The Celtics enter their Christmas Day showdown with the Toronto Raptors with the third-best record in the NBA. One third of the way into the season, this team has the potential to be for real, folks.
Of their seven losses, only the first — the 14-point season-opening loss to the Philadelphia 76ers — was a blowout. The Celtics are playing hard every night, even when Kemba Walker leaves with a scary injury or Gordon Hayward breaks his hand.
So there’s hope for a long playoff run, to make last season’s disappointment a mere aberration. The Celtics have already beaten Toronto, Milwaukee, Miami, Denver and Dallas (twice). And they play the Raptors again twice in the next four days, which should serve as a strong litmus test for their ability to compete with the Eastern Conference elite.
What vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has done with the construction of this roster is make every player from 1 to 15 useful. There is no dead roster weight, bad contracts or holdovers who have no role.
For the first time in several years, the Celtics are a team not waiting for contracts to expire or seeking a cap space-clearing move. That’s exactly what most general managers seek, an elite roster on which every player has a purpose.
But having such a roster doesn’t make trading easy. Whatever the position fans believe the Celtics need to upgrade to make a serious push for the NBA Finals, it’s going to require an uncomfortable sacrifice.
And that’s not only the Memphis pick they own this year, which is top-six protected. The Grizzlies enter Christmas Day with the league’s seventh-worst record, so there’s a definite possibility that pick will go to the Celtics.
What would have to be sacrificed to get, let’s say, a quality center, would be losing Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward. This is the contract reality for the Celtics. The team has top-heavy contracts — Walker and Hayward; one medium deal — Smart; and a slew of rookie deals and mid-level deals — Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Enes Kanter, and Daniel Theis.
There are available players such as Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson as non-contending teams tackle reality and consider moving players with unwanted or expiring contracts. Thompson, for example, earns $18.5 million in the final year of his contract, and would require the Celtics not only to trade Smart but perhaps Kanter or Theis and a first-round pick.
First-round picks are one of the more coveted assets for general managers. They can be used to finish trades as well as for selecting younger players on cheaper contracts. Any team that would get a call from the Celtics about a quality big man or another desired player is going to start talks with the Memphis pick.
The easiest contract to trade is Smart’s because it’s a moderate deal — $13 million per season — and Smart is a valuable player entering his prime. But the Celtics don’t want to trade Smart.
Any deal for a player on the level of Kevin Love, whom the Cavaliers are also looking to move, would require Hayward to facilitate. Hayward has another year left on the maximum contract he signed in 2017 but also has an opt-out clause this summer.
Whether Hayward opts out of that deal considering his injury history is anyone’s guess. But he does have that option. And the Celtics love a healthy Hayward blending with the emerging duo of Brown and Tatum, but he hasn’t been healthy for the past six weeks.
While Hayward is expected to return for the Christmas Day game against Toronto, the next few weeks could be critical for the Celtics to determine whether they have enough as currently constructed to compete for a championship. Because that’s the end game.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens hasn’t been able to see his team fully healthy yet this season. Smart is expected to return from an eye infection by the end of December while Robert Williams and Vincent Poirier could return by mid-January.
And in the next few weeks, there could be more teams taking the Cavaliers’ route, prepared to clear the veterans on their roster for draft picks and assets. Smart is an asset but he’s indispensable to the Celtics, who would likely not move him for a player on an expiring contract, if at all.
The Cavaliers moved the expiring contract of Jordan Clarkson to the Utah Jazz for often-injured former lottery pick Dante Exum and two second-round picks. To trade Clarkson, the Cavaliers took on an extra year of Exum, who never worked out in Utah because of injuries and the development of Donovan Mitchell.
The Celtics don’t have similar players they would like to move. And if they are tradeable — such as Poirier — they don’t earn enough to attract capable talent. So unless Ainge is ready to make a difficult decision — or has one of those wizard trades in mind that will add a difference-making big man but keep the roster mostly intact — this could be the Celtics roster fans will be watching for the rest of the season.
Any trade, barring a minor one, will be difficult. But unlike last season, this team, considering the first 27 games, may be capable of greatness. And that should serve as a pleasant surprise gift to all their fans.