By agreeing to trade Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Celtics are losing a player in his prime, in the midst of a career season and locked up to a long-term contract. And they couldn’t be more relieved.
That’s the beautiful, twisted logic of the NBA under the current collective bargaining agreement. Lee is headed to the Grizzlies, according to multiple reports, in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, and while Memphis may be getting the better player, Boston is getting the better deal.
We’ve seen Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge do this before, and he’s done it again.
By most purely basketball-related measures, Lee has been a superior player to Bayless this season. At 28, Lee is having the finest season of his six-year career despite averaging just 16.8 minutes per game. If this hasn’t been his gaudiest statistical season, it’s definitely been his most efficient. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, a career-high, along with career shooting marks on 3-pointers (.442), 2-pointers (.511) and overall (.492). His current 15.3 player efficiency rating handily beats his previous best, as does his .573 true shooting percentage, a statistic that takes into account every shot a player takes, including free throws.
Yet Lee is signed through 2016 at more than $5 million per season, while Bayless, 25, will make just $3.1 million for all of 2013-14 before becoming a free agent at the end of this season. Because of that, Bayless’ .375 field goal percentage and ungodly .288 3-point field goal percentage is almost irrelevant.
He’s younger. He’s cheaper. He brings less financial commitment. By every measure that matters to the 2013-14 Celtics — all the non-basketball ones, that is — Bayless is the better player for them.
The writing was on the wall that Lee’s time in Boston was short. Celtics coach Brad Stevens continued to restrict Lee’s playing time even as Lee continued to outperform his limited role. He was the subject of a rumored deal with Houston that ran rampant last month, but there was more than that. When the Celtics lined up for a last-second 3-point attempt that would have tied Friday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Lee, who leads the team in 3-point accuracy, remained glued to the bench. If you’re not going to use a player for the skills he has, there’s really no reason to keep him on the team.
This deal, once it is finalized Monday with a call to the league office, will not spark the emotion of last summer’s blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets. But the two deals are of the same model. In both cases, the Celtics gave up the better players but walked away with the better result.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry were aging but still preferable to Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans, and even this year’s draft pick is unlikely to be anything special. The Celtics did not shed much salary then, but they did assure they would be pretty mediocre as a basketball team, which is something half the NBA seems intent on being this season. The Lee deal could do the same, while simultaneously bringing immediate financial relief. The Celtics are right up against the luxury tax line and certainly do not want to pay the tax going into next season, when harsh “repeater” penalties go into effect.
The best part about this trade is that everyone can walk away feeling like they made out like bandits. Bayless might get a few more reps to pad his stats for his impending free agency. Lee will try to help turn around a struggling team that went to the Western Conference finals last season. Memphis gets a decent two-guard who can both shoot and defend, something they have lacked for years.
Every party will say things to that effect once the trade becomes official. They’ll say it and, for a minute, all of it will make sense, because under normal logic, all of those things would be true for Bayless, Lee and the Grizzlies. Except this is different. The Celtics are the real winners here, especially if it is the first of multiple to moves to increase their financial flexibility.
This is the NBA, after all. Normal logic need not apply.