Leading up to Feb. 7, 2019, there didn’t seem to be much wrong with the Toronto Raptors. They were 39-16. They were even sitting comfortably as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. They had the league’s sixth-best net rating. When his load wasn’t being managed, Kawhi Leonard made the Raptors look like a contender, so there wasn’t much need for an upgrade.
But an upgrade was available at the perfect time and at the perfect price. With the Grit-N-Grind era completely fallen apart in Memphis, so too had Marc Gasol’s trade value. Amazingly, all the former Defensive Player of the Year cost was Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. Both Wright and Miles were out of the rotation, so trading them was no skin off Masaji Ujiri’s nose. But trading Valanciunas though had to sting a little.
Valanciunas was flourishing in his new role as the scoring spark off the Raptors’ bench. He also grew up as a player in Toronto, so there was sentiment involved. But it’s Marc Gasol. For all the good that Valanciunas brought to the court, Gasol, even with his prime fading, brought so much more.
As dumb as it sounds now, back then, there was an argument that Toronto didn’t really need Gasol. Could they have won the championship without him? Hard to say. They were really good before trading for him, but when they had an opportunity to get better, they took it and look where it got them.
It’s only been a year since this happened, so why bring up a story that’s still pretty fresh in our minds? Because the Boston Celtics now face a similar opportunity now that the Houston Rockets have made Clint Capela available.
Boston’s interest in Capela dates back to last summer, when our own Steve Kyler reported that the Celtics wanted him. So, no one should have been surprised when Adrian Wojnarowski followed up his recent report about Capela’s availability by adding that Boston was interested.
Since losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes, the Celtics’ supposed need for an upgrade at center has been well-documented and then some. Even though they may have arguably the league’s most talented quartet with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, the elephant in the room that is their five-spot seems too big for them not to acknowledge.
Or so the doubters say. In truth, the center by committee strategy that they’ve deployed has worked out just fine for them. Daniel Theis clearly took in a lot from the tutelage of Al Horford and Aron Baynes. While not a premier shot-blocker, he’s evolved into a dependable big in the pick roll on both sides of the ball as well as a rim protector.
Enes Kanter has been both the best rebounder Brad Stevens has ever had to coach and not a total disaster on the defensive end. Because of that, his scoring in the low-post has evolved into being more than empty stats. Then there’s Robert Williams III, who has been better than many expected, but he’s still quite raw — oddly more on the defensive end than the offensive.
Better, rookie Grant Williams’ IQ and muscle have recently helped him emerge as a promising small-ball center.
The Celtics’ offense was expected to be pretty good, which it has, averaging 112.4 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth overall in the league. The defense not so much, but they’ve outperformed the offense, allowing just 105.3 points per 100 possessions, good for third overall in the league.
Losing Horford and Baynes was supposed to hurt them on that side of the ball. It hasn’t. Their four centers aren’t necessarily the reason why the defense has improved from last year, but they’ve pulled their own weight. Given the minimal – arguably non-existent – expectations, they’ve impressed. Enough that maybe it’s not worth making a major shakeup mid-season. Even if someone as good as Clint Capela is on the market.
But it’s Clint Capela.
No matter how good the Celtics four-center combination might be, none of those players command the same respect that Capela does by himself. He’s averaging a near 14-point, 14-rebound double-double, as well as two blocks, and he’s making opponents to shoot 57 percent at the rim. He’s one of the league’s best rebounder and shot-blockers, one who has a reputation for shutting down elite big men in the playoffs.
He’s the perfect big to throw in the pick-and-roll and, best of all, he knows what his role is and won’t do anything that’s not in his bag. He thrived next to the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon because all of them could shoot the rock — but not so much with Russell Westbrook.
Capela is a clunky fit next to Westbrook because both are best used in the post and Westbrook plays at a faster pace than the center is used to. To better integrate Westbrook – since the Rockets have no other choice – they are aiming to add more spacing so he’ll have more room to operate. Capela is their most tradeable asset because of what he can do and his manageable $14.9 million deal.
And that’s the biggest appeal about Capela compared to the other bigs who have been mentioned as options for Boston. Other potentially available centers like Steven Adams and Andre Drummond are both being paid over $25 million, which, if the Celtics were interested, would mean they’d have to include Gordon Hayward or Marcus Smart, thus chomping a good chunk out of the team’s identity to fill a hole.
With Capela, that wouldn’t be the case. Boston wouldn’t have to include any of their best players in a deal, only needing to muster up $10 million to make a deal since they are under the tax. The Celtics also have multiple first-rounders this season to appease Houston who, reportedly, would later use those assets to entice a team dangling their wings on the open market.
But there is, of course, a risk.
Trading for Capela will lead to a huge tax bill if the Celtics aim to keep him long-term as well as Hayward and Tatum, which will certainly make for a stressful summer already. Currently, Capela’s dealing with a heel issue which could put him out for a while. If it becomes a long-term problem, trading for him could backfire in the worst way.
Of course, there was risk involved when Toronto traded Valanciunas for Gasol. The Raptors made that trade because they couldn’t rely on the former in good faith that he would carry his weight in the playoffs. They believed the latter could, but there was no guarantee that he would stay, how much he could produce or that he could take them to the next level.
Knowing the situation they had with Leonard, making that deal was necessary whether they won the championship or not. They took full advantage of their window.
Naturally, Boston could pass up on the opportunity to get Capela and take their chances with who they’ve got in their frontcourt now. The one issue is this: As effective as their guys have been, the playoffs will be a different ball game. There’s no telling what the likes of Theis or Kanter or the Williams Bros. will do against the stiffest competition in the postseason.
With a healthy Capela aboard, they’d go from a fringe outsider to a legitimate contender.
Danny Ainge has been criticized for holding his assets for too long in the past. Is he going to do the same with this Capela situation? And if he doesn’t, will it be the final piece or his biggest mistake?
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