As the trade deadline passed on Thursday, the Celtics were conspicuously absent from the wheeling and dealing. Heavy rumors gave Celtics fans visions of Paul George or Jimmy Butler donning the Green and white. The Celtics are rich in assets after swindling the Nets out of their future so Brooklyn could chase glory as LeBron’s latest speed bump on his path to the finals. Thanks to the strength of this year’s draft class, the pick swap of the 2017 Nets first rounder the Celtics own might be the most valuable asset in the NBA right now. Reports on deadline day told us the Celtics were hesitant to include that pick in offers for George or Butler, instead offering Jaylen Brown and several other assets. While I agree the Celtics made the right move in sitting out the deadline, the team should extensively consider trading for Jimmy Butler this off-season.
The Celtics are relying on using these Brooklyn assets to improve the team, but felt that altering the dynamic of the team this year while theoretically trying to incorporate another superstar like George or Butler is not worth the risk mid-season in a year when they would be unlikely to defeat Cleveland anyway. As things stand right now, the Celtics are second in the east and three games back of the Cavaliers. The Celtics are unlikely to unseat the defending champs this year, and frankly no team in the east has the talent to hang with the Cavs in a series as it stands. With reports over the last few days of the Cavs likely adding Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut, the odds of someone other than Cleveland heading to the finals out of the east this year becomes even slimmer.
The Celtics were heavily rumored to have had extensive discussions with Indiana about Paul George. However, George comes with a complication. The team would need George to agree to an extension to keep him off the market after next year. With the new CBA, George is going to qualify for an extension likely valuing over 30 million dollars annually. Another factor to consider is that Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley’s contracts both expire after next season as well. They are slated to cost Boston 15 million combined next year, and both will likely demand at least that much each for their next contract. Further compounding the issue is the team already has over 26 million dollars committed annually to Al Horford until 2020. Whatever player the Celtics draft with that pick is locked in to a steal of a rookie contract, but likely won’t be ready to contribute at the level of Paul George within the primes of the current core. Isaiah Thomas is 28, and Al Horford is 30. Is it better to max yourself out with the current core of Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, (not in his prime) Jaylen Brown, and a yet to be determined rookie, or a core of Horford, Thomas, George, and Jae Crowder? Could either of those cores challenge Cleveland next year, with another year and likely deep playoff run on LeBron’s odometer? A George trade would also financially handicap the team, as they would likely be paying nearly 90 million dollars combined to the trio of Horford, George, and Isaiah Thomas, if they decide to re-sign him.
Trading for Jimmy Butler doesn’t carry the same complications as Paul George. Butler is already on an excellent contract paying him 19 million annually and doesn’t expire until 2020. Butler’s contract would give the Celtics much more flexibility over the next few years, especially when you consider Avery Bradley will likely command a similar dollar figure for his next deal. Would you rather pay Avery Bradley and a rookie a combined 25 million over the next 3 years, Paul George 30+ million, or pay Jimmy Butler 19 million and wrap that extra money into a mid-level player or an extension for Marcus Smart?
One important factor determining the Brooklyn pick’s true value this year is the draft lottery. The Nets currently have the worst record in the league, and will likely finish with a 25% chance at the first pick in the draft. While that might sound high, that means this pick also has a 75% chance of not being the first pick, and could actually fall as far as fourth overall. There is a big difference between the first and fourth pick in the draft, especially when the first pick this year gets their pick of players like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. Right now, the pick has the value of a potential number 1 pick, but if the ping-pong balls don’t fall Boston’s way the value on this pick could decrease significantly enough that the number 3 or 4 pick might not be attractive enough as a centerpiece in any George or Butler deal.
Of course, in the off-season we should have a clearer picture of which direction both Chicago and Indiana will go in. Indy might decide to trade George and get a head start on a rebuild with the hopes of being competitive after LeBron has declined. They might then be more amicable to a package from Boston of something like Jaylen Brown, Avery Bradley or Jae Crowder, and a pick or two other than the Nets pick. That same package might not be enough to land George, but it could certainly entice Chicago for Jimmy Butler if the Bulls decide to tear it down.
Hypothetically, let’s say the Celtics traded the 2017 Nets pick, Avery Bradley, and Jaylen Brown for Jimmy Butler this off-season. This trade also leaves Boston with cap flexibility going forward. When factoring in their expiring contracts, (and if my math is right,) Boston could have up to 23 million dollars in cap room this off-season to sign other players to fill roster holes. Signing a player like Patrick Patterson or Serge Ibaka using the extra space would create a lethal starting group that could certainly contend for the east title. The Celtics could roll out a lineup next year of Isaiah Thomas, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Ibaka/Patterson, and Al Horford, with Marcus Smart and Tyler Zeller off the bench. I believe this lineup could challenge Cleveland easily, and has a real chance to make it to the finals. Thomas and Crowder are excellent shooters, Thomas and Butler are excellent ball handlers, and Horford can pick and roll/pop with either of them in a deadly two-man game.
Pulling the trigger on any substantial trade is difficult, but trading for Jimmy Butler is the best way for the Celtics to begin seriously contending for the title again.