The trade that positions the Celtics for their 22nd NBA finals appearance and maintains future flexibility

With only days remaining until the NBA trade deadline, the Celtics have a lot of decisions to make. For one, they have expiring assets, including David Lee's contract, and potentially diminishing assets, such as their 2016 first-round draft picks. With regard to the latter, the Celtics own the Dallas Mavericks 2016 first-round pick, provided it is outside the top-7, which it will be. The Mavericks are currently outside the lottery, but are only two games away from being in it. The potential of that pick becoming a lottery selection sells and that will be impossible to do this summer if Dallas ends up making the playoffs.

The one deal we keep hearing about is Al Horford to the Celtics and it makes sense for a lot of reasons. I explained in a trade deadline preview weeks ago:

Who: Al Horford, whose per game averages this season are 15.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 2.9 APG. As demonstrated by his offensive (112) and defensive (103) rating per 100 possessions, he is getting it done on both ends of the floor this season. The Celtics need a reliable second-scorer and he provides that. Plus, bringing him to Boston now will help the organization convince him this is the place for him long-term. He is only 29-years-old and has been more reliable than not durability-wise. He will help the team win this year and down the road, so a complete winner of an acquisition. As a plus, he has played in an offensive scheme in Atlanta under Mike Budenholzer that is very similar to the one Brad Stevens employs.

Why: Horford is going to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. He is going to seek the max and will have plenty of teams willing to give him that. Will the Hawks be one of those teams? Possibly, but does Horford want to stay there? He may be tempted to bring his talents elsewhere after spending his entire career so far in Atlanta. With Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap (yes, I believe he will turn down his $21 million player option given the projected cap) becoming free agents after next season, Horford may conclude he has a better chance to win somewhere else, which is what will matter because everyone is going to be offering similar money. Plus, the Hawks have Millsap and Tiago Splitter. Although Tiago has missed time due to injury, he has been very effective this season. His offensive-defensive rating differential of plus-8 demonstrates that. Atlanta is also 21-12 with Splitter in the lineup and 6-7 without. Therefore, the Hawks will do the following calculation and make this deal with Boston: Horford is likely going to walk after the season, so why don’t we go and get something of value for his departure, which we can do without losing too much because we have Splitter to replace him.

Since then, a few things have happened to make this deal more plausible: (1) the Hawks took a step back while the Celtics took over the 3-seed; (2) news was leaked that the Hawks want to start over, which means Horford is definitely on the move; and (3) Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas bonded at the All-Star game, with Horford potentially inquiring about what it was like to play in Boston. These changes also make the potential fit of a deal between the two teams much easier to envision. No longer will the Celtics need to trade an Avery Bradley because the Hawks appear more interested in collecting assets for played like Horford and Jeff Teague. Well, the Celtics have those. How about this:

David Lee, James Young, Dallas' 2016 first-round pick and Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick for Al Horford and Kyle Korver? If there is one thing the Celtics have, it is draft picks. At some point, since they cannot possibly use them all, Danny Ainge has to cash them in.

So, the Celtics add Horford, who remains a great fit for what they do, as well as Korver, who can provide the type of big game shooting the team has missed since the Ray Allen days. The Hawks get a young wing, an expiring contract and two first-round picks to either use or trade for an upgrade elsewhere.

With this trade, the Celtics become the deepest team in the Eastern Conference and could assemble a playoff rotation of Thomas, Smart, Bradley, Crowder, Korver, Horford, Olynyk and Johnson or Sullinger, which is capable of matching up with any team en route to the finals.

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