At the risk of dabbling in hyperbole, Thursday is one of the most important days in recent Boston Celtics history.
The NBA trade deadline has just about arrived, and the Celtics are once again one of the primary figures in the annual dash to retool rosters before the 3 p.m. ET buzzer sounds.
But things are different this season for the Green. Yes, Boston still owns a horde of first-round draft picks and an enviable amount of young, cost-controlled talent, including a pair of former top-three picks in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In most seasons, the Celtics would be well-positioned to get any player available before the deadline. That’s been the case the last few years, really, when Boston was tied to players like Jimmy Butler and Paul George — connections that likely were overstated — and deadlines passed with no blockbusters.
This year theoretically should be different. The New Orleans Pelicans finally are open for business. Superstar forward Anthony Davis wants out, and with a season-plus left of team control, he is by far the biggest potential prize of the deadline. The Celtics have all the pieces to get a deal done, and this is the player they reportedly covet more than any other. Yet, barring the wildest trade deadline day in NBA history, it’s not going to happen.
The Celtics can’t execute a trade for Davis unless they also trade Kyrie Irving, thanks to a quirky NBA rule that’s been referred to as the “Rose Rule,” although it might as well be the “Irving Rule” after this deadline. The nature of the contracts for Irving and Davis forbid the Celtics to have both on the roster at the same time. That means all the Celtics can do is wait and hope New Orleans holds on to Davis beyond the deadline, giving Boston a chance to land him this summer when Irving is expected to opt out of his deal.
And that’s the great irony of this whole thing. The Celtics have the pieces, and the player they want is finally available. But all they can do is sit and helplessly wait with the rest of us as the clock ticks toward 3 p.m. For the first time in the last three or four years, a quiet deadline actually might be met with exultation in The Hub.
There are roadblocks in the way, though. The Los Angeles Lakers seem hell-bent on acquiring Davis, too, in order to pair him with LeBron James. But it seems like the Pelicans are intent on waiting until the Celtics can get involved to really drive up the bidding, and now LA and New Orleans are in a high stakes game of poker that has a hard stop at 3 p.m.
Davis reportedly prefers to end up with the Lakers, but he’s also reportedly keen on playing for the New York Knicks, a team that just freed up more cap space and has a decent collection of young players and draft picks that might be appetizing to the Pelicans.
So not only do the Celtics have to worry about the Lakers. They also should be monitoring the Knicks. And if New York somehow pulls off a trade for Davis, then all bets are off as it pertains to Irving, too.
And then there’s this season: Generally speaking, the 2018-19 season hasn’t met expectations for a Celtics team that had high hopes after reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without two injured All-Stars in Irving and Gordon Hayward. But the Celtics have rebounded lately, winning five in a row and nine of 10. They’re 2 1/2 games behind the Toronto Raptors in the Atlantic Division and five games behind Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
Another playoff run is viable, meaning Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge could decide to augment his roster for the stretch run. That certainly is an option, but he also won’t want to part with anything he thinks might help him land Davis in the summer if New Orleans holds on to him.
It figures to be a delicate balancing act for Ainge and the Celtics that will make what doesn’t happen even more important than what does happen for Boston at the deadline.