The NBA's trade deadline came and went without much big action.
To the surprise of many, the Boston Celtics decided to "stand pat," a source told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, opting not to make a big move on superstars like Jimmy Butler and Paul George.
It's a questionable decision by the Celtics, who, after years of hoarding assets, seemingly waiting for a star player to become available, decided stick with their current roster.
The Celtics are an enviable position. They're second in the Eastern Conference and they own their own first-round pick, plus the right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets this summer, likely a top-three pick, and the Nets' 2018 first-round pick.
The Celtics also have an efficient offense and several tough, heady defenders on team-friendly contracts. They have so many young players and assets that they've had to cut players just to get under the 15-man roster limit.
Yet there's also a clear ceiling on this Celtics team. Isaiah Thomas, their star player, is a dynamic 5-foot-9 guard who accounts for nearly 30 points per game. The Celtics score 113 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the floor, a figure that'd give them the second-most efficient offense if it were sustained, just a hair under the Warriors. When Thomas is off the floor, the Celtics score 101 points per 100 possessions, which would be 27th in the NBA.
The Celtics are also 18th in defensive efficiency and 27th in rebound percentage (a stat that tracks the amount of available rebounds a team collects). Put all of this together, and it's not a promising formula for the postseason. Not in a conference owned by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
There's no move the Celtics could have made at the trade deadline that would have put them over the Cavaliers, but this was their chance to take the next step, to compete with the Cavs. Why bother collecting assets otherwise?
In Jimmy Butler and Paul George, there were two legitimate star players who can get a basket one-on-one, carry an offense, and defend the opponent's best player. They're franchise players who have basically carried mediocre rosters into playoff contention.
It's unclear what, exactly, the Bulls or Pacers were asking for in a trade. Presumably, it would have been some combination of the Nets' 2017 pick, rookie forward Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and a spare part. It's also unclear what the Celtics offered in exchange or how far they were willing to go.
In standing pat, the Celtics may have missed their best opportunity to take the next step. The Cavaliers may never be more vulnerable. Kevin Love is out until April. J.R. Smith has been out since December with a thumb injury. LeBron James is carrying one of the heaviest workloads of his career at 32 years old. Barring any significant free-agent signings, they're weak at center and point guard.
Furthermore, next season brings more uncertainty. The draft is no sure thing — any player the Celtics pick may not be ready to contribute right away. Every player will be a year older. Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk will be free agents this summer. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley will be free agents in 2018. Thomas will no doubt be in the running to get a max contract in 2018, while Bradley could, very fairly, ask for a big extension, as ESPN's Zach Lowe noted on his podcast. Whatever cap space is available will be tied up quickly, and no roster can stay together forever.
This not to say the Celtics should have paid any price for Butler or George — there's a limit to what any team should give up for one player. Perhaps the Pacers and Bulls could not be talked down from steep asking prices. But the Celtics were also perhaps the only team who could afford swinging such a star without gutting their roster. Losing valuable role players hurts, obviously, but that's the price of acquiring a franchise player. Even the best teams sometimes can't afford the luxury of keeping all of their best role players if they also want to keep their stars. Ask the Warriors.
The Celtics may still enjoy a nice playoff run, and their assets aren't going anywhere. Perhaps the asking prices for Butler or George are lower in June, before the draft. But it's clear, for now, that Celtics are not in the same category as the Cavs, or maybe even the Raptors, who were active in improving their roster at the deadline.
If the Celtics were unwilling to use some of their assets when a star became available now, when, exactly, will be the right time?
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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