Do the Boston Celtics really need to make a move before the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline?
Over the next 23 days there will be endless rumors and breathless speculation about what the Celtics might do. On Tuesday, a report from The Athletic suggested that Boston had expressed significant trade interest in Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl. It’s just the first bit of rumor grain that will be fed into the insatiable rumor mill.
The Celtics looked to be overstocked with talent at the start of the year when, even while operating without Robert Williams III and Danilo Gallinari, the team couldn’t find consistent playing time for someone like Payton Pritchard.
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But a prolonged slump from second-year forward Sam Hauser, coupled with an obvious desire to pace big men Al Horford and Williams III, made us wonder if the team needed to explore options to bolster its frontcourt depth.
Which is why the Celtics will dance in all sorts of rumors surrounding available big men, including Poeltl. The team, despite all its success, could benefit from additional depth. The fact that Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has both trade exceptions and a disabled player exception at his disposal to aid potential deals leaves the door open to movement.
But there are a couple things to keep in mind while pondering the validity of any rumor, and whether it makes sense for Boston:
1. The Celtics don’t HAVE to make a move
While another piece would be helpful, particularly if depth were further depleted, Boston can reasonably expect that the Horford/Williams III combo can cover the 48 center minutes during any playoff series.
Boston has a clear-cut top 8 rotation of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Williams III, Horford, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams that will eat the majority of playoff minutes.
Luke Kornet has been more than serviceable as the third big and Pritchard was a playoff contributor a year ago. Boston has to think hard about giving up any valuable assets to add a player who might not be a surefire playoff presence.
2. Money matters
The Celtics already made a minor pre-deadline move by sending Noah Vonleh and cash to the Spurs to both free up a roster spot and ease a bit of their tax burden.
The Celtics stand a little less than $24 million over the tax line, which would produce a tax bill of nearly $60 million. Every $1 they spend now is taxed at $3.75 (with the potential to escalate even higher).
Boston seems unlikely to take on even a small amount of salary without full confidence that an acquired player would be worth both the cost to acquire him and the tax burden it adds.
Which brings us to Poeltl, a bruising big man who could certainly ease some of the stress on Horford and Williams III to the finish line of the regular season. He might even be a luxury as a backup big further down the road. But he’s earning $9.4 million this season in the final year of his contract, which adds a whole 'nutha layer of complication to the process.
Do you give up assets for a player who might not be retained beyond the season? One more hurdle: The Celtics would need to include the salary of Gallinari in a Poeltl deal. While the Spurs can reacquire Gallinari after waiving him earlier this season (after taking him on as part of the Dejounte Murray deal with Atlanta), the Celtics would likely need to overwhelm San Antonio with other assets to make them consider carrying an injured player who has a player option and can guarantee his $6.8 million salary for next season at age 35.
That's our long-winded way of saying there are an awful lot of hurdles to any Poeltl acquisition. And, presumably, Poeltl would prefer to land with a contender that can offer him the surefire playing time that would only enhance his value this summer.
The Celtics could tread more cautiously and simply investigate the buyout bargain bin after the trade deadline. The Gallinari disabled player exception will allow them to outbid most teams for the services of a desired player. Alas, you pretty much have to rewind to P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, and the 2008 Celtics to find the last time a buyout addition truly influenced a postseason title quest.
Stevens and his staff simply have to ponder each individual opportunity and decide if the investment is worthwhile in both the short and long term. There are no easy answers here.
Which path should Stevens go down?
While this armchair general manager would probably tend to err on the side of caution, there is one strong argument for being slightly more reckless: Opportunities to compete for a championship are never guaranteed and, if the Celtics believe they have a legitimate title chance -- which a half-season worth of returns seems to confirm -- then mildly overpaying for even a small bit of potentially surplus depth isn’t the worst crime.
Remember, it felt like the Celtics were maybe one piece short during last year’s Finals run that ended with Banner 18 slipping away against the Golden State Warriors. Few championship teams ever walk away lamenting being overstocked on talent.
The Celtics have spent a lot of first-round picks to build their current roster. Stevens utilized future first rounders to add Horford, White, and Brogdon since taking over.
The other thing we constantly debate in our minds: What is Boston’s biggest need if the team is to take only one swing?
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It’s understandable that Poeltl’s name floats based on Horford’s age and Williams III’s injury history. But Boston might have a bigger need for a big wing -- someone who could play Hauser’s role, limit the wear and tear on the Jays, and be a trusted defender in a playoff series.
Those types of players tend to be in shorter supply but -- if you were going to splurge -- it might be better to put money on that need, particularly if that player can be retained deeper into the future.
The only certainty here: Stevens and Co. will have an awful lot to ponder over the next three weeks. Even if there isn’t maybe as much urgency to deal as the past two Februarys, teams with title hopes have to ponder all available opportunities.