When the Boston Celtics traded away Rajon Rondo last month, it wasn't a matter of if but when the next shoe would drop. With Brad Stevens doing his best to manage an overstocked roster, Danny Ainge and the Celtics' front office began a much-needed Phase 2 of the in-season roster overhaul on Friday.
The Celtics traded Brandan Wright -- one of the players acquired in last month's Rondo deal with the Dallas Mavericks -- to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for a conditional future first-round draft pick. Boston was also working to finalize a swap that will send Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies for another future first-round pick (and additional parts like the expiring contract of Tayshaun Prince).
Despite being short-handed after Green was a last-minute scratch before Friday's overtime loss in Indiana, Stevens will take solace in the way his young team responded without Green, who had been the team's top scorer this season. What's more, the moves ease some of the roster concerns and should allow Stevens to put a heavier focus on the younger players who will comprise Boston's core moving forward.
Beyond finishing the Green deal, there's still potential for the Celtics to further maneuver before next month's trade deadline. But let's hit the reset button after Friday's dealings and assess where Boston stands.
FEELING A DRAFT
The Celtics continue to treat draft picks like squirrels hoarding nuts before the winter. Boston is now in line to have six first-round draft picks over the next two drafts. What's more, the Celtics could have as many as 14 total picks in those drafts -- including the potential for some high second-rounders -- which will give Ainge added ammunition to either take some swings, maneuver around the draft board, or trade for more established talent in a league where draft picks are climbing in value.
Just look at Boston's pile of draft picks. While the conditions surrounding the picks make it difficult to know exactly when and where the selections will come, the bottom line is that Boston has enough draft picks to not only help it accelerate the rebuilding process, but also maintain that contender status when the team emerges from the transition. But when will that be?
Some have wondered if there's such thing as too many draft picks. It's a fair question in a league where elite talent is necessary to be competitive. The Celtics have traded away their two best players in the span of 22 days, essentially taking steps backward this season in hopes of moving forward after stalling along the map-less rebuilding path.
By focusing on the accumulation of draft picks, Ainge is putting the pressure on himself to make the necessary moves this summer (and beyond) to restock Boston's roster and thrust the team back into contender status in the Eastern Conference.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR CELTICS?
There are still 41 days until the trade deadline and you have to figure that Ainge is going to keep his cell phone charger nearby until Feb. 19.
The Celtics still have a couple veterans on the roster in Brandon Bass and Marcus Thornton who (1) own expiring contracts, (2) don't have a future with the team, and (3) could help a contender. If Boston can move those players for additional future assets (and without having to take back long-term contracts), then Boston would be content to make even more moves.
The team has a couple other veterans, like recently acquired Jameer Nelson and soon with the arrival of Prince, who could be buyout candidates depending on whether the team simply desires to carry their bloated contracts through the end of the season without the promise of playing time that's better served for younger players.
On the court, the Celtics will lean on a young core. Rookie Marcus Smart's role will only grow as the team seeks to teach him how to be an NBA point guard. James Young, the No. 17 pick in June's draft who has had fans screeching for him to get NBA floor time, will get an extended chance to showcase his progress. Jae Crowder started in place of Green on Friday and has endeared himself with his hustle, while Boston will continue to put a focus on the development of young bigs likes Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller.
REEVALUATING THE RONDO TRADE HAUL
Some suggested Boston didn't get enough for Rondo as part of last month's swap. When the Denver Nuggets received two protected future first-round picks from the Cavaliers for center Timofey Mozgov, it was only more ammunition for the argument that Boston sold low on a former All-Star point guard.
The Wright-to-Phoenix trade on Friday has potential to bring back another first-round pick, though it's more likely to be two second-round picks. Regardless, when coupled with the future pick received from the Mavericks, Boston could essentially emerge with two first-round picks for Rondo. What's more, the Celtics got Crowder in the deal and the moves also brought back a pair of trade exceptions, one for Rondo's $12.9 million salary and the other for $5 million (Wright's salary). The Celtics might actually attempt to utilize those before February's trade deadline, particularly if the team desires to free cap space this summer -- something Boston has really never had to pursue big-ticket free agents.
The Celtics remain in such a weird spot. The team is 10 games under .500 as the midway point of the season nears, and yet Boston is only two games out of a playoff spot in the head-shaking East. A daunting schedule looms, and Boston is likely to fade a bit, falling back toward the lottery pack before the All-Star break arrives, especially with a brutal six-game West Coast trip approaching.
And yet you can't help but wonder how Boston's young roster will respond. Green's inability to positively impact the team's stat line has been well-documented in this space, and some Celtics fans wonder if his impending departure will have a Josh Smith-like effect on the team. That's unlikely, but you can't rule out the possibility that Boston's young core could overachieve at times moving forward.
But even if they don't, that's not bad for Boston's future. While Stevens knows no other approach than to try to win each night, a skinnier roster will help make the decision to play some younger players easier. This is a chance for Boston's fresh faces to assert themselves as key building blocks (even if, ironically, that could make it more likely they are traded for Boston's next established star down the road).
Even after learning he had been traded to Phoenix, Wright offered praise for the Celtics and where they are headed after spending three weeks with the team.
"Danny has this thing going in the right direction," said Wright. "[The young core is] developing. Three years from now, this team will probably do some damage in the Eastern Conference. I think that’s what the goal is."
Three years?! The guess here is that Ainge hopes the Celtics can be a playoff team again in the very near future and maybe a legitimate contender again in three years. Stevens has aged in dog years since arriving in Boston while enduring the pains that come with a rebuilding process.
But he has pledged to navigate this path. Boston has a plan and Friday's moves are a step forward in the long term, even if the Celtics keep moving back a bit this season.