The Celtics are good. Really good, even.
But do they qualify as legitimate NBA Finals contenders as constituted, and should president of basketball operations Danny Ainge risk messing with a mostly productive formula in an effort to augment Boston’s roster before Thursday’s trade deadline?
Well, it’s complicated.
The Celtics entered Monday tied with the Miami Heat for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (33-15), trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks (42-7) and Toronto Raptors (36-14). Boston has won three straight and six of its last seven, including a 116-95 blowout victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night at TD Garden.
There’s a strong case to be made for the Celtics staying the course, so as not to disrupt the chemistry they’ve developed or the potential they’ve flashed, especially when you consider coach Brad Stevens rarely has had all hands on deck this season thanks to various injuries across his entire roster. But there’s also a strong case to be made for Boston pushing its chips into the middle with such a wide open landscape leaguewide.
Which brings us to Clint Capela.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday the Celtics are among the teams engaged in trade talks with the Rockets regarding Capela, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound center who Houston reportedly is open to dealing in an attempt to secure an impact wing player. According to Wojnarowski, talk around the NBA suggests the Rockets would like to add both a wing and a center in the coming days.
On the surface, this would make a ton of sense for the Celtics, who are undersized relative to their staunchest Eastern Conference competition. Daniel Theis has been excellent, Enes Kanter is a solid rebounder on top of being a great locker room presence and Robert Williams carries intriguing upside despite being bitten by the injury bug. But Capela immediately would give Boston a little more oomph up front, which could prove valuable in the postseason if/when the Celtics face the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, among others.
That said, few things in life are cut and dried. Boston’s situation is no different. While the Celtics own three first-round picks in 2020, all of which could be in play as Boston scours the trade market for reinforcements, it also has limited financial flexibility.
Boston has 3 1's (projected 17,26 and 30) in June. Would need to send out $10M of salary in a Clint Capela deal. https://t.co/RioxJI5RDH
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 3, 2020
Boston would need to send out roughly $10 million in order to match Capela’s $14.9 million salary for this season. The easiest path to satisfying that requirement would be to trade Gordon Hayward or Marcus Smart. Neither scenario is all that enticing. Essentially, the Celtics would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, as trading Hayward would lessen Boston’s scoring depth whereas dealing Smart would screw with the organization’s entire DNA.
So, let’s add Hayward and Smart to Boston’s three untouchables: Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Is there any trade the Celtics could make for Capela without tapping into this core quintet?
Here’s what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested on the most recent episode of “The Lowe Post” podcast:
There’s a trade package there the Celtics could put together that if they got their hands on Clint Capela — granted, he’s not Bill Russell — but he would dramatically change their situation against big teams. I would like that for them. They would have to do it without trading any of their big five, so you’d be talking about Daniel Theis being in the deal, probably, (Vincent) Porier being in the deal, Romeo Langford maybe being in the deal and one of their first-round picks. I don’t think they’d give the Memphis pick, but you could try to get it.
I gotta believe that Boston is in the mix.
This obviously is far more appealing than trading either Hayward or Smart, but it’s still fair to question whether the upgrade from Theis/Kanter to Capela is a worthwhile move given the draft-pack compensation the Celtics likely would need to relinquish, the inherent questions over whether Capela fits into what Stevens is trying to do offensively/defensively and the additional contractual hurdles Boston would create for itself beyond this season. Not to mention the Celtics’ chemistry, while unquantifiable, has been a strength just one year removed from the Kyrie Irving drama.
Now, this isn’t to say definitively the Celtics shouldn’t pursue Capela, who is in the prime of his career (he turns 26 in May) and comes with very reasonable salaries of $16 million, $17.1 million and $18.2 million over the next three seasons, respectively. They absolutely should, at the very least, consider any deal for Capela that doesn’t include Hayward or Smart. After all, while not without his warts, Capela is averaging 13.9 points and 13.8 rebounds per game this season and could be enough to cement Boston as the second-best team in the East behind Milwaukee.
Just know a trade won’t come easy. And even then, there’s risk involved with shaking up Boston’s roster, which has meshed so well mere months after an imperfect configuration — on and off the court — led to the Celtics’ demise.