With Dec.15 passing us by, marking the unofficial start of NBA trade season, rumors are already beginning to swirl around teams who aren’t meeting expectations.
One of the biggest teams in that spotlight? The Boston Celtics.
The Celtics have gotten out to an up-and-down start to the 2021-22 season, struggling to string together any sort of consistency to begin the year. With a 15-15 record, Boston has had moments where it has looked like one of the best teams in the league (see: commanding wins over the Heat, Bucks and Lakers, all at full strength), but it has also had moments where it looks like a team that may not even qualify for the Play-In Tournament (see: a 30-point loss to the Raptors, blown 20-point leads to the Bulls and Cavaliers and a loss to the Paul George-less Clippers).
The city and fanbase are growing restless with this team, frustrated with a core group of players who, on paper, should be sitting comfortably among the best in the Eastern Conference, but instead fluctuate in and out of the playoff picture due to erratic effort levels.
With a new head coach in Ime Udoka and former head coach Brad Stevens taking over the President of Basketball Operations role, there has been plenty of overturn at key decision-making positions that could warrant patience. But with a similar roster makeup over the last few seasons, this year already has a familiar feel that could lead to another shortcoming.
All of that to say… is it time for the Celtics to blow things up and start fresh? Let’s address a few trade rumors and possible moves to be made.
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Addressing Celtics trade rumors
Should the Celtics trade Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown?
The headlining question is can Tatum and Brown – two All-Stars in their early 20s who have played side-by-side for their entire careers (Brown’s rookie season aside) – continue to co-exist?
Earlier this month, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer hopped on Sirius XM NBA Radio to discuss trade rumors, stating, “I think this is definitely the beginning of the end for the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown pairing. … I think sometime in the next 12-to-18 months, we’re really going start to hear conversations about the future of Boston with Jaylen Brown heading out the door.”
How much should you really read into that? I personally wouldn’t say much at all, considering how extremely broad that time frame is. It’s also worth noting that in early November, MassLive Celtics writer Brian Robb reported his sources were “adamant the Celtics have no interest in moving the All-Star Brown in the interim.”
But there is no denying that if the Celtics were to part ways with one of their two stars, it is much more likely to be Brown than Tatum.
Both players have an offensive-minded approach to the game and they’ve even been accused of being too score-first-oriented by their teammate and captain Marcus Smart. Each capable of giving you 25-plus points on any given night, there has been a tendency for those two to dominate the ball with others getting minimal touches.
But to put it plainly, in my opinion, you can’t trade Brown just for the sake of trying to shake things up.
The former No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft still had plenty of room for improvement at the time of his selection. In Boston, he has developed his game significantly, evolving into a shot-creating scorer with a knockdown jumper, reaching his potential as an All-Star while also turning into one of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the league. The fit next to Tatum doesn’t always appear to be seamless, but don’t be so near-sighted to forget it has worked in the recent past.
Brown has been to three Conference Finals in five years so far, two of which he played a key role for alongside Tatum. Over that span, the Cleveland Cavaliers (with LeBron James) and the Milwaukee Bucks are the only other teams in the East with multiple Conference Finals appearances (2).
In line with other players who have either been linked to Boston in the past or have reportedly been made available in trade rumors so far this season – Bradley Beal and Ben Simmons have both never been to a Conference Finals. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Brandon Ingram and De’Aaron Fox have never made the playoffs.
Of course, the NBA is all about opportunity and situation, but would any of those players in a swap for Brown move the needle significantly with the remaining current roster around Tatum? I don’t believe so.
So what are the options without trading Brown?
Who could the Celtics trade without giving up Tatum and Brown?
The next three most valuable pieces on the roster are Smart, Robert Williams III and Dennis Schroder. The Celtics also have all of their own first-round picks for the foreseeable future.
Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic and the heartbeat of the team, but his elite defensive prowess makes him a possible trade chip. Williams is only 24 years old and has proven to be an electrifying rim-runner, lob finisher and shot blocker when healthy, making him an intriguing target as well. Schroder has been very solid so far on his one-year “prove it” deal, but he is set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason and because Boston likely won’t have the cap space to meet his salary demands, his name has popped up in early rumors.
The question is, just how desirable is that trio to other teams?
There are also young former first-round picks like Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford, but those players are probably more likely to be throw-ins on a deal, not centerpieces.
Using Sabonis as an example because he has reportedly announced his displeasures in Indiana and I love his fit alongside Tatum and Brown – would the Pacers entertain a deal packaged around some combination of Smart, Schroder and Williams along with first-round pick(s) for their two-time All-Star? For what it’s worth, it does work salary-wise, but Smart cannot be traded until Jan. 20 due to the timing of the four-year, $77 million extension he signed with the Celtics this offseason.
I don’t know the answer as to if that would be enough or not. It seems close to what the Pacers would expect for a return, but there are other teams that could offer better long-term assets. And that’s a problem the Celtics will run into frequently when trying to make a deal without giving up Brown.
Even though Smart, Williams, Schroder and the other young players add different levels of value, do they move the needle for a playoff team trying to reach title contender status? Or a rebuilding/retooling team trying to set themselves up for success in the future?
That’s where things get tricky without moving Brown.
Without Brown included in a potential package, a conceivable deal for a player like Simmons is almost certainly off the table given the asking price from 76ers general manager Daryl Morey. The same thing is probably true for other All-Stars who may become available either at the trade deadline or down the line.
The dream scenario for the Celtics would be to try and add a third star to their All-Star tandem not subtract from it, but that is much easier said than done.
Unless a deal like that presents itself, expect to see the Celtics continue to roll out their All-Star tandem past the trade deadline and re-visit potential roster moves during the next offseason.