MILWAUKEE — It’s very well possible that the Celtics team that took the Fiserv Forum floor Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks will be considerably different when they return here Friday.
The Celtics are shopping for enhancements, as there has never been a trade deadline where president of basketball operations Danny Ainge needed to make a move more than this one.
A few reasons:
⋅ The Eastern Conference is wide open. While the Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets have emerged as the top three teams in the conference, the Celtics have an opportunity to emerge as that fourth team. None of the aforementioned three are invincible, and the Celtics have enough frontline talent — when playing well — to be competitive.
⋅ The roster needs help. Anyone who has watched the Celtics realizes their bench is one of the more inexperienced and inconsistent in the NBA. Ainge did coach Brad Stevens no favors with his offseason moves. Jeff Teague was supposed to stabilize the backup point guard position, but he went through consistent struggles before some improved play of late.
⋅ A move would energize the roster. It’s uncertain how many times veteran players such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have to express their fatigue or heavy responsibility without actually coming out and saying they need help. It’s not that Tatum and Brown want to take most of the shots, it’s that they have to. Kemba Walker has been inconsistent, and Marcus Smart is not a pure scorer.
Walker’s early injury and the Celtics 8-3 start fooled the organization into believing all it needed was a healthy Walker to emerge as a conference title contender. But he has been uneven in his return and hasn’t provided the needed scoring relief for Tatum and Brown.
Smart then missed a month with a calf strain. The Celtics defense — not that good before he was injured — got worse, and it hasn’t improved since Smart returned. The Celtics desperately need a player who can score and defend.
Ainge has the $28.5 million trade exception, the team’s first-round picks in coming years, and a couple of young players who could be marketable in a deal.
What Ainge does in the next day will say volumes about how he feels about this roster. The past several deadlines, he has used the, “Well, we were close on some things, but it never materialized” line while other clubs have been active. That likely cost the Celtics a chance at the Finals.
While Ainge was inactive last year, the Heat went out and got Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Markieff Morris was waiting to be dealt from the Detroit Pistons, but Ainge didn’t pull off a trade for the physical frontcourt player. Instead, Morris was bought out of his contract and helped the Lakers to a title.
It seems like Ainge has wanted to pull off the perfect deal, and if it’s not been there, he’s passed. “Trader Danny” has become “Passive Danny.” Elite organizations take chances to improve; sometimes those moves don’t work, and you move on.
The Lakers signed J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters for their title run and neither made an impact. You don’t make rash moves and hand over potential cornerstones in the future for alsorans, but the Celtics have to invest something in their present instead of always playing for the future.
The fan base is getting annoyed with having to reflect on memories of 2008 — 13 years ago now — while the Patriots load up in free agency in search of another crown.
There are players available, most notably Aaron Gordon, whom the Celtics have inquired about and are interested in acquiring. Gordon is the type of player the Celtics could nurture into a third option behind Tatum and Brown. He’s signed through next season, at a reduced salary in 2021-22.
Besides Tatum and Brown, the Celtics don’t have any untradeable players. The organization does not want to part ways with Smart, and could pull off a Gordon deal without having to part with its best defender.
The club has come to the defense of veteran center Tristan Thompson, who was the target of social media criticism after a report that he had been an issue and divisive in the Celtics locker room. Thompson has played solidly, but has missed two considerable stints in COVID-19 protocol.
Like Smart, Thompson has a tradeable contract, and could be included in a deal if the Celtics feel Robert Williams is ready for more responsibility.
“Obviously we don’t have much time left from a big-picture standpoint,” Stevens said. “I’m hopeful we can get better and peak at the right time. We started 19-19 one year and ended up with 48 wins. Games like [Wednesday] are one unbelievable opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the league.
“Yes, there is a reality that we could make changes, but we can’t react to the rumors. It’s not our job to get caught up in that. It’s our job to stay in reality.”
Reality could change today. The Celtics have proven they could be a contender with the right pieces and others improving their production. The question is whether Ainge feels that way, and is inclined to react.
Recent history says he won’t, unfortunately.