract for the 2022-23 season after the Celtics tacked on a year after his arrival (because of that, he’s not eligible to be traded until early January).
Juancho Hernangomez is earning $6.9 million this season and has played only 63 minutes in 15 appearances. A team thin on depth at the power forward spot might be interested in seeing what Hernangomez can do in a bigger role. The Celtics should be willing to move him for cap relief alone as the team could dip out of the tax, easing potential repeater penalties that will be steamrolling towards this team with their next big-splash move.
Jabari Parker and Bruno Fernando could be had for a song (if anyone actually desired their services).
The good news for Boston: Because of the play-in tournament and the general parity in the middle of the league, there could be more buyers than sellers at the deadline, so there could be a decent market for veteran talent.
Could the Celtics be buyers, not sellers?
If the Celtics rip off a bit of a winning streak here against top competition then there could be temptation to buy instead of sell. In this instance, the Celtics hold onto Schroder and Richardson while electing to figure out their futures in the summer. But armed with a few sizable trade exceptions, the Celtics could thrust themselves into the pursuit of any desirable talent that came on the market.
The Celtics have trade exceptions worth $17.1 million (Evan Fournier), $9.7 million (Tristan Thompson), and $5.1 million (Kemba Walker) that could help pluck talent of any shape or size from teams yearning for cap relief. The difficulty here is that Boston likely doesn’t want to part with any future first-round picks — it was part of their motivation in moving Walker and last year’s first-round pick before the summer — in order to facilitate deals so any TPE usage might be limited to teams simply seeking to shed salary.
Of course, Boston might be willing to splurge for the right player. If the Celtics don’t feel there’s a big-splash option they will be able to pursue via potential cap space or on the trade market after the season then Boston might be more willing to use the Fournier TPE and picks to chase a player who could pair well with this core.
If the Celtics wanted a player above the $17.1 million mark, they could investigate the feasibility of moving Al Horford, whose $26.5 million final-year salary is only partially guaranteed next season. The Celtics should at least call Detroit to see if Horford and a slew of future first-round picks is enough to consider moving Jerami Grant.
It would certainly benefit the Celtics to turn those trade exceptions into something, even if it’s just placeholder talent that could be moved to bring back assets further down the road. The cost of generating that Fournier TPE was essentially four second-round picks (two dealt to Charlotte to generate the initial Gordon Hayward TPE, and then two more to New York).
But tax concerns and a desire to preserve draft assets might force the Celtics to wait until the summer to investigate other ways to maximize those TPEs.
Could the Celtics move Marcus Smart?
For all the consternation coming back from a 1-4 trip with the team sitting under .500 overall, the Celtics have played well when their four-man core of Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams have been on the court. That group is a plus-19.5 in 170 minutes of floor time, and that's the fifth-best four-man lineup in the NBA among groups with at least that much court time.
If that core continues to thrive over the next few weeks, we don’t see Boston yearning to sell off any pieces of its core before the end of the season. Part of the goal this year was to determine if Smart can be the point guard of the future alongside the Jays. We probably need a larger sample size to answer that question definitively — even if Smart detractors will argue otherwise. The numbers with this core have been solid, even if the win-loss record isn’t as glossy.
Could the Celtics move Robert Williams?
No. Because, 1) Poison pill provision after signing a rookie extension and 2) My heart would shatter in a million pieces.
Could the Celtics move Jaylen Brown?
The Celtics are a .500 team over the past 2-plus seasons and it is absolutely fair to ponder if a bigger implosion is necessary if this roller coaster ride shows no sign of ending. Boston has changed the coach and the complementary pieces and, at least through 28 games, it hasn’t been enough to change the team’s middling ways.
That being said, we suspect that dealing Brown is absolutely the last bridge that Stevens would cross in trying to shake Boston from its doldrums. Brown and Tatum are operating with a flawed roster that doesn’t have nearly enough shooting to accentuate their talents.
It’s absolutely fair to demand more from Brown and Tatum, but Boston will likely tweak all other aspects of this team before splitting the Jays. We can revisit that conversation on December 15, 2022, if things don’t change.