From Little Things Big Things Grow
October 29th, 2012. This marks the day James Harden was traded from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets after being unable to come to terms with a new contract. Five years later, the ripple effects of this trade are still being felt all around the league.
The 2012 OKC squad were a team that were rapidly on the rise. Smart drafting had landed them Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in 3 successive drafts, and they had just beaten a deep Spurs team 4–2 in the Western Conference Finals. They met on the biggest stage of all- The NBA Finals – with the Lebron James’ Miami Heat, and were beaten in 5 games as Lebron claimed his first title. The Thunder were young and super talented and keen to lock up important pieces. Durant and Westbrook had been resigned, as had Serge Ibaka. The Thunder management would not dip into the luxury tax to re-sign Harden and instead offloaded him for a package centred around Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks. Just as quickly as they had risen, they were broken apart. Kevin Durant, who had been re-signed in 2010 on a 5-year deal, had done so under the provision that all 3 of their young first round picks would be adequately rewarded. They weren’t. Refusal to pay the luxury tax, ill-timed injuries and hard luck prevented the Thunder from ever winning that elusive title with Durant and Westbrook. The rest is history. Durant left OKC and won his first title in emphatic style, dominating the Finals on his way to Finals MVP. Lebron James stood between the Thunder and a title in 2012. He stood between the Celtics and the Finals in 2012. 2700 kilometres separates OKC from Boston but beginning in 2012, both teams futures changed drastically and could impact the league for the years to come.
Danny Ainge had always been a collector of assets. His ability to accumulate extra picks and players in the 2004–2006 years allowed the facilitation of trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. In many ways he had possessed the same foresight that ex-76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie possessed; the importance of stockpiling draft picks. Trading away veteran players for second round picks in the early part of this decade wasn’t seen as game changing. But take a quick look through Danny Ainge’s trade history and you can begin to see how every trade in the last five years has led to him now possessing eight (that’s right, eight) first round draft picks in the next three years as shown by the tweet below. He turned two missed draft picks, MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford into Joel Anthony and second round picks in 2015 (1 pick) and 2016 (2 picks). These extra second round picks then allowed him to trade two of his eight draft picks in the 2016 draft for a first round pick from Memphis in 2019. This occurred in 2014 and yet the full effects of the trade has not been felt yet. Everyone knows about the Nets picks, 3 first rounders and the right to swap picks which lead to them winning the 2017 NBA draft lottery. It was arguably one of the most one sided trades in NBA history. Ainge pulled the trigger on a trade to send a Celtic great away, knowing that his team was unable to compete with and combat Lebron. He also has traded for and signed smart contracts. Jae Crowder is under one of the most team friendly deals in the NBA (5 years $35 million which began in 2015–2016), and Isaiah Thomas’ contract is absurd ( 4 years $27 million until the end of 2018 NBA season). Furthermore the Celtics have an up and coming stud in coach Brad Stevens. Plus Boston has all those banners hanging in the rafters.
They have $76 million in contracts but can easily free up an additional $12 million by cutting Tyler Zellers $8 million dollar non-guaranteed contract, and not offering Kelly Olynk his qualifying offer. An extra $3 million could also be freed by cutting Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson. League officials have set the cap at $101 million, so the Celtics could have up to $40 million in cap space this year – which is more than enough to land a stud free agent, and also allows the option to facilitate a trade for a star or perhaps even a super star. However not all is rainbows and butterflies for the Celtics – a lot of their roster is about to get quite expensive. At the end of the 2017–2018 season, both Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas will be out of contract. With recent form and mid-season talks of MVP, Thomas will be asking for a max deal which could exceed the 5 year $200-million-dollar mark. Bradley, a former number 1 high school recruit, will also be heavily chased as his two-way ability will be coveted by teams with plenty of cap space.
The following year, former number 6 pick Marcus Smart will come off his rookie deal and if he continues to develop his game, he too will become expensive for the Celtics. To top all of this off, the Celtics have centre Al Horford signed on until the end of the 2020 NBA season on a max deal. Horford was signed as a consolation prize after the Celtics initially had targeted Kevin Durant following his departure from OKC. Keeping this team together is about to get really expensive and that’s before you consider the costs involved in free agency.
Despite all of this wheeling and dealing two shadows remain over the NBA; one in the Bay Area in Oakland and the man who has dominated the Eastern Conference for the past 7 years.
Possessing all of these bargaining chips has left the Celtics in a great predicament, but it’s a situation that many NBA teams would love to find themselves in. The options include:
Trading the draft capital with team friendly contracts for a star like George or Butler
Dip into free agency and sign Hayward
Trade Isaiah Thomas whilst his stock is at its highest
When looking at the possible options its clear that they could possibly trade IT. The Eastern Conference Finals, before his injury, proved that whilst Thomas is a magnificent player he is not truly transcendent in the same way Lebron, Curry and Durant are. It became easy for teams to scheme Thomas off the floor. As Michael Lombardi says on The Ringer NFL Show ‘Once a player can be schemed out, they lose all value.’ The problem with Thomas is he is listed, generously, at 5’9 making him near unplayable at the defensive end. Teams can expose him limiting his ability to impact the game. The backlash from trading Thomas would be immense. Bill Simmons, CEO of The Ringer and lifelong Celtics fan, has said that Thomas may be the greatest loved Celtic since Bird. Teams would have to have an insane amount of assets, such as Philadelphia or Sacramento, to warrant Boston trading him. But Philadelphia just gave Boston an extra first rounder to move up in the 2017 NBA Draft to take, presumably, consensus number 1 Markelle Fultz. And we know how Isaiah and Sacramento went last time
Dipping into free agency and signing Gordon Hayward is a nice splash, but does it take them over the Lebron James hump the Eastern Conference has had since 2011?
Gordon Hayward is a really good player, but he’s not considered in the NBA’s elite and he isn’t the best player on a championship roster. If he is your number 3 then that team is going to be hard to stop. But on a team like Boston, he is going to be asked to be a 1B alongside Thomas’ 1A. Hayward would also be a guy that could afford to expend a lot of energy on the defensive end, with Brad Stevens’ coaching prowess based not on energy-sapping isolation plays, but rather off-the-ball movement, pick and roll and team plays – which is something Golden State has proved as an extremely effective offense. Stevens’ prowess at play design would also prove an advantage, as he has become an expert in the after time out plays and out of bounds draw ups.
Jimmy Butler is the one that most league sources think that Boston will go after in combination with signing Gordon Hayward. Butler would be on nearly 19 million next year and presuming Hayward takes a max deal starting at $25 million, Boston would be able to afford both of these scenarios. Boston has more than enough pieces to be able to facilitate a trade for Butler and the Bulls should ask for a lot. Jimmy Butler is better than Hayward, a lockdown defender who relentlessly gets to line and has shown improvement every year since he has joined the league. At age 27, the prime of both Butler and Hayward matches up with the time frame of the Al Horford’s contract, but would start to put a squeeze on the IT contract status. Between three platers, $74 million is a hell of a lot of money for no guarantees of winning your conference. Let’s also remind ourselves that the league cap is set at $101 million – which correlates to spending over 73% of the salary cap on three players that aren’t guaranteed to take you to a Finals berth out of the eastern conference. This move would push them right to the edge of the Cavs but would still leave them short with the Warriors for the foreseeable future. Paul George isn’t coming to Boston, as he has already made it abundantly clear he wants to go to LA. Even so, he might pick up some extra flying miles by darting down to Cleveland anyways. Hell, even Butler might be on the way to Cleveland.
Despite all these scenarios the biggest shadow on the NBA resides in Oakland. The Warriors are the super team, they are what everyone is chasing. They are in the position of having two max contracts under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in Thompson and Green as well as the absurd contract that Curry signed when people were concerned about his ankles. But as shown below, the Warriors do not have a lot of money committed in the long run, both a positive and a negative. Outside of the Jason Thompson contract they carry no dead money and have their younger draft picks signed on for a few more years. Veterans wanting to win a ring will sign on for minimum to fill out the bench. As long as they have the core four in Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green, people will want to play with the Warriors. Oracle Arena, the home of the Warriors, is one of the most raucous crowds in the NBA, everyone loves the west coast weather and superstars can have lots of opportunities to expand their brand in the tech heaven of San Francisco.
Curry is about to get paid. As a 2x MVP he is eligible for the five year, $207 million max contract and he has well and truly earned it. He is the greatest shooter the world has ever seen, and has revolutionised the NBA for the near future because of his unparalleled skill set and reach with the next generation. Durant will likely opt out and take another 1+1 deal, one year guaranteed with a player option for the following year. KD would also be eligible for the super max due to his MVP and All-NBA team achievements. However, it is expected that Durant will take a pay cut so that players such as Iguodala can remain on the roster to maintain the championship pedigree/support off the bench. This team is going to be around for a while, and will be the team everyone aspires towards defeating.
So what should the Celtics do? Well if I am the Celtics I would carry out a combination of all three of the aforementioned options. I would get on the phone with Minnesota and offer up IT for some combination of Rubio a first rounder and maybe a second. It is on the low side, but in my scenario the Celtics don’t require a lot back. Plus, Minnesota want to win now and have been trying to get rid of Rubio for what feels like forever. They just require a team with enough assets to make it work. I would sign Gordon Hayward to a free agent deal. He is a really nice piece to have on a potential championship roster. As the Finals just showed, teams need to be multi positional on both offense and defense, with the ability to switch all pick and rolls. Never to be confused with Kahwi, Hayward is solid system defender capable of switching and playing multiple positions. Once Hayward is signed, then I go for the superstar. Note how I said superstar. If I am Danny Ainge I get on the phone right now and call the Pelicans and negotiate for Anthony Davis.
The Pelicans are stuck. They have nothing outside of Davis who holds value. Boogie holds little value in the league, as his contract is nearly expired and teams won’t want to overpay on a player whom has perennially underachieved dating back to his college days at Kentucky. Plus his attitude problem has turned a lot of people against him. Jrue Holiday is a solid guard but he might not be there once free agency begins. They already traded for Boogie Cousins, and if Holiday leaves and all they have is Boogie and AD that situation is dire. Davis won’t want to play where he cannot contend for a title. Danny Ainge would have 9 first round picks in this scenario. Offer up whatever it takes. 4 First rounders, Crowder, Rubio and Bradley. Sell the farm. Never has a team been more loaded with assets and never has the NBA been dominated by super teams as it is today. The Celtics could then start; Smart, Jaylen Brown, Hayward, Davis and Horford. Horford could guard the post, where he has proven to be very solid, and allow Davis to play on the perimeter to preserve his body. Brown and Smart haven’t shown the ability to be able to consistently hit from the outside but Brad Stevens is a smart coach and they have shooting from the small forward up. Smart and Brown have both shown the ability to post up smaller players allowing for an inside-out game to arise. This would be an elite defensive unit with the ability to switch every pick and roll. The Pelicans would get their shot at rebuilding through the draft and being able to stay competitive with the doggedness of Rubio, Bradley and Crowder. The 2018 NBA draft appears to have prospects considered to be franchise altering, Michael Porter Jr and Luka Doncic, so give the Pelicans their shot at rebuilding and land yourself the ultimate superstar. With little outside of Davis on the roster, the Pelicans need to take as many shots as possible to become a deeper team and plan for the realistic scenario that Davis will leave once his contract ends. They could do what Utah did with Deron Williams, trade an obviously disgruntled superstar for maximum return. They should maximize their return. Davis is 24 and under contract until 2021 when he will turn only 28. He matches up with Brown, Smart as well as any first round picks they keep. Hayward wouldn’t be asked to carry the load and Smart can play lock down defence. Plus, Jaylen Brown lost no supporters when he went at Lebron in the Eastern Conference Finals. These Celtics could then compete with the Warriors. They have positional versatility, a strong defence, interior presence on both ends of the floor and a superstar who is a nightmare match up. This wouldn’t guarantee a win for the Celtics but this would put them in arguably the best possible position to challenge. They would also be set up for a few more years. This has been a decade in the making for the Celtics. Davis is a franchise altering piece, a generational talent who is just two years removed from putting up on of the greatest seasons ever for a 22-year-old. He hasn’t even reached his prime.
Nobody knew that when Harden was traded from OKC. after losing to Lebron, that fast forward 5 years and Durant would win his maiden title in Golden State beating Lebron. Little did we know that Paul Pierce would not finish his career as a one club player instead being involved in the greatest trade heist of all following the Big 3's elimination in the playoffs by Lebron. Who thought that nearly 5 years later Anthony Davis could potentially be wearing Celtic green and challenging. Golden State led by Kevin Durant, Hardens former teammate. From little things big things grow.