The Celtics entered Saturday night in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, clinging to the final play-in spot with a half-game lead over the 11th-place Knicks with 35 games remaining. For the glass-half-full crowd: The Celtics were also just four games behind the sixth-place 76ers.
Regardless of playoff positioning, it’s become obvious that this team needs some change. It’s unclear whether the alterations should be seismic or subtle, but here are a few things that president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and coach Ime Udoka might consider:
1. Trade for Buddy Hield
The Kings are two games out of the play-in tournament in the Western Conference, but it’s clearly another lost season in Sacramento. Stevens has publicly stated that shooting is this team’s most glaring weakness.
Boston has connected on 33.7 percent of its 3-pointers, ranking 24th in the NBA. In addition to the negative effects of simply missing so many shots, the lack of outside threats have made life more difficult for the Celtics’ slashing wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, with defenses fearlessly loading up on them.
Hield is a high-volume, career 40.3 percent 3-point shooter. He would upgrade the offensive attack and help space the floor for Tatum and Brown. Hield has two years remaining on his four-year, $94 million deal, but it’s a descending contract that will pay him $20.5 million next season and $18.5 million in 2023-24. He wouldn’t fit into Boston’s $17.1 million trade exception that was created with the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade with the Knicks, but the Celtics could send Al Horford out in a Hield trade.
This would hardly be a cure-all, however. The Celtics have inched closer to getting below the luxury tax and this would blow up that plan. Also, Hield is a below-average defender, and losing Horford would leave Boston thin in the frontcourt.
2. Shuffle the rotations
In recent years, Horford has been a valuable floor spacer, but he’s shooting a career-low 28.5 percent from beyond the arc. Backup center Enes Freedom, meanwhile, has been a non-factor this month, averaging 2.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in 11.8 minutes per game.
Udoka could consider inserting Grant Williams into the starting lineup for Horford and removing Freedom from the rotation. Williams is shooting a team-best 42.5 percent from beyond the arc and is a sturdy defender, and he could create openings for Tatum and Brown. Horford would then slide into the backup center slot.
3. Trade Dennis Schröder
Schröder has been a bit of an enigma. He is averaging 15.9 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game, and his $5.9 million salary remains one of the best values in the NBA.
But the ball tends to stop when it reaches his hands and the hierarchy when he shares the court with Tatum and Brown tends to feel clunky.
Boston’s second-most-used lineup this season of Tatum, Schröder, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Horford has been outscored by 19.9 points per 100 possessions in 101 total minutes. When Schröder is replaced by Brown in this group, the net rating flips to plus-17.5.
Furthermore, the Celtics hold Schröder’s non-Bird rights this summer, meaning they can only offer him about $7 million next season, and he figures to command more in the open market. Stevens should look to acquire a draft pick or two in a Schröder deal before the Feb. 10 deadline and then give Payton Pritchard an expanded role.
4. Take a deep breath and wait for the starters
As mentioned above, the regular starting lineup of Tatum, Brown, Horford, Robert Williams, and Smart has actually been excellent. But that group has played together in just 12 of the 47 games.
It’s impossible to predict good health, but maybe Stevens should step back and hope this unit can share the court for an extended period over the final 35 games, and just see where things go from there.
5. Get under the luxury tax
This month, the Celtics waived Jabari Parker before his contract became fully guaranteed, then traded Juancho Hernangomez in a three-team deal that brought Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier to Boston.
They were salary-clearing moves that got the Celtics within about $1.7 million of the luxury-tax threshold. In addition to some cost savings that come from being below the tax, there are benefits when making trades as a non-taxpayer team.
Non-tax teams can take back 175 percent of the salary sent out in deals involving players making a combined $6.5 million or less, and they can take back up to $5 million in salary for deals involving players making a combined $6.5 million to $19.6 million. Tax-paying teams, meanwhile, can take back just 125 percent of outgoing salary in both situations.
With another small move or two, the Celtics can easily dip below the tax line, giving a slight boost to future flexibility.