What Chips Should the Boston Celtics Cash in at the Trade Deadline?

We know Trader Danny has an arsenal of assets, but will he use any this year?

Are you frustrated that a trade has not been consummated? Tired of the Boston Celtics being linked to practically every trade rumor? Like seeing trades take place just to see what players look like in different uniforms? Welcome to NBA trade deadline season where you’ll hear about dozens of trade rumors and only see an nth of them materialize.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn mega deal that took place nearly half a decade ago — still can’t believe it has been that long — Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge has collected a significant amount of assets. Since that trade, the two teams have taken polar opposite paths. Boston has shrewdly rebuilt itself and has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (37–20), while Brooklyn’s gamble proved severely costly and they’re one the league’s bottom dwellers — 9–47, the worst record in the NBA.

The Celtics own a two-game lead over the Washington Wizards, and a four-game lead over their Atlantic Division rival, the Toronto Raptors. The (temporarily) weakened Cleveland Cavaliers, who are without Kevin Love for approximately six weeks after undergoing a knee scope, have a three-game lead over Boston.

Assuming this timetable is accurate, Love comes back right before the playoffs begin, a sigh of relief for Cleveland. It’s unclear whether Love will return to his All-Star caliber form — knee/leg/foot injuries to big men are no joke — but if you’re the Celtics, Raptors, or Wizards, you’re licking your chops.

Make no mistake, there is still plenty of space between Boston and the Cavs. The Cavaliers still have the best player in the game, yet their road to the finals becomes that much tougher with a banged up Love. Don’t worry, there’s a way the C’s can close the gap. That’s where the picks and assets come in.

Wyck Grousbeck’s and Ainge’s responses have been as transparent as management can be. Obviously the pair cannot lift the shroud as much as Boston’s fanbase might like, but their statements are telling about the kind of transcendent player the franchise covets. (Side note: don’t expect the Celts to acquire that player on February 23rd.)

On a recent appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich, Ainge provided some valuable insight on the team’s game plan at the trade deadline. He believes the Celtics can unlock another gear once they become healthy and emphasized that the team is looking for rim protection.

Avery Bradley might be Boston’s best acquisition at the deadline. Bradley (achilles) has missed 20 out of the last 21 games. He’s a 40.9 percent from behind the arc this year and provides the team with another potent 3-point shooter.

He shoots the short corner three especially well — 41.7% from the left corner, 55% from the right corner. That’s a valuable asset to have in the postseason because teams have previously packed the paint in an attempt to neuter Isaiah Thomas’ driving ability. When teams commit to that strategy, they dare other players to punish them with the three ball, which Bradley certainly can do.

Boston will be just fine in the scoring department, but, as Ainge mentioned, the team will need to address its rim protection woes as well as rebounding.

Amir Johnson is a fine player, but he’s a stopgap and not a long term solution. Box score fiends won’t find much material to praise Johnson. However, he’s an integral part of Boston’s now forgotten hard-nosed defense.

His minutes are down — 19.7 minutes per game, his lowest average since ‘09-’10 — and for the most part he’s productive in small spurts. Johnson turns 30 in May, but this is his 12th season. That’s a lot of mileage and the wear ‘n tear has stunted the level that he can contribute on a nightly basis.

It’s not fair to poke fun at Johnson in this play. He’s guarding Darren Collison, a shifty point guard, in isolation. The joke practically writes itself. At the same time, it’s fair to subject Johnson to this nitpicking kind of scrutiny. Versatile teams, Cleveland and Golden State for example, are smart enough to recognize this weakness and exploit it in switches.

With Johnson on the floor, Boston is handicapped to play a certain style, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing by the way. He shoots (likely unsustainable) 40.9% from 3-point range. Yet, that’s based on a small sample size of 44 attempts, and 41 of those attempts were “open” or “wide open” per NBA.com. In other words, defenders are sagging off Johnson and daring him to shoot from deep.

That’s perfectly understandable considering Johnson’s painfully slow release. Opposing defenders can recover and contest these shots, if they like, because Amir’s stroke is slower than the rate at which the Earth’s plates move. In the era of spreading defenses wide and having five reliable perimeter shooters on the floor, Johnson has increasingly been on the outside looking in, especially during crunch time.

The team’s frontcourt could look very different next season. In addition to Johnson (unrestricted free agent), Jonas Jerebko, (unrestricted free agent), Kelly Olynyk (restricted free agent), and Tyler Zeller (non-guaranteed ‘17-’18) could be casualties next season. Even with the addition of Al Horford, Boston’s frontcourt remains an area for improvement.

The Celtics have a slew of assets to both complete a mega deal for a superstar, should that be the route they take, and upgrade their frontcourt. According to The Vertical’s Shams Charania, the Celtics have already engaged in exploratory talks regarding a big man upgrade.

If these rumors materialize into a deal, there’s a chance Johnson or one of the aforementioned players are on their way out. Johnson’s prehistoric style isn’t worthless; it allows the Celtics shift to another gear, one that’s looked rustier than we’d like this season.

It would be tough parting ways with Johnson, a fan favorite role player who’s practically tailor-made for Boston’s current system. He’s unique enough where the Celtics can’t replace him internally. Olynyk is a much better 3-point shooter and a competent rotational defender, but he prefers to hang out on the perimeter and doesn’t seek out contact like Johnson. Zeller cannot stretch the floor beyond the 3-point line and is more of a sieve on defense than Olynyk.

Amir has a propensity to keep plays alive and is Boston’s only vacuum on the boards, which is important considering the team is tied for third-worst in the NBA in rebounding. The team will need to address this concern sometime down the road, whether it is during or after this season.

One of the causalities could be Jerebko, who was one of Brad Stevens’ favorite small-ball weapons last year. The 6-foot-10 forward from Sweden has experienced a down year. He’s shooting 34.7% from deep and just 35.8% on catch-and-shoot threes (down from 41.7% last year) per NBA.com. Jerebko is an unrestricted free agent this year and the Celtics can fill his role internally, while addressing their rebounding/rim protection concerns.

On Valentine’s Day, the Eastern Conference arms race continued after Toronto strengthened their frontcourt yesterday by trading for Serge Ibaka, who is on an expiring contract. The trade only cost the Drakes Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick. The “win now” gambit helps position the Raptors to make a long run in the playoffs.

Reports from CelticsBlog indicate the Celtics kicked the tires on a potential Ibaka deal, however talks dissolved after Boston refused to part with “assets of value…for short-term acquisitions that do not clearly put them over the top for title contention.”

After seeing the price tag for Ibaka, it’s tempting to scrutinize Boston’s management for backing out. Resist that urge. Ainge and co. felt that Ibaka wouldn’t put Boston over the edge. The last thing an organization should do is waste assets or recklessly roll the dice, especially when that means trading for a player who will command a hefty salary you’re unwilling to pay. That’s what poorly run organizations do, and fortunately Boston isn’t one of them.

While the Ibaka deal was perhaps a tough pill for Celtics fans to swallow, the DeMarcus Cousins deal was the equivalent of having a World War II submarine lodged in your esophagus. The NBA community’s bewilderment by that move will remain for the foreseeable future. As frustrating as it is, we’ll never get the full story about why the Celtics passed on Cousins. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks describes Boston’s decision (or lack there of) nicely:

Just by themselves [Nets pick in 2017 and 2018], each is worth far more than the package the Pelicans gave up for Cousins, which makes you wonder whether the Celtics were ever seriously interested in him. Did they not think he would be a good fit in the locker room, would they rather just hold onto their picks and build for the future, or are they saving their powder for another move?

With Ibaka and Cousins off the market, Boston has plenty of options. They could stand pat at the trade deadline for the second year in a row, heave the kitchen sink and bring in the transcendent talent (a very remote possibility), or use some of their less valuable assets to make necessary minor roster upgrades. We must continue to be patient and put our faith in Trader Danny. The Celtics rebuilt to where they are today by limiting those knee-jerk moves, so why buck the trend now?