Marcus Morris

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Celtics pay the price to transform themselves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Boston turned over 11 of 15 players from a team that earned the No. 1 seed and reached the conference finals. The Celtics made three trades each bigger than many teams’ biggest move this summer, and they signed Gordon Hayward.

An offseason so busy, I had to grade it twice.

Boston’s massive overhaul culminated in dealing for Kyrie Irving, a huge trade among the Eastern Conference’s two best teams. The Celtics got the young star, but at a significant cost.

The Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick is an elite asset. Jae Crowder is a versatile 3-and-D wing on one of the NBA’s most team-friendly contracts. Isaiah Thomas is a star himself when healthy (obviously a major question). Ante Zizic is a nice developmental prospect. And Boston sent another second-rounder to complete the deal.

It can be hard to conceptualize the value of the Brooklyn pick, as it doesn’t show up when comparing last year’s Celtics roster to this year’s – definitely younger, maybe even better. But that pick was the centerpiece of their offer, and to me, it tilted the trade to unfavorable.

At least Irving will be ready to begin the season, unlike Thomas. That’ll keep the Celtics rolling, especially with Hayward.

Hayward was the lynchpin of a successful offseason. An in-his-prime star acquired with cap space created by renouncing marginal players and trading Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris.

That trade wasn’t great in a vacuum. I didn’t like trading the No. 1 pick for the No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) and a future first-rounder, either. My reservations about those deals largely stand from my initial grading:

Boston traded down from the top pick to No. 3 to draft Tatum. Count me among those who believed there was a significant drop from Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball to the next tier – and the tier after that.

The extra first-rounder the Celtics acquired has also only lost value since the trade.

It’d convey from the Lakers if they pick 2-5 next year. But they added two players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, better than they were expected to get. Los Angeles looks less likely to stumble into a top-five pick – especially without incentive to tank.

If not the Lakers’ pick this season, Boston will get the higher of Sacramento’s and Philadelphia’s 2019 first-rounders (or lower if one is No. 1). The Kings signed a couple veterans, George Hill and Zach Randolph, to help them in 2018-19. Sacramento’s young players will be more developed by then, and mirroring the Lakers this year, there’s no incentive to tank. (Philadelphia is also on the rise, but the Celtics probably already knew that.)

There’s still a chance Boston winds up with a high pick – or even wins the trade with a middling additional selection. Tatum, as the Celtics have claimed, might be a better prospect than Fultz outright.

I originally thought the trade was about fair. Developments swing the pendulum away from Boston, though perhaps I’m overly colored by my relatively dim evaluation of Tatum. (I expected the Celtics to draft Josh Jackson when the trade was made.)

Boston’s next big move, signing Hayward, also comes with a major caveat. To get Hayward, the Celtics had to downgrade from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris.

The reasons are clear: Bradley is earning $8,808,989 in the final season of his contract. Morris is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million and $5,375,000.

Bradley for Morris is understandable given the circumstances. Trading down for Tatum is a difference of opinion, and Danny Ainge is rightfully sticking by his.

The Celtics are in awesome shape. They have a young good team plus three extra first-rounders, including the vaunted Lakers/Kings/76ers pick and a sneaky valuable Grizzlies pick.

But it’s important to remember they entered the offseason in awesome shape, and I’m grading how their position has changed. Though I didn’t love their decision-making, luring Hayward with cap space that mostly existed anyway was a massive victory.

Offseason grade: B

Report: Celtics leaning toward starting Al Horford at center

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Al Horford is the Celtics’ best center, and he’s best at center.

But that was also true last season, when Boston primarily started Amir Johnson at center.

Many – myself included – expected Aron Baynes to start at center this season with Johnson joining the 76ers. The burlier Baynes could battle opposing starting centers, allowing Horford to avoid wear and tear. Horford could still finish close games at center, play far more minutes than the start and play the position more in the playoffs, as he did last season.

Alas, the Celtics apparently have a different plan.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

I do think they’re going to start Horford at center, which is interesting. I think, organizationally, that’s the way they’re leaning.

This is the Celtics’ ticket to starting with their best lineup on the floor. They can now start three, rather than two, of Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris between Horford and Kyrie Irving.

Why the change from last year’s approach?

Perhaps, Boston wants to give its new players – 11 of 15 – a better chance of jelling in their optimal lineup construction. Maybe the Celtics just want to acclimate Horford to center as much as possible before he plays the position nearly exclusively in the playoffs.

Or maybe they’re simply not overthinking it.

Though I am concerned about Horford handling that load all season, Boston is clearly best in the short term this way.

Celtics attempting gambit not accomplished in decades

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The Celtics were the youngest team to win a playoff series last season.

They apparently weren’t young enough for their own taste.

Boston’s trade for Kyrie Irving was the most dramatic step in a youth movement by a team that won 53 games and reached the conference finals a year go.

The Celtics lost four of their top six in playoff minutes (Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk) and replaced them with – top four newcomers by value – Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Guerschon Yabusele. Average age of the outgoing players right now? 27.2. Average age of the incoming players? 23.5.

Most teams with seasons like Celtics keep the core together, meaning everyone gets a year older. That doesn’t apply in Boston, which shed 11 of 15 players.

Marcus Morris (27) and Aron Baynes (30) are in line for rotation roles. Al Horford is 31. They’ll hedge against the team’s average age freefalling. But returners Marcus Smart (23), Terry Rozier (23) and Jaylen Brown (20) should receive larger roles previously held by much older veterans.

The Celtics had an average age – using players’ ages Feb. 1 and weighted by playing time, the same method used in this post’s first sentence – of 25.9 in the 2017 postseason. Just three teams had an average age below 26 during a postseason in which they won a playoff series then got even younger while still winning a playoff series the following year:

  • 1956 Syracuse Nationals
  • 1959 Minneapolis Lakers
  • 1960 Los Angeles Lakers

The Celtics will try to become the fourth. They’re not only expected to advance again, but return to the conference finals – and once again face the Cavaliers.

LeBron James looms over all this, his seven-year stranglehold over the East causing many to believe last year’s Celtics had hit their ceiling. If Boston somehow got past him, the all-time-great Warriors loom in the Finals.

It’s logical for the Celtics to delay their window.

Boston has between four and six first-round picks the next two years, and the two uncertain ones will eventually convey. The Celtics possess the tools to keep getting even younger.

But, as punctuated by trading the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder for Irving, this isn’t a complete teardown.

The Celtics are attempting the rare feat of rebuilding on the fly. They’re even doing it with an added degree of difficulty – starting the process already young.

Report: Cavaliers evaluating Kyrie Irving trade after Isaiah Thomas physical

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The Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick – pending physicals.

Boston acknowledged that Thomas’ hip injury played a role in the deal. It also might factor into the trade getting voided.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

It doesn’t take Miss Cleo to read these tea leaves. Cleveland is clearly concerned.

The Cavs don’t need Thomas ready to start the season. With him on an expiring contract, they don’t even necessarily need him to have great longevity – though he would certainly like to be healthy enough to cash in next summer, and they would ideally like to re-sign him (and LeBron James). But most of all, the Cavaliers need Thomas healthy this May and June for a playoff run that could realistically culminate with another championship.

If it appears too unlikely Thomas is up to that, the Cavs have no choice but to flunk his physical and negate the trade.

The big question: How unlikely is too unlikely?

Cleveland got so much in the deal – Crowder (a versatile wing built to match up with the Warriors), Zizic (a fine young prospect) and that sweet, sweet Brooklyn pick that alone might near Irving’s value. The Cavaliers obviously don’t need Thomas perfectly healthy to come out ahead, which is self-evident in them making the trade while Thomas is still rehabbing his hip.

The teams could always try to re-work the trade, though it wouldn’t be easy. They tried for weeks before finding this configuration.

Thomas, an All-NBA second-teamer who averaged 29 points per game last season, was supposedly key in appeasing Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s desire to acquire a star for Irving. Maybe Boston can swap in other players – including point guards Marcus Smart and/or Terry Rozier – but that might not placate Cleveland. It’d also be superfluous for the Celtics to keep Thomas while adding Irving, at least if Thomas can play.

And just which players would Boston include in a revised deal? Marcus Morris can’t be aggregated in a trade until Sept. 7. Aron Baynes, Shane Larkin and Daniel Theis can’t be traded at all until Dec. 15. Options are narrow.

If the deal gets undone, there would be a lot of hurt feelings on both sides.

Irving, of course, requested a trade from Cleveland. How would he handle returning after believing he had moved on? How would his teammates welcome him back after coming to terms with his exit?

Likewise, Thomas might not be keen on returning to the Celtics. I wouldn’t blame him for looking around the locker room and front office and wondering whom he can trust. Even if Thomas returned to Boston and played well, there’d be no chance of pitching him with loyalty in free agency next summer.

The simplest answer might be the Cavaliers getting another pick from the Celtics, which wouldn’t affect the trade’s cap math, in exchange for taking greater risk on Thomas’ hip. That’d avoid a lot of drama.

If even amenable to that – they’re already giving up so much – the Celtics would probably want to conduct another physical of their own on Thomas. Otherwise, what would stop the Cavs from signaling concern just to extort an extra pick from Boston?

There are good reasons for both teams to take their time in evaluating this. It just must be excruciating for everyone involved.

Kyrie Irving leaves $1,668,172-$5,845,172 on the table by waiving trade kicker

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Kyrie Irving wanted a trade from the Cavaliers.

He put his money where his mouth is to facilitate a deal to the Celtics.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Irving’s trade bonus could have been worth 15% of his remaining salary before a 2019 player option – up to $5,845,172. But that amount would have rendered the trade – Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick – illegal under the NBA’s salary-matching trade rules. Boston could take back only its outgoing salary plus $5 million, and Irving’s base salary left just $834,086 to spare.

That meant the maximum trade bonus Irving could have received in this deal was $1,668,172 – $834,086 applied to both seasons before his player option.

The Celtics could have sent out more salary, allowing Irving to earn a higher portion of his kicker, which would have been paid by the Cavs by rule. But Boston is short on filler salary – especially because Marcus Morris can’t be aggregated in a trade until Sept. 7, and Aron Baynes, Shane Larkin and Daniel Theis can’t be traded at all until Dec. 15. Including anyone else would have meant the Celtics surrendering even more value – and they already gave up so much. Maybe Cleveland would have balked at paying extra to Irving, who already threw them for a loop with his trade request.

But the possibility of Irving pocketing a trade bonus was there. Whether $1,668,172 is a lot to someone earning $18,868,626 this season is in the eye of the beholder.

That Irving didn’t maximize his income by pushing for a different trade that could’ve allowed him to receive more of his trade bonus or even demanding the maximum amount allowable in this trade speaks to his desire to leave Cleveland. It also says something about his eagerness to join the Celtics, which should make them a little more confident about re-signing him in two years.

Though Irving signing an extension is almost certainly unrealistic, these little signals matter as his free agency looms.