Strap in, Celtic fans. This is going to be an interesting few months.
I recently did a pretty thorough deep-dive into the type of options Boston has with a 28.5 mil Traded Player Exception. The core point is that utilizing it offers major flexibility for Danny Ainge to improve the team in a variety of ways. It will be a while until we know what direction the team takes, but of all the options, certainly one that intrigues me the most is landing a major upgrade mid-season. Not unlike Detroit acquiring Rasheed Wallace in the middle of 2003-04, I think the opportunity will be there for Boston to make a significant addition to help with a championship push.
It’s worth pausing here to clarify a TPE detail that I continue to see misinterpreted. While TPE’s can not be included with players to acquire a larger contract (for example, it’s not legal to combine the 28.5 mil TPE + Daniel Theis’s 5 mil to bring back 33.5 mil), Boston CAN include players and picks in a TPE trade. For instance, it would be perfectly legal for Boston to trade away the contracts of Daniel Theis (5 mil) + Semi Ojeleye (1.7 mil) + Romeo Langford (3.6 mil) + multiple picks (only 10.3 mil in outgoing salary) and take back up to 28.5 mil in salary (as a pure hypothetical, Nikola Vucevic making 26 mil this season). Whereas, normally you need outgoing and incoming salary to roughly match, the entire purpose of the TPE is to allow an exception to that rule - effectively allowing Boston to target any player currently making under 28.5 mil.
The departure of Gordon Hayward has put Boston in a pretty interesting position. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had such uncertainty about our core rotation. If you go back two seasons ago, World B. Flat was an easy scapegoat, but the true problem was actually an overload of starter-level players causing a classic “Too Many Mouths Syndrome” talent log jam. By my count, there were basically 10 guys on that team who qualified as starter talent. Flat Mamba, Smart, Morris, Tatum, Horford, Rozier, Brown, Hayward, Theis and All of Australia. Every one of them likely deserved greater roles. It drove me batshit crazy that players like Morris and Horford getting fed was resulting in Jayson Tatum only taking a miniscule 13 shots per game. Rozier was allegedly throwing fits in the locker-room. Brown, supposedly, was so distraught about his diminished role (which eventually saw him demoted to the bench alongside Hayward) that he later admitted to temporarily having significant anxiety and not being happy in Boston.
Danny Ainge himself admits the problem with 2018-19 was a roster clusterfuck he later took blame for: “I’m the one who should be blamed for last year. We put a team together that just didn’t have the pieces that didn’t fit.” “I think that in hindsight we should have cleaned out the roster a little bit to make it easier for Brad [Stevens]. We had a deep roster, we were built for a longer run but we had a lot of young guys that had a lot of success without Gordon [Hayward] and Kyrie. The guys that had success without those two guys [and] felt like it was their time for the spotlight and it just didn’t mesh.”
Flash forward a year later, my February fears of Kyrie leaving Ainge at the altar more or less coming true (I should have given Durant a Nets hat). 5 of those guys (Kyrie, Rozier, Morris, Horford, Baynes) were now putting up big stats as starters for other teams. Classic “addition by subtraction”. The removal of Horford, Morris and Rozier freed up roughly 30 shots per game that we were able to redistribute to Tatum, Brown and Hayward - all of which made significant leaps either as a result of their development or, in Hayward’s case, improved health.
The cleaned up log jam left us with a very clear hierarchy and pecking order. A logical “top 6” emerged. Kemba, Brown, Hayward, Tatum, Theis with Smart as 6th man. Greater roles means greater rhythm and as a result - greater chemistry. Granted, positionally, it still was less than ideal. Our three top players were arguably all natural Small Forwards (Brown and Tatum playing SG/PF) resulting in Smart, an all-world defensive guard, stuck in a 6th man role.
As we head into this 2020-21 season, it’s a fair assumption to make that Hayward’s departure simply means starting Smart permanently at SG. Kemba, Smart, Brown, Tatum, Thompson/Theis. I do wonder how effective that lineup can be long-term as I know Smart’s energy and ball handling has been invaluable in the second unit. Initially, my hope was that we would keep Hayward and admittedly there were times, especially as concerns about Kemba’s knee have risen, that I genuinely contemplated if we’d be better off starting Smart at PG and utilizing Kemba as a “microwave” scoring option off the bench - but that sure would be leaving us committing a hell of a lot of money for a 6th man.
The team ultimately might find that a Kemba/Smart back-court is less than ideal, and given Kemba (and Thompson) are supposedly missing the early part of the season with injuries, the Celtics will still find themselves early on with lots of questions to answer about the core rotation heading forward. Whereas previous seasons the issue was “too much talent”, we now find ourselves pondering which talent is worthy of relying on for key roles.
Welcome to Showcase Season.
Brad Stevens is well-known for tinkering with rotations early in the season. I’ve always believed it had something to do with his stat guru he brought from Butler, Drew Cannon. The team seems to use advanced stats to give them an advantage, but those stats are only as good as the data-set they are based on. It seems during the first half of the season, Brad typically does a lot of experimenting and exploration so that mid-season they can lock in the rotation with a clear view of which lineups have worked. We should get a LOT of that over the next few months as we figure out what these kids can do.
The opportunities will be there from game to game for young players to step up and show what they can do. Notably, these next few months are crucial for figuring out what we have in the following players:
Semi Ojeleye: Strong-man with quality defensive ability. Is he ready for a bigger 3-and-D role after quietly shooting 38% from three this season?
Grant Williams: A lot of fans have him penciled in as our starting PF this season (with Tatum shifting to SF). Quality intangibles and an improved shot have us dreaming about his potential as a big man version of Marcus Smart. The dreamers bring up Draymond Green. As a realist, I set my hopes more along the lines of Ryan Gomes (which would be terrific for a late 1st, imo).
Romeo Langford: Any time you take a player as high as Langford (#14), it’s fair to have some real expectations. Notably, he was taken just a pick after Tyler Herro. Due to injuries, we’ve only really gotten glimpses of this kid. I still hold out hope he’s going to be someone. It’s fair to point out that previous Celtics like Avery Bradley (31 games, 1.7 ppg in 5.2mpg as rookie) and Terry Rozier (39 games 1.8 ppg in 8mpg as rookie) had similar “redshirt rookie seasons” where they spent the majority of their time in G-League before breaking out in the real league. When I see Langford coming off a similar rookie season (32 games, 2.5 ppg in 11.6mpg), my hope is that he’ll follow the Bradley/Rozier path and not the James Young path.
Aaron Nesmith: I’ve taken some heat for suggesting Aarosmith could quickly find a path to the starting line-up, but I stand by it. Look… I admittedly don’t follow College ball, but if this kid is how they describe him, the minutes will find him. I’ve heard enough draftniks refer to him as the top shooter in College that I have to take it seriously. Boston was actually pretty middle-of-the-pack 3-point shooting last season (13th in 3P%) and with the departure of Hayward (our 2nd most efficient 3-point shooter last season), there’s a real need to surround Tatum with players who can spread the floor and knock down shots as Tatum continues his evolution as our #1 option and an improved playmaker (averaged 6 assists over his final 12 playoff games). All Nesmith really needs to do is shoot efficiently and use that length to play tough defense and the minutes will be there.
Beyond those four, we have plenty of questions about some of the other young talent on the team like Carson Edwards (who I still see as having an Eddie House-ceiling), Payton Pritchard (who I’m pretty sure is a superhero secret identity), Tremont Waters (who smartly lowered his cameo.com price to be equal to Edwards at $40, so he is no longer getting undercut by $20), and, of course Robert “Time Lord” Williams (who has been on my radar since he battled the Harlem Globetrotters in 1979).
Lingering over all of that is the simple fact that the next few months are a key opportunity for Boston to pump up the trade value of lesser known young “assets” for possible inclusion in a TPE-related transaction. You might not want to hear that. As fans, we tend to quickly become attached to our young guys, but across the board I expect to see us force-feed minutes to players. Not just to beef up our advanced stats data-set and showcase them for possible long-term roles with the Celtics, but as a means of showcasing them for the whole league.
I suggest you keep that in the back of your mind until at least the trade deadline. I’ve certainly seen instances during the Ainge-era where it was clear the team was “showcasing” players we didn’t intend to keep. Off the top of my head, Mark Blount in 2006 comes to mind. It was driving fans crazy that Blount was getting force-fed starter minutes that season while it was abundantly clear 21 year old Kendrick Perkins was ready for a bigger role. Still, there was clearly a mandate in place to keep feeding Blount minutes to pump up his trade value. That was right around the time we were also trying to pump up Ricky Davis’ worth (dude was actually averaging 19.7 points, 5.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals with heavy minutes before Ainge completed his buy low/sell high rehab project), eventually unloading both of them on Minnesota for Wally Sczczcrczcerzcibiak.
Side note… quickly compare Wally's 2006 Celtic stats (17.5 points with .478/.398./.898 shooting) to 2020 Gordon Hayward’s stats (17.5 points with .500/.383/.855 shooting). I don’t really have a point here… I just wanted to point out that peak-Celtic Hayward accomplished about the same as Wally Sczcerczcerczrcerbiak in a Boston uniform. Thanks.
We’ve seen other suspicious examples of “trade showcasing” over the years from this team. Whether it be forcing Jordan Crawford into a starter role for 35 games in 2014 (laughably conning a team into giving up a 1st rounder for him) or forcing minutes to a 21 year old Gerald Green at the end of 2007 (there was a 5 game stretch where he averaged 22 points) before selling him as a “asset with star potential” as part of the KG trade… or whether it be pumping up Jeff Green’s minutes/role in 2015 so we could sell him for a 1st rounder at the deadline, this team has never been above sacrificing the short-term for the greater good.
Side note about that Jeff Green trade. One of my favorite side-plots following this team over the years is the little known trade lineage I affectionately refer to as “The Ghost of Jerome Moiso”. Pre-Ainge in 2000, the team foolishly drafted Jerome Moiso with the #11 pick. It was a total bust, but the team was able to salvage it by shipping him for a 2003 pick that was basically flipped into Kendrick Perkins. Perk became Jeff Green. Jeff Green became the Memphis pick that we just utilized on Aaron Nesmith. The ghost of Moiso lives on!
Speaking of Nesmith, I gotta be honest and say that, for me, I see this is maybe the biggest question of the entire young rotation. If Nesmith steps up early, it changes the whole dynamic of what Boston might look to do with the TPE. For instance, we continue to see Buddy Hield’s name brought up as a player on the trade block. This is entirely within the realm of possibility for Boston. I completely believe the team could trade a package built around a couple young assets and a 1st for Hield and utilize the 28.5 mil to absorb his 24.7 mil salary. While Hield himself might be slightly on the headcase spectrum and has appeared to be a defensive liability in Sacramento, he’s clearly a high-level elite shooter who would be incredible as a floor-spreader alongside our ball-handlers Tatum and Brown.
Thing is, why bother trading for a player like Hield if Nesmith can live up to his potential as “Hield with stronger defense cost-controlled on a rookie contract”? I think this perfectly illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Boston is going to need to spend the next few months getting a strong look at these kids both as a means of seeing who can step up and as a way of potentially cranking up trade value. It will need to be a balance. If none of them show up, we’ll likely want to find a veteran upgrade who can help. That said, we’ll need SOME positive signs just to convince teams they are an asset. So at what point do those “positive signs” go from “valuable trade asset” to “this guy is untouchable”? If not Hield, maybe the team might look to move for someone like DeMar Derozan (27.7 mil) mid-season. Maybe instead a player like Langford or Nesmith asserts themselves and the team instead opts to go hard at trying to acquire Rudy Gobert (building a package around players like Time Lord and multiple 1sts) before Utah potentially loses him to free agency following the season. Draymond Green (22.2 mil) is on my radar as a classic Rasheed Wallace-esque upgrade Boston could potentially make if the Warriors soft rebuild. There’s a lot to consider here and we hopefully will get more clarity in the coming weeks.
Bottom line: Get ready for Showcase season. It’s gonna be fun.
LarBrd33 is a life-long Celtic fanatic who has contributed to CLNS, CelticsBlog, and CelticsLife. He currently co-hosts the “Celtics Reddit Podcast”. You can find more of his dumb takes via twitter @LarBrd33, via Reddit as u/LarBrd33, or via the weird Celtic videos he posts on his YouTube channel.
LarBrd33 is a life-long Celtic fanatic who has contributed to CLNS, CelticsBlog, and CelticsLife. He currently co-hosts the “Celtics Reddit Podcast”. You can find more of his dumb takes via twitter @LarBrd33, via Reddit as u/LarBrd33, or via the weird Celtic videos he posts on his YouTube channel - http://www.youtube.com/nedyken