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NBA PM: What’s The Bold Move For The Celtics?

The Celtics need to make a move if they want to make a deep playoff run. Is Nikola Vucevic the answer? Or is it Harrison Barnes?

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As the season starts back up following the All-Star Game, the Boston Celtics are in dire need of a move that’ll make them a sure-fire contender. After the departure of Gordon Hayward in a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets, the Celtics were able to get a $20 million traded player exception (that jumps up to $28 million if used this offseason). In an interview with Toucher and Rich, Danny Ainge made it clear though that he isn’t in any rush to use this exception and expects to use it in the offseason. This then leaves Celtics fans in a state of confusion as the team looks like it is short of contender status but nowhere close to being a lottery team. 

The Celtics’ woes have been from a combination of things this season such as lack of bench depth – outside of Payton Pritchard and Robert Wiliams – a two-big starting lineup that is just too slow to keep up, a COVID outbreak that sidelined many for extended periods and scoring issues outside of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker’s numbers are back up to around the 19 points per game mark, but he has had some awful shooting games this season. There doesn’t seem to be that one guy who can come in and make the team an immediate contender, but with an extra shooting-big and another forward off the bench, the Celtics could be back in business.

The Magic Trade Nikola Vucevic to the Celtics for Robert Williams, Aaron Nesmith, a 2021 First Round Pick and a 2022 Second Round Pick

Should the Magic look to blow things up – as it gets more clear following every game that they are nowhere near contention the way they’re currently constructed – they could look to part ways with their 30-year-old All-Star center, Nikola Vucevic. For the Magic, this trade is sounding the alarm and finally waving the white flag. With the team in shambles and full of question marks and end of the rotation bench pieces, the trade of Vucevic to the best suitor could be coming soon. Robert Williams would be a very good, young replacement for cheap – he’s been excellent for the Celtics this season and owns the makings of a starting center, but will it be with Boston?

Adding Vucevic to the lineup is the best scenario possible for Boston. The 2021 All-Star is averaging 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists – so putting him in the starting lineup over Theis and Thompson makes the Celtics look like a championship contender immediately. Vucevic would add much-needed spacing to the core of the team, while he’d instantly inherit the team’s leading rebounder position by far. Adding him to the starting five would also allow the Celtics to bring Theis and Thompson off the bench as the situational role players they’ve thrived in the past as. 

Grade: A+

The Kings Trade Nemanja Bjelica and Harrison Barnes to the Celtics for Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and a 2021 Second Round Pick

This trade’s return would be underwhelming, to say the least, for the Kings, but they get two young former first-rounders on rookie deals in return, plus a second round pick. It clears them a significant amount of cap and allows them to see if either Langford or Nesmith have real potential in the NBA.

For the Celtics, this trade would immediately solve the scoring problems that have hampered them this season. Outside of the stars, Brown and Tatum, there have been many occasions in which nobody can hit a shot. Barnes adds more length and quickness to the starting lineup, as well as another consistent shooter and playmaker next to Walker, Brown, Tatum and and Marcus Smart. He has championship experience from his days in Golden State, while also bringing an established veteran presence to the locker room.

Bjelica being included in the trade may be somewhat of a reach, but his fit in Sacramento has just not been there this season. According to Basketball Reference, he’s seen a drastic fall in three-point percentage from 41.9 percent to 32.6. His scoring output has also decreased from 11.5 points per game to just 8.0. It’s clear by his regression that his fit in Sacramento is not ideal and, with the return of Marvin Bagley III, there are fewer minutes at the forward position up for grabs. Bjelica would be a great fit off the bench for Boston as the Celtics could use a knock-down shooter at the forward position on their bench since the team has struggled to find consistent contributors there.

Grade: B+

The Spurs Trade LaMarcus Aldridge to the Celtics for Grant Williams and a 2021 Second Round Pick

The seven-time All-Star looks like he is nearing the end of his career as his production this season has seen a massive decline. For the Spurs, it’s going to be pretty hard to find a suitor for Aldridge that has the cap space for the portion of his large contract left this season. In all likelihood, Aldrige may just wind up on the buyout market anyway.

But Aldridge would bring a very strong veteran presence to the Celtics’ locker room, as well as another glass-cleaner to send out on the floor. His three-point shooting has seen a very sharp spike the past two seasons as he’s become a different player with age. Trading for Aldridge would be more of a last-resort scenario for Boston, as it doesn’t make much sense to use any of the TPE on him. He would make the Celtics into more of a contender than they currently are, but it doesn’t seem like it would be significant enough to pull off a trade for him. 

Grade C-

Getting Barnes and Bjelica would be a solid move to bolster the team’s depth and aid in the second-unit scoring woes the team has had for a few seasons. It’s probably time for the Celtics to part with some of their bench players such as Javonte Green and Semi Ojeleye – who are capable NBA role-players but, have been given the chance on the Celtics now for a couple of seasons and have yet to make a consistent impact. With Barnes in the fold, the starting lineup could go much smaller and space the floor for more open three-point opportunities if Theis is also on the floor. Aldridge is a safe signing that would bring some much-needed scrappiness to the rotation.

But, still, these moves should be second to any Vucevic-centered chasing – but if Ainge is unable to swing that, either of the other moves could improve the team’s depth for a postseason run.

 It shouldn’t be forgotten amidst the early season struggles, that this team was just in the Eastern Conference finals last season and lost only Gordon Hayward during the offseason. That’s not a knock on Hayward, but his time in Boston didn’t go as smoothly as most expected. Vucevic is a star big man in this league that does not come with an ego, so bringing him into the tight-knit, friendly environment already established in Boston could tip the scales.

Bolstering the roster has to be done for the Celtics to have any chance of making it far in the postseason, that might seems obvious – but where’s the line? In recent years, Danny Ainge has been reluctant to part with the players that he drafted, but now is the time. The Celtics have a very good starting five, one that is capable of competing with any team in the NBA, but they need to complete it with just one or two more pieces to have a legitimate shot.

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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