As the 2017-2018 season winds down for the Boston Celtics, you cannot help but have positive thoughts about the future. The team is set to finish second in the conference, which would guarantee home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They are on pace to finish with 55 wins, 2 more than the team had last season. Young studs Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have played remarkably, filling in the role created by the injury of wing Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford and Kyrie Irving were All-Stars. Injuries aside (and there have been many), the core at hand has many gleefully looking towards the future.
But is there one more move in store?
If you’ve been a Celtics fan since that fateful night in 2013 when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets, you’ve heard the word “fireworks” to describe the moves the team planned to have in store. It took some time, but the front office has delivered.
Each of the past two offseasons, Danny Ainge has acquired a former NBA All-Star via free agency (Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving) and picked 3rd in the NBA Draft, selecting promising wings each time (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum). Never satisfied and always looking to maximize his roster, Ainge overhauled a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, leading to only 4 players returning the following season (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown).
With an improved roster seen yet again in 2017-2018 (and without a full game from Gordon Hayward) my question is, will this suffice for Ainge?
The name Celtics fans are used to hearing about is Anthony Davis, and rightfully so. Davis is 25 years young and has gained elite status. This year, Davis is averaging 28/11, and currently has the Pelicans in position to reach the playoffs, even without star teammate DeMarcus Cousins, who suffered a season-ending injury in January. In the MVP conversation, and about to enter his prime, who wouldn’t want a chance to have Davis on their squad!?
I think the better question is, why would the Pelicans ever trade him?
Anthony Davis is under contract throughout the 2020-2021 season, so the Pelicans have three plus seasons of control over their star. Turbulence could theoretically occur with DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins (27) will enter free agency this upcoming offseason. Other teams may very well be scared off by his Achilles’ injury, an injury that has ended the careers (and dominance) of legends like Isiah Thomas and Kobe Bryant. Cousins, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, may like what the Pelicans have to offer in the form of closeness to home, and the ability to play with another star.
Nevertheless, to lock up his services, the Pelicans will have to offer him a max contract. The 2018-2019 salary cap is currently projected to be $101 million, and a max contract for Cousins would cover 30% of the salary cap ($29.7 million). Assuming the Pelicans sign Cousins to that figure, that, in addition to their other contracts, would have them on the hook for $124 million. The only other reprieve they would have to add talent would be in the form of exceptions (i.e. the MLE), veteran minimums, or in the form of a trade. If they let Cousins go, they will have $6.5 million in salary cap, nowhere near enough to sign anyone similar to Cousins.
In essence, the Pelicans need Cousins, and after that, they will not be able to get much else in the form of additional talent in both 2018-2019, but also 2019-2020. In a competitive Western Conference, one with an all-time team in Golden State, an elite looking team in Houston, a rising team in Los Angeles that very well could have LeBron James and Paul George next season, the usual suspects in San Antonio, a rising core of Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota (and don’t forget Portland!) … will the Pelicans have enough?
The team will have to build around Davis and Cousins for the next 3 seasons, and simply do not have enough assets to acquire a third star. They will, at best, be in the middle of the pack in their conference for a half-decade, with slim chances at an NBA title. Davis will be wasting his ages 25 through 28 seasons on a team that has no clear shot at a title, and with a teammate who very well could never be the same, most-likely tying up 30% of the salary cap.
Is this the future you want, Anthony?
Although he has given no word saying otherwise, Davis’ future for the time being is in New Orleans. Unless this changes, New Orleans would be foolish to trade him. MVPs do not fall off trees. Davis is under control for 3+ more seasons, and this season the Pelicans have seen their best success in recent memory. Another point not mentioned in the mainstream was brought up in an Adam Kaufman podcast recently (a point that both he, and myself, had never considered): The Pelicans need to consider their future in New Orleans. Davis is their main attraction, but if they ever traded him and hit the rebuild, could the team survive in New Orleans, or would the best course of action be moving to another city?
If you’ve reached this point, you’re probably wondering who’s side I’m on. First off, if you’re still with me, thank you! Second, I’m just trying to paint the picture currently at hand regarding Davis, and I think the timeline is important.
To me, an Anthony Davis trade is absolutely possible, but it’s not happening yet.
My theory: June 2019
As you remember, via the trade between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics have the rights to the 2018 Los Angeles Lakers first round pick IF it is between 2-5, or the better of the two first round selections of the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers (unless one of those picks is 1st overall; in that case, the Celtics receive the inferior of the two picks). The Lakers are currently WELL out of the top 5 lottery projections, so the safe bet is the Celtics will receive the 2019 first round pick of the Kings.
In addition to that pick, the Celtics will still have the following players under contract: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, and Abdel Nader. If I’m a betting man, Kyrie Irving will have already signed an extension by the time this date approaches. Al Horford has an Early Termination clause in his contract, meaning he could enter free agency in 2019, but he will be 33, and I do not believe he will have any incentive to enter the market, because A) he likes the team he is on, and B) getting $30 million or more may be a big ask for a player of his age and skillset.
Assuming the Celtics re-sign Marcus Smart this upcoming offseason (which I believe they will, in the range of 4 years and $50 million), and still have the rights to Terry Rozier, they will have the assets to acquire Anthony Davis.
Unless the Pelicans reach the Western Conference Finals in 2018-2019, I believe at this time you will see Davis start to put the heat on the Pelicans. I do not believe Cousins will be the same player, but the Pelicans will be forced to re-sign him this offseason and stuck with a limited commodity. The Pelicans will not be bad enough to seek reinforcements in the draft, and in the 2019 NBA offseason, unless BIG trades occur (i.e. trading Jrue Holliday or DeMarcus Cousins), they will yet again have limited financial resources to acquire help.
Times may change, a big swing may occur, but I believe at the end of his age 26 season, Davis will simply be fed up, and want out.
And this is where the Celtics come in with the motherload.
New Orleans receives:
2019 Kings’ pick
2021 Celtics’ pick
The two crown jewels here are Jayson Tatum and the 2019 Kings Pick. Smart fills in salary (assuming it is in the $12-$13 million range), Yabu and Nader are young role players, and to me, this assures the team keeps Terry Rozier to head the second unit. New Orleans has a defined potential superstar (Tatum), a chance a drafting another one (Kings’ Pick), and a great culture-definer and gritty player (Smart).
If Anthony Davis wants out, and your team simply has no path to improving the roster around him, this is your best chance to get the most value, and not face a scenario similar to Cleveland in 2010. If New Orleans lets a disgruntled Anthony Davis stay on the team too long, they lose a chance to get the most in return, especially if you get past the 2020 trade deadline. Once Davis wants out, and reaches his contract year, you’re looking at a scary proposition. He will have value on the open market, but it will be less, and if you play your cards thinking he’ll come back as a free agent in 2021, with no chance at a title, the threat of a waisted career, you’ll lose. He won’t come back for that extra money you can offer with a supermax, he’ll only stay if you offer a better situation to win… and that won’t happen.
New Orleans, you have a year to get this right, a year to hope Cousins is back and healthy, a year to get more talent, a year to break through the West and threaten the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and possibly LeBron James (in addition to a slew of others).
Sound like a lot?
Because it is. It’s not viable. You have a superstar, yes, but he won’t be content forever. And once the 2019 season ends, the clock will start clicking… and Danny Ainge will be ready, folks.
Celtics fans, take a deep breath. The final piece will not be here anytime soon. We have a great roster, and next season it will include Gordon Hayward. LeBron James will very well be out of the Eastern Conference (I hear the 76ers talk, but I just see the Lakers being the final destination), and you will have a clear path to the finals. You’ll have a deep team, but will it be enough? If you win, then congrats! The rebuild is over, Banner 18 will be home, and the future is set.
But if not? Ainge pounces on the timeline of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
To start the 2019-2020 season, the starting lineup will be:
PG: Kyrie Irving (27)
SG: Jaylen Brown (23)
SF: Gordon Hayward (29)
PF: Anthony Davis (26)
C: Al Horford (33)
Buckle up. It might be awhile, but this is what I see the future being. If not? You still have Tatum and Brown (both of which I love dearly), and a possible high lottery pick with a chance of yielding another piece. You could make another trade, but it won’t be for anyone this big. A future headed by Hayward, Tatum, Brown, and Kyrie would be fine with me, but is it enough, does it work, and will the timelines maximize the future?
Well, I thought Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz, Isaiah Thomas, and Al Horford, with the possibility of Gordon Hayward entering 2017 would be enough… Danny Ainge (rightfully) had other thoughts.
Down the line? I think Danny Ainge sees his roster after the 2018-2019 season… and has other thoughts. The chance of having Anthony Davis on the Celtics will be too much to pass up.
Either way, I promise you this… it will be a fun future, one I’m looking forward to.
Post by Nick Collins
Follow Nick on twitter @Nick_Collins14