For the second straight year, the Celtics stayed quiet at the trade deadline in February, simply dealing away Jabari Bird to open up a roster spot on the final 15-man roster. That opening was not filled until this past week when Greg Monroe inked a 10-day deal with the Celtics after being bought out by the Brooklyn Nets last month. It remains to be seen whether Monroe will remain on the team as emergency depth heading into the postseason, but it’s clear that the veteran big man will not factor into the team’s playoff rotation barring disaster in the next few weeks.
Yet, as Brad Stevens has made a strong commitment to going big with his lineups over the past week to shore up the Celtics defense, it’s hard not to think back to Boston’s inactivity at the deadline when evaluating the team’s current roster. In Friday’s win over the Pacers, Stevens went to a nine-man rotation that included Aron Baynes and Al Horford splitting all 48 minutes at the center spot in a must-win game for seeding. The duo played 19 minutes together and went with 32-year-old Baynes for a season-high 33 minutes in the critical matchup.
The decision to go big with lineups is the right one for Stevens given the team’s deficiencies on the defensive end, but it’s hard not to look at the bottom third of the roster right now and wonder why Danny Ainge has so many big men yet just two players Stevens can trust in the center spot from a defensive standpoint. Daniel Theis has been dominated by true bigs throughout the second half of the season, repeatedly getting exposed in the post when Baynes has been sidelined. Guerschon Yabusele is a borderline NBA player that Stevens does not trust. Robert Williams has battled injuries all year and has plenty of promise but lacks the polish that Stevens craves for someone to anchor the defense. Lineups with Marcus Morris at the five have been a disaster in small stretches at the end of games as well.
The end result to date has been a defense that is far too reliant on two 32-year-olds in Horford and Baynes to hold down the fort together with very little margin of error for Stevens when neither is available. While the ultimate deciding point on this issue will come based on postseason performance, the Celtics’ inability to win games while resting Horford over the past few weeks is a bit of an indictment on the roster as constructed. For a team that was committed since training camp to be contending for this year, they have left themselves in a bit of lurch right now while watching a trade deadline pass by with upgrades to their competition in the East.
So what exactly could the Celtics have made a push for in hindsight? A look at a few names at reasonable asking prices that Stevens may have felt comfortable with for 10-15 minutes per game at center over any of his current options.
Contract: 1 year remaining at $7.2 million
Overview: The 29-year-old center has added a 3-point shot to his game over the past two seasons to increase his versatility. He’s a strong rim protector and an elite defensive rebounder, which makes him an ideal candidate for a team looking for an improved defensive presence off the bench. The Hawks are in the midst of rebuilding, so they surely would have happily taken a couple of second rounds picks or a heavily protected first for his services. His skillset is fairly redundant with Baynes, but given the health concerns surrounding Horford and Baynes throughout this season, he would have been some nice insurance. He’s currently finishing out a career-year, averaging 10.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 38 percent from 3.
Contract: 2 years remaining at $4.35 million
Overview: Like Dedmon, Len has developed a respectable 3-point shot this year (33 percent) and serves as one of the few players on the Hawks that can play some respectable defense in spurts. He provides solid length and rim protection at 7-foot-1 and would have served as very useful stopgap in the middle when Baynes and Horford needed some rest. He’s also an elite offensive rebounder and gets to the free throw line at a healthy clip. Offering up Guerschon Yabusele and a heavily protected draft pick would have likely been enough to get a deal done for the 25-year-old that is averaging 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Contract: 1 year remaining at $7.6 million
Overview: This was one of the best players on the block, but a sore knee was a knock to his trade value ahead of the deadline. Ultimately, the Clippers managed to trade for him in a deal that was also landed them Garrett Temple for Avery Bradley. The Celtics have shown interest in Green in the past and he has been a terrific stretch option for the Clippers down the stretch, knocking down 40 percent of his 3s as LA has rolled over the past two months. An overpaid Bradley was not a high price to pay for Green and the Celtics could have cobbled up enough salary and picks here to get a deal down for some more reliable frontcourt depth.
None of these guys individually would swing the C’s playoff fortunes. However, as this group continues to battle between getting rest for its veterans and earning homecourt advantage down the stretch, a lack of depth in the middle has loomed large. It took Stevens a couple of months longer than expected to figure out what this team needed to play reliable defense and now he’s without the proper depth to deploy it effectively. Given how much the Celtics have struggled when Horford has rested all year, this is an area that could have used a second look in hindsight, especially if the Celtics finish up as the No. 5 seed in a loaded Eastern Conference.
Ainge has put a priority on maintaining assets during the past couple of years, ideally for a run on Anthony Davis or some other superstar to pair with Kyrie Irving. However, with the possibility of an early postseason departure (second round or earlier) damaging a chance at maintaining Irving, this looks like an area that could have been addressed without using any of Boston’s best draft assets.
Other NBA News and Notes
- LeBron James was shut down for the final six games of the season by the Lakers last week, a move that probably came a bit too late when it comes to the team’s chances to secure a higher lottery pick. LA won three of the last four games that James played in, which shot them up into a tie for 10th in the lottery standings. Given the tightness of the standings in the 6-10 spots of the lottery, those extra wins could prove costly for the Lakers this spring when it comes to trade negotiations.
- A pretty fascinating situation is unfolding in Charlotte down the stretch as they have made a final run at a playoff spot while primarily benching their higher-priced veterans (Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). All three of those guys are under contract through next season at the least, so it should be a busy offseason in Charlotte as they attempt to go young, pending the result of Kemba Walker’s free agency.
- A terrific retirement ceremony in San Antonio for Manu Ginobili on Thursday night that’s worth watching if you haven’t checked it out yet. I love that the Spurs organization has created the tradition of holding retirements after the game instead of rushing through them at halftime. Celtics did a similarly nice job with it for Paul Pierce last February via a postgame ceremony.
- Rajon Rondo told ESPN.com this week he would like to remain a Laker despite a tumultuous campaign, which comes as no surprise due to the fact the point guard has played for five different teams over the past five seasons. His inability to secure a long-term deal after his ACL tear should serve as a cautionary tale for non-superstar players that hold out for top dollar in extension talks.