Monday, February 22, 2021

Why it's time for 'Operation Save Brad Stevens'

Let me start this off by saying, I am firmly in the camp of the Celtics looking into new coaching options as soon as possible. That said, while the pressure mounts on Boston's head coach in his eighth season at the helm of the floundering Celtics team, I pose a second option.

We will call this option "Operation Save Brad." In four simple transactions, below we look at what COULD get Brad Stevens and his Celtics back on track before it is too late.

1. Trade Tristan Thompson to Charlotte for a protected 2nd round pick (or trade him to anyone willing to take on his entire contract): 

The newly signed big man will be eligible to be traded in a matter of a week or so and Boston's first move should be shipping him out of town for nothing in return or whatever picks they can get. The trading of Thompson is not ideal (he has had some good moments in green), but the move is a precursor to opening up the entirety of the Traded Player Exception Boston has in its back pocket from the Gordon Hayward sign and trade. Losing Thompson for nothing hurts but to move his salary off the books for what comes next is critical.

Charlotte looks the best landing spot with their surprise run into playoff contention, getting a quality role-playing big for nothing is a great get. They have only one forward/center currently getting over 25 minutes a night and Thompson may be able to help fortify what they lack under the basket. Charlotte also has cap space to burn up, not that they would want to occupy that space with Thompson's $9+ million for the next year but his deal is market value and can be easily traded in a bigger move this summer. This deal should also add (yet another) trade exception to Danny Ainge's arsenal.

2. Use the entire Traded Player Exception (Hayward Sign and Trade) on bringing back Al Horford from OKC:

This article started as a contradiction to everything I say publicly on the Celtics, so let us go for broke! Boston would be returning Horford after just a year and a half after his opt out to free agency, where he signed with the rival Philadelphia 76ers. Luckily, Big Al flamed out in Philly and was moved this past offseason to OKC where he has had a renaissance year thus far. Horford has looked much more the All-Star he was three seasons ago in Boston than the washed-overpaid veteran we saw with the Sixers last season. 

Why Horford for our beloved TPE you ask? Simple, he FITS. Horford would return and be asked to own a simple role; be the same guy you were the last time you wore green. Horford would be returning to a team with a locker room of young superstar talent and would not be expected to be much more than a good defensive big who can still run the high screen and roll as well as any center or power forward in the NBA. The bonus? Horford and Stevens click. Big Al's contribution is being a proven veteran leader and conveying Stevens' message to the young Celtics team.
The other benefits, instant offense with Kemba Walker and the Jays. Horford's ability to run the screen and roll or pick and pop would allow Stevens offense to get back to its glory days. Walkers elite ballhandling and ability to get to the rim would be in full effect. Horfords return also adds a dynamic screen and roll partner to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum's arsenals. Instead of iso-ball, both stars get a smooth passing big man to work off on the perimeter, who can also knock down open three pointers. 

SO, where is the negative? Al Horford checks many of the boxes for Boston's needs and would likely already have been traded back to the Celtics if it were not for one of the worst contracts in basketball. Horford is due $27 million next season and $26.5 million in the final year of his deal when he will be 36 years old. While this looks egregious on paper, if Big Al can produce close to his current level the next year or so, the risk might be worth it. It also bears mentioning, Horford's contract would be expiring the same time Walker's current deal ends, clearing over $60 million combined in cap space in the summer of 2023.

3. Use Tristan Thompson Trade Exception on bringing back Rajon Rondo:

Dealing Thompson to Charlotte would also unlock a sizable trade exception ($9+ million). Ainge could then use the exception to bring home former Celtics great Rajon Rondo. Again, risky. Rondo is due $7.5 million this season and next but might be the perfect back-up point guard and foil for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Why? Simple, easy buckets. Rondo is a shell of his former Celtic self, but he is still one of the smartest players in the league at 35 years old. His role would be greatly reduced from what it was in his old days in green but for 20 minutes a night he could find easy helpers and open driving lanes for Tatum and Brown. 

Rondo would struggle in the prototypical Brad Stevens run offense but his ability to find easy buckets for teammates would add a dynamic that Boston’s struggled with for the last two and a half years. He would also bring a tough competitor's mentality and two NBA Championship rings to prove his way works. Rondo did butt-heads with Brad Stevens in his last go-around but with the twilight of his career ahead of him and no big payday in sight, it seems the two would be equally willing to make it work for the sake of winning. 

Ainge would also need to finagle sending a couple seldom used bench players to get back some roster flexibility. Sending Jeff Teague and Javonte Green should clear that space and allow Atlanta a third go around with its former all-star guard…who oddly seems to only play well in Hawks colors. 

4. The signing of Isaiah Thomas:

Last, but certainly not least, resigning IT. This one is the easiest and least risky. A deal to play out the end of the season as a scorer off the bench in a city that loves him, for a coach who needs his leadership and toughness. Seems like a match made in heaven. 

Thomas' return would be a shot in the arm for the fanbase and his knowledge of the Stevens' system could help benefit Walker as well as fortifying the locker room with Horford. IT would also be in the same boat as Rondo with his understanding of his role. Humbled by injury and an NBA that has locked him out, an opportunity to be a key cog on a new look Celtic's bench would seem to be a golden opportunity for Thomas to get back in the limelight where he thrived…on Causeway Street.

Overall, on the surface the additions of Al Horford, Rajon Rondo, and Isaiah Thomas would seem to be an orgy of green silliness. Believe me, I thought the same thing as the idea rounded out in my head. But the more you look at the players skillsets and relationships with the team and its head coach, it makes sense. Boston's biggest weakness right now is its experience. They don't have any proven winners (except Tristan Thompson) on its roster and have even fewer player who have any urgency to win now. The adding of the three former Celtics would restore a pride and may push the young core to its potential.

The mission does not come without its risks. While one would assume Horford can get along with anyone and assume any role required of him, Rondo has been a notorious agitator and has only lasted more than one season with one other team in the seven years since he was traded from Boston. Isaiah Thomas is also a highly competitive individual who would not have any issue stirring things up with the young core of this Celtics squad, making for a long-term breath holding for when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum become free agents down the road. 

The other risk, luxury tax jail. Boston would be stuck with four massive salaries starting in 2021-22 and would be paying a beefy luxury tax going forward for the next two seasons. They would also need to be open to the idea of trading Marcus Smart this summer. Ainge and the Celtics would not have a chance at putting a competitive deal on the table for Smart and would risk losing him for nothing at the conclusion of the 2021-22 campaign.
Is it worth the risk to save Brad Stevens? You be the judge. 

Zach Peloquin

Photo used is courtesy of The Associated Press

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