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What’s in store for NBA’s biggest trade sacred cow, Celtics point guard Terry Rozier?

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DETROIT – Terry Rozier, as the running joke goes, is the NBA’s most unattainable player.

Celtics president Danny Ainge reportedly wouldn’t trade Rozier for Serge Ibaka, according to the actual report which sparked the gag. Didn’t trade Rozier for Kyrie Irving. Hasn’t traded Rozier for Anthony Davis.

And why stop there?

“Me getting traded for LeBron,” Rozier said, “and then Danny hangs up the phone.”

That’s Rozier’s favorite version of the joke. He can laugh along with it.

More so, he appreciates the subtext – that Ainge really does value him deeply.

“He’s one of the guys that believes in me most in this league,” Rozier said. “And I think that’ll allow me to wake up every day, just knowing that I can breathe easily and just play my game and be me.”

It’s a good mindset, as the next 16 months will test Boston’s and Rozier’s loyalty and usefulness to each other.

Satisfied backing up stars Isaiah Thomas and now Irving at point guard, Rozier is an important part of the team with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. He can help the Celtics win in the playoffs this season and in future seasons.

But how long will Rozier, who turns 24 Saturday and will be eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension this summer, remain content? He has declared he’ll become a starter in the NBA, but that almost certainly won’t happen in Boston as long as Irving is there.

“I know there’s a lot of teams I can start for right now,” Rozier said.

“It’ll be the right time soon enough. It’ll happen for me.”

Rozier has developed into one of the NBA’s top reserves. Victor Oladipo will win Most Improved Player, and Lou Williams will win Sixth Man of the Year. But Rozier should contend for spots on both ballots.

He already has 4.7 win shares this season – 3.3 more than last season. That’s tied for the fifth-largest increase from a previous career high. Here are the league leaders in win share increases from a previous career high – the previous high on the left, this season’s mark on the right, the increase in the middle:

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And Rozier’s 4.7 win shares rank sixth among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players:

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At 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Rozier is a dogged defender who really gets into his man. He primarily makes opponents uncomfortable on the perimeter, but he’s also comfortable mixing it up inside, where he defensively rebounds well for his position.

Rozier has also become a good 3-point shooter, making 39% of his 4.7 attempts per game. That shooting breakthrough has made all the difference in Rozier’s growth.

Can he take the next step and become a starting point guard somewhere?

“There’s an athleticism requirement at that position because of how dynamic those guys are,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Competiveness, skill and just an everyday mentality and mindset. And he’s got a lot of those things. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Athleticism? Rozier is fast, a high-flyer and definitely strong enough. Competitive? To a fault. Everyday mentality? “He never takes days off,” Stevens said.

Skill is the question mark.

Rozier isn’t much of a playmaker, a deficiency that would become an even bigger issue if he started. When playing with other top players, distributing matters more.

Rozier’s 5.2 assists per 100 possessions would rank last among starting point guards:

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(Jamal Murray, who starts for the Nuggets and also averages 5.2 assists per 100 possessions, plays with an elite passing center in Nikola Jokic.)

To be fair, Rozier’s assist numbers are negatively impacted by Marcus Smart. Rozier and Smart often share lead-guard duties off the bench, so each takes assist opportunities from the other. And Smart doesn’t space the floor well when off the ball, making it harder for Rozier when he has it.

But none of that excuses Rozier’s pedestrian passing. Steven often tells him to take more risks. Dribble more to engage defenses. Make higher-upside passes. Those aren’t dependable skills for Rozier yet – which is fine for a bench sparkplug. As a starter, it’d become a far bigger problem.

And then there’s blemish already hurting Rozier: He’s an awful finisher.

He too often gets out of control when he attacks the rim. He doesn’t have the touch on floaters. Though he can penetrate, it doesn’t bear much fruit.

Among 163 players with at least 200 attempts in the paint, Rozier ranks dead last in field goal percentage (43%)

Still, Rozier brings enough tools – athleticism, competitiveness, defense and outside shooting – to create the rough outline of a future starting point guard. Court vision can take a while to develop. (The poor finishing is more worrisome, though at least Rozier’s ability to get into the paint is encouraging.)

“Every indicator would be that he’d continue to get better and better,” Stevens said.

That makes upcoming decisions tricky.

Locked into a bargain $3,050,390 salary next season, Rozier will also be eligible this offseason for a contract extension that would start in 2019. He said he’d appreciate an extension, as it’d show Boston’s faith in him.

But would he resist an extension to keep open his options to become a starter elsewhere? Will the Celtics even offer an extension?

That might depend on Smart.

He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, and Boston projects to have about just $9 million to pay him below the luxury-tax line without making other moves. The Celtics might decide Smart and Rozier overlap too much and let Smart walk or keep him on his qualifying offer. Or Boston could re-sign Smart, which could make Rozier the unaffordable luxury.

In 2019, Kyrie Irving will be up for a new contract. In 2020, Jaylen Brown‘s new deal would kick in. In 2021, Jayson Tatum‘s new deal would kick in. Al Horford (2019) and Gordon Hayward (2020) also have player options on their max contracts.

Perhaps, that leads to keeping Rozier next season while he’s still on his cheap rookie-scale contract then maybe even another year on his qualifying offer. Then, if he bolts for a place he can start and get paid more, at least the Celtics will have gotten several years of valuable production from him.

Or, if it’s headed down that path, could Boston do the unthinkable and trade Rozier? He’d return value, which could trump keeping him for another year or two then losing him for nothing. At some point, would Rozier welcome a trade to a team seeking a starter?

“I know it’ll work out if it’s meant to be, so I don’t really think about that,” Rozier said. “I’m just trying to seize the opportunity and, like I said, control what I can control and work my butt off every day, whether I’m the starter or coming off the bench.”

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.