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NBA Daily: What’s The Path to Success For Boston?

The Boston Celtics haven’t had a strong season thus far, but what can they do to get back on track?

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After entering the season off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics have disappointed in 2020-21 so far. Despite entering the year with title aspirations, the Celtics hold a record of 14-14and sit fifth in the conference.

The last few weeks especially have been tough on the Celtics, suffering losses to the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings. In February, the Celtics are 4-6 and have lost key rotation guard Marcus Smart to a left calf tear.

While Smart’s absence has been a thorn in the Celtics’ side, their problems run deeper than missing players due to injury. Boston has a problem on offense; outside of its star duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have gotten minimal offensive production from the remainder of their squad.

The Celtics’ third-star player is supposed to be Kemba Walker, who they acquired on a four-year, $140 million contract last offseason. Walker – who is now nearing his 31st birthday – has had a bad start to the season, averaging just 16.3 points and 4.0 assists per game while shooting a lackluster 36.3 percent from the field. Both of those averages are career-lows for Walker since his rookie season in 2011-12. Walker’s poor play can be explained by his persisting knee injury that has caused him to miss around half of all games. But with his age and consistent issues with injuries, it’s worrisome that Walker’s days as a lead scoring guard may be behind him.

Outside of Walker, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics only have one player averaging over 10 points per game – Smart at 13.1, but now, of course, he’s injured.

This lack of scoring is reflected in the Celtics’ offensive rating, where they hold the NBA’s 17th highest offensive rating, at 111.8. That mark sandwiches them between the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets, two teams with losing records.

If the Celtics are serious about contending, it’s clear they will need to acquire more offensive firepower to compete with the top teams in the NBA. This might make Bradley Beal a clear trade option for the Celtics – even if the former says he’d like to continue building in Washington.

Beal is the NBA’s leader in scoring, averaging 32.9 points per game on an outstandingly efficient 58.9 percent true shooting. Beal’s offensive prowess would be quite an upgrade to the current Celtics roster, while Boston holds a treasure trove of assets. Boston owns all of its first-round picks, plus the $28.5 million trade exception acquired from Charlotte and prospects like Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Robert Williams and Carsen Edwards that could interest the Wizards.

A cheaper elite scoring option that fills a positional need is Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic is having a career season for the Magic, putting up 23.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. Adding Vucevic would be an immediate offensive upgrade over the Celtics’ current options at center, where Daniel Theis and Tristian Thompson split the bulk of the minutes and combine to average 15.9 points per game over 46.1 minutes per game. Vucevic doesn’t come without some concerns, however.

At 30-years-old, Vucevic isn’t young and, with two years remaining on his four-year, $100 million contract, he won’t come cheap either.

If the Celtics don’t want to or can’t acquire a star offensive player, they still could make significant improvements to the roster by trading for elite role players on the market. One area Boston could surely stand to improve upon is their perimeter shooting. Only three players on the Celtics average over four three-point attempts a game. As a team, they average 32.7 shots from beyond the arc a game, good for 22nd in the NBA.

Enter: Sacramento Kings’ forward Harrison Barnes. The eight-year veteran is having a career renaissance in Sacramento, drawing interest from suitors around the league. Barnes is averaging 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point land. Barnes would slot into the Celtics’ rotation nicely and provide some much-needed depth scoring and positive contributions on the defensive end.

While it’s obvious the Celtics need to improve their play to become serious contenders, they do have the luxury of being in no rush. Brown and Tatum are also locked up long-term, with the former under contract until 2024 and the latter until 2025. The youth of their stars gives the Celtics some breathing room; there isn’t as much pressure to get a trade done as other teams around the league with older stars approaching the tail ends of their careers. So if Boston feels the asking price of Beal or Vucevic – or whomever they’re targeting – is too high, they don’t need to overpay and risk hurting the organization’s future.

Boston also has plenty of intriguing young talent on the roster that could prove to be the answer to these problems. Pritchard, a newly-minted rookie guard, has had an excellent start to his NBA career, already one of the best scoring options off the bench so far this season. The Celtics also have guards Nesmith, Edwards and Romeo Langford, all of whom haven’t had the chance to play consistent minutes yet, but were all highly-regarded prospects coming out of college.

Naturally, the Celtics will improve when Smart returns from injury, fixing the problems Boston has had on the defensive end since he got hurt. On top of all that, it’s far too early to say Walker is finished as a productive NBA player. While he is still clearly missing a step, Walker recently tallied back-to-back 20+ point games, scoring 21 against the Toronto Raptors and 25 against the Wizards, giving some hope that he could return to peak form as he continues to get healthy.

This season hasn’t been what Celtics fans would have hoped for – that’s for sure – but it isn’t time to panic in Boston just yet. The Celtics have plenty of options to improve their roster in the short term, while the front office has always played the trade deadline shrewdly. Eeven if they don’t make a move, the future is still bright in Boston.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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NBA

Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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