It’s doubtful that when Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck expressed that he wanted the team to “muscle up” to boost the chances of Banner No. 18 that backup big man Mike Muscala was what he had in mind. A 3-point-threat center, Muscala is a sensible, usable piece at a position of need. But the Oklahoma City Thunder export is far from the tipping point for a title.
Luckily for the Celtics and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, they were already big winners at this trade deadline before they muscled up with Muscala, the equivalent of a five-pound weight. The road back to the NBA Finals got easier with the Nets breaking apart like a piece of space junk burning up in the atmosphere, especially because Brooklyn spun Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant out of the Eastern Conference orbit. KD and Kyrie landed with the Suns and Mavericks, respectively.
Is Nets general manager Sean Marks eligible for a Tommy Award?
The Nets dissolution is a net win for the Celtics. Now there’s no more Jaylen Brown looking over his shoulder to see if he’s being dangled for Durant, mercifully. For all their foibles, the Nets were potential competition for the Celtics if they got healthy and got their act together. That was apparent when Brooklyn won 17 of 19 before losing Durant to an MCL sprain in his right knee Jan. 8. At the close of play that night, the Nets were second in the East, just a game behind the Green.
Irving’s trade request was the restive ripple that spawned a tidal wave. Now, the Nets, a championship contender that never was during the disastrous Kyrie-and-KD gambit, are broken apart into a million little pieces. None of those primary pieces landed with the Bucks, 76ers, Heat, or Cavaliers.
If they had, that would’ve changed the complexion of the Eastern Conference. Instead, safe in the knowledge that their primary competitors could only tinker, the Celtics approached the deadline wheeling and dealing conservatively. They obtained insurance for Robert Williams and Al Horford in the middle and an upgrade over Luke Kornet.
Williams is a walking durability concern. Horford’s odometer sports high mileage, and he doesn’t play back-to-backs.
Whether the Celtics come to regret not being more aggressive at the deadline for a meatier upgrade remains to be seen.
For months, it was reported they were circling Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl, but he was shipped back to the Raptors in a package that included a 2024 first-rounder that is likely to be better than Boston’s.
As currently constituted, the roster could still use another potential rotation piece to ensure that the rigors of the playoffs conclude with a ring. There remains the buyout market to augment the Celtics. They still could use another wing to spell Jayson Tatum, second in the league in minutes per game, and Brown, who is tied for 12th.
Brown is going to get some unwanted time off his feet after suffering a facial fracture via friendly fire from Tatum’s elbow Wednesday night in a win over the 76ers.
One hopes that Stevens wasn’t fooled or swayed by the fool’s gold effort from some members of the bench thrust into higher-profile roles against Philadelphia.
Blake Griffin drilled five 3-pointers in eight attempts. He had made five threes total the prior two months. Celtics object of obsession Sam Hauser put together his second straight strong game with 14 points and a perfect 4-for-4 mark from beyond the arc. But Hauser should come with a “find my small forward” feature because he tends to go totally missing at times. Grant Williams snapped out of a recent funk with 15 points and 4-for-6 3-point shooting.
But zero of that can be counted on in a playoff series. Stevens should know that. It seems like he’s betting that a fully healthy complement of Celtics that includes Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Horford, and Brown won’t need to dip that deeply into its ancillary scoring beyond Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White.
Or he just looked around the rest of the conference and felt a major move sacrificing Grant Williams or Payton Pritchard wasn’t necessary or worth disturbing this team’s considerable chemistry, on and off the court, a reasonable conclusion.
The Bucks snapped up old friend Jae Crowder, spun off by the Nets after being part of the package for Durant. The 76ers brought in Charlotte forward Jalen McDaniels, a stretch-4/big wing with scoring ability and upside. McDaniels would’ve been a nice fit for the Celtics, but they seem fixated on finding a big.
Those are nice moves for the Bucks and Sixers, but they don’t allow them to supplant the Celtics as favorites in the East.
While it was pretty much all quiet on the Eastern front, some notable moves out West could affect the Celtics if they reach the Finals.
The most notable is obviously Phoenix, which was in the NBA Finals two seasons ago, acquiring Durant while not touching its core of Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton. If it all clicks in the Valley of the Sun, the Suns could be scary. The 1-2 punch of Durant and Booker can match and even eclipse Tatum and Brown as the league’s most dangerous duo.
The Clippers reshuffled their bench, adding former Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, Nuggets guard Bones Hyland, and center Mason Plumlee while clearing some of their player backlog. When healthy — the ultimate qualifier for the star-crossed Clips — they’re another team that can go sneaker-to-sneaker with Tatum and Brown with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
And of course, the Lakers and new all-time scoring champion LeBron James got an extreme makeover worthy of their aesthetic-obsessed city. They added D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt in one trade and acquired center Mo Bamba in another. In the process, they cleansed themselves of contumacious point guards Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverly.
The NBA was active around the trade deadline. The Celtics really were not. When you own the NBA’s best record, and have virtually all season, it’s easy to convince yourself you don’t have to make many changes, especially when rivals are self-destructing.
The Celtics didn’t have to do much to feel like winners at this trade deadline, so they didn’t.