Strangely, the Celtics are in a comfortable position 27 games into what was tabbed a rebuilding season. The players have built so much chemistry, so much closeness under new coach Brad Stevens that anything short of a no-brainer trade really isn’t necessary, unless team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is just bored.
The Celtics own nine first-round picks over the next five seasons, salary cap space potentially for two maximum contracts after the 2014-15 season, and have time to determine whether Rajon Rondo will be a long-term cornerstone when he returns from knee surgery next month.
In the interim, Jared Sullinger has turned into a potential All-Star, Jordan Crawford has become a capable point guard, Avery Bradley’s shot is finally falling, Jeff Green is becoming consistent, and the bench is carving out comfortable roles.
The Celtics are indeed jelling and if Ainge is going to interrupt the momentum, there better be a good reason. Omer Asik, a legitimate 7-footer with defensive and rebounding skills, isn’t a good enough reason to sacrifice a No. 1 pick.
Asik earns a whopping $15 million next season because of the back-loaded contract Houston general manager Daryl Morey used to nab him from Chicago as a restricted free agent. Asik was worth such a sum to Morey until Dwight Howard was miserable in Los Angeles and wanted to leave via free agency.
The moment Howard signed with the Rockets, Asik became unhappy and expendable, and now Morey looks as if he’s trying to create a market for Asik so he can be dealt by Thursday. Morey wants to be able to retrade players he will get back by the Feb. 20 deadline. The collective bargaining agreement mandates teams hold on to acquired players for 60 days if said teams plan to package them with others in a deal. So Morey’s urgency is understandable.
Yet, that should not encourage Ainge to pull off this deal unless it’s a coup for the Celtics. Asik for two solid players and a first-round pick is not a coup.
Asik is a below average free throw shooter and averages fewer than one block per game. Brandon Bass, by comparison, is averaging 1.2 blocks this season. Asik is a capable center but if the Celtics handle their assets correctly, they could potentially land a younger and more impactful center down the line.
If Asik’s contract extended beyond next season, if he hadn’t pouted at the presence of Howard, and if he was more of an offensive presence and better free throw shooter, then Ainge should execute the deal.
But if the Celtics are going to live in this standings purgatory, where they are hardly the league’s worst team and far from the league’s best, then Ainge and his brass should have enough faith they can land a more well-rounded center with their current assets.
The Celtics are in a prime position as buyers. The organization has not slipped to expected depths when Ainge dealt Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. Stevens is establishing a positive and workmanlike culture that once again was on display when the Celtics rallied from a 7-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take a 1-point lead before losing to the Detroit Pistons, 107-106, on Wednesday night.
If Ainge is going to acquire a potential cornerstone, that player should be able to play with Rondo and also should be someone who won’t stunt the growth of Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk. With a year-plus left on his contract, Asik, 27, likely comes to Boston playing for his next deal.
There is a sense of excitement with the organization because the regeneration process is occurring faster than expected and the deal with the Nets is transpiring into a landslide win for the Celtics. Courtney Lee and Bass aren’t valuable pieces for the future, but they have helped the team and fill roles for the present.
Bass’s $7 million salary comes off the books after next season and he may be a candidate to re-sign in Boston for a lesser role in 2015. Lee’s contract is tougher to move because he won’t be a free agent until 2016, but he has proven a bench role is more suitable for him and could be an asset during this transition.
Ainge, of course, would love to dump those contracts, but unless it will foster the long-term improvement of the franchise, it may be the equivalent of trading a tangerine for an orange. With Asik making his trade demand, showing his inability to play with Howard and to be a dependable contributor, Morey is pressed to make a deal.
Parting with a first-round pick, regardless if it’s the Clippers’ selection from 2015, is too high a price to pay for a player who essentially had one breakout season, then complained about his role the next season. Would Asik be happy in Boston? Would he just serve as a rental because his salary comes off the books in 2015? Or does Ainge feel this is the best way to rid himself of Lee’s contract?
Ainge’s apparent deep interest in this deal is curious, but unless Asik enhances this franchise’s already-promising future, Ainge should pass and wait for a more profitable deal.