What the Celtics should do when the lockout ends

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PBT is working its way through what every team in the NBA should do when the NBA lockout ends. To see all the teams we’ve done so far, click here. Today, we talk Boston Celtics.

Last season in Boston: The Celtics won 56 games, entered the playoffs as the three seed and smacked the Knicks around in the first round. For a lot of teams that would be a good season. In Boston it started the “end of the dynasty that wasn’t really a dynasty” talk. Everyone seemed to focus on two things. One was the trade of Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the deadline for Jeff Green, and how that impacted chemistry. Second is how easily Miami knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs in five games in the second round.

For the record, the Perkins traded is not what cost the Celtics against Miami — they needed offense in the paint against the Heat, something Perkins would not have provided. The loss to Miami happened because the Heat were better at the time. Which is an issue because they are also younger and likely to be even better next season.

Since we last saw the Celtics… they have seen very little change — which is news itself. Boston is keeping its core together — Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo — plus keeping Doc Rivers in charge. They are going to make one more run at a ring. Then it is transition time.

The Celtics did draft E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson from Purdue back in June, both potentially good players. However, neither is going to play a significant role as a rookie on a contender. And the Celtics fancy themselves contenders.

When the lockout ends, the Celtics need to… figure out what to do about Jeff Green, find some help in the paint and find a way to get a little more athletic. Then go sacrifice a goat to the injury gods, or do whatever else it takes to keep this team healthy for a season.

About the decision to make one more run at it with this core, Jeff Clark is the man behind the fantastic OG Boston hoops site CelticsBlog, explains it for us.

For what seems like the third straight year, the Celtics have one more shot with the Big 3. With Garnett and Allen on the final year of their deals there’s a sense of finality this time. Next year, if they are still in Celtic green, it will likely be because they are back on a steep discount, or something went wrong with the grand plan. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When this mess of a labor situation is resolved, they have to bring out the duct tape, wires, and bubble gum and hope it looks more like McGyver and less like uncle Cletus’ pickup.

Those guys need help and Celtics fans dream big, but this will be help on a budget for Boston. They are shopping at Payless Shoes, not the Nike store. If Green accepts the qualifying offer ($5.9 million, and the Celtics hope he does) they will have $66 million in salary on the books and seven players under contract. Again Jeff Clark explains:

Regardless of what kind of CBA the sides agree on, the Celtics won’t have much money to throw around. They will hope that the same goes for other teams as well since they are hoping against hope that Jeff Green gets no other reasonable offers and accepts the qualifying offer. “Big Baby” Glen Davis is the other free agent and they’ll probably wait for the market to set his value. He’d help the team, but I don’t think Doc will shed any tears seeing him move on.

Personally, I’m not the world’s biggest Green fan. Oh, he’s a nice player. But the expectations are consistently higher than the result and his defense has lacked. I’d say Boston wouldn’t miss him, but in a down free agent year there are not a lot of viable replacements for him floating around. So hope he takes a one-year offer, then the Celtics can let him go.

Defense is still the calling card for the Celtics and KG is still the anchor of that defense. But he needs help on the front line — that is what Perkins did bring. Ideally they’d get a little offense out of that spot too, but what they need most is defense and rebounding. Clark of CelticsBlog does not paint an optimistic picture.

The biggest need the team has, however, is finding some help in the middle. They need someone that can rebound and defend and get out of the way on offense. Names like Kwame Brown, Jason Collins, and Joel Przybilla don’t exactly quicken the pulse, but they will likely be available in the discount bins that we’ll be shopping at. The other hope is that some amnesty casualty decides to spurn the Heat and sign with the Celtics instead.

Finally the rest of the squad will be filled with rookies (like 1st round pick JaJuan Johnson), young players (like last year’s first rounder Avery Bradley), old faces (probably Delonte West), and maybe even some old flames (Danny has always had a thing for guys like Yi Jianlian, Robert Swift, and Josh Howard). Will it be enough to get the Celtics another shot at a banner or will it just be a “bridge year?” Only father time will tell.

Father time is the key. If healthy and rested, with some help in the paint, the Celtics are a contender. But they are a now a team that is in the second tier of contenders — they need everything to go right for them for it to work. There is no margin for error anymore. And it can be a long season when you need everything to go right.

But count out Boston at your own risk. There are a lot of banners up in that city for a reason.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.