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NBA AM: The Celtics Have A Lot Of Options

The Celtics may not last long against the Cavs, but they have plenty of options to weigh going forward.

Steve Kyler

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Hayward, Top Pick and Lots Of Decisions

The Boston Celtics got handled in Game 1 versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, and based on how large the inequities between the two teams appeared last night, the Celtics have a lot of choices to make fairly soon.

By way of a savvy trade back in 2013, Celtics president Danny Ainge stuck to his guns and demanded an unprotected first-round pick as part of the deal that sent future Hall-of-Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. On Tuesday, that deal produced the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, the best possible outcome for the Celtics.

As much as Nets fans bemoan the deal today, the risks involved in the deal on the Brooklyn sides were thoroughly discussed, and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made it clear he wanted a win-now roster at any cost. The Nets tried to protect the pick, however, Ainge was unwavering in the cost of his two All-Stars, and Nets ownership ultimately agreed to the price.

Today, the Celtics have an embarrassment of riches: a roster loaded with promising young players (many of whom are on rookie scale contracts), veterans are on moderately priced deals—most under contract beyond next season—and arguably one of the best young coaches in basketball. To top it off, the Celtics also have a treasure trove of future draft assets, many from that same Nets transaction.

The Celtics future looks very bright, despite the drubbing they took from the Cavaliers in Game 1. The good news is the Celtics have a ton of options, but with those options comes some decisions:

The Top Pick

The Celtics are sending out very clear signals and messages. They are not locked in on any one player, and they plan to use the leverage of the top overall selection to look at anything available to them. As much as Washington’s Markel Fultz looks like the smartest and safest selection, the Celtics plan to engage with UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kansas forward Josh Jackson. They will likely work out the top five or six players before zeroing in on who they will draft.

The idea of trading the pick or trading down with the pick is on the table, but Celtic sources were quick to say the most likely outcome is the Celtics keep and use the pick. The thinking on keeping the pick is because the impact of the guys possible with the pick outweighs anything they feel like they could obtain with the pick in a trade.

The smart money says the Celtics select Fultz, but that’s not been decided at this point, mostly because it does not have to be.

Trades

As much as fans want to talk about trading the top pick for a proven All-Star like Indiana’s Paul George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, the stance from the Boston side is that neither player is worth the top selection under their current contract situations.

In George’s case, he can hit free agency next July. While the Celtics would love to add George’s talent, unless he agreed to extend his deal the day he arrived in Boston, the Celtics are not interested in moving what could be a 10-year All-Star for a 12-month possible rental.

With Butler, the Celtics get a little more contract security but ultimately face the same issue. Butler can be a free agent in 2019. In NBA terms, that is a long-time but given how the East is structured in the Celtics window really next season? And is the window better with Butler for two years or with what’s possible with the number one for 10 years?

There are no guarantees with draft picks, and that’s something the Celtics seem to understand, but the prevailing belief is the C’s are not going to trade the top pick for either of the names linked to them. However, if either of those player’s teams wants to talk about the trove of future picks the Celtics hold, they would absolutely have interest.

The Young Guards

It does not take a genius to see that the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, and with another elite guard likely on the way, the Celtics have some issues brewing.

As much as fans like to talk about playing for a winner, players are playing for a contract. In the Celtics’ case, many are playing for a chance at their first monster payday. In the case of Marcus Smart, that payday window comes open in full force this summer, when he becomes eligible for a rookie scale contract extension.

If the Celtics are not going to pay Smart the going rate, his camp has to ask for a trade. The Celtics don’t have to trade him, but things become increasingly more complicated if they try and hold one of the young guys hostage while reducing his role and minutes.

The same is true of second-year guard Terry Rozier. He has emerged in the postseason as a quality young guard. He has been sharing minutes off the bench for most of the season and is eager to see an increased role. Like Smart, the Celtics are going to have to decide how much he matters to the future with another elite guard prospect likely coming in via the draft.

The Celtics also face some interesting future contract situations with playoff standout Avery Bradley, who will enter the final year of his deal next season. Bradley has been a monster for the Celtics, but where does he fit in the grand scheme if another guard needing big minutes comes into the equation? Bradley is going to command a hefty increase from his current $8 million per year contract. So that’s a factor for the Celtics to consider.

In the same vein, All-Star Isaiah Thomas will enter the final year of his deal next season, too. There has already been talk that the smart move might be to trade Thomas while his value is so high because of the quality depth the Celtics have and avoid what’s expected to be a new contract demand of over $100 million for a player that will be right at 30 when his current contract ends.

None of these are easy decisions, mainly because this core of guards powered the Celtics to 53 wins and first place in the East. Combine that will an amazing team chemistry, is it smart to mess with that?

Free Agents

As things sit today the Celtics have $61.77 million in salary cap commitments for 2017-18. They are going to get a cap hold of $7.1 million for the first overall pick, they’ll carry a $7.7 million hold for Kelly Olynyk. $8 million in non-guaranteed money if they plan to keep Tyler Zeller. A $15.6 million hold on veteran Amir Johnson until they re-sign or renounce him. They have decisions to make on draft picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic. If either push to come to the NBA next season, they would eat into the Celtics space unless they are renounced or traded.

In a realistic way, the Celtics are going open the 2017-18 cap year with a least $76.57 million in commitments, leaving them what should be $24.43 million in usable cap space against what should be a $101 million salary cap, based on the latest from our cap guru Eric Pincus.

While that’s enough money to add a serious piece or two, that’s not enough space to pursue the Celtics believed top free agent target in Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. The C’s could get there if they pass on Olynyk or find a way to dump off some salary in a trade around the draft, but things are tight for the Celtics in term of pure cap space, mainly because of the hold the top draft selection gets in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Celtics have a ton of trade options to consider (many of which we’ve covered), but it will take some moves for the Celtics to get to a single maximum salary slot before free agency opens and it will mean subtractions before additions.

The good news for the Celtics is that if Hayward does indeed opt to explore his options away from the Jazz (which may not be likely), he’s likely not going to make a quick decision. That would give the Celtics a chance to know where they stand with him before passing on someone like Olynyk to open room.

While the Celtics do have some tough choices ahead of them, many teams wish they had the Celtics’ problems. Too much guard talent, an All-Star, and future All-Stars to potentially pay and some excellent draft options by way of the top pick and a ton of trade assets to play with to boot.

While much will be made over the next few weeks about how much better the Cavaliers are than the Celtics in the playoffs, the truth of the matter is the Celtics roster is constructed with so much youth that needs this postseason experience. The Celtics have nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting this far in the season, and the future in front of them is as bright as any in the NBA.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers and @Ben__Nadeau.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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