The word that Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has often repeated when discussing his team's approach to the rebuilding process is "opportunistic."
The Celtics have spent the past 20 months reshaping their roster, massaging their future salary commitments and stockpiling draft picks and assets while waiting for that ideal opportunity to pounce with the move that most directly accelerates this team back to contender status.
Will that seismic move happen before Thursday's trade deadline? Probably not. Making big in-season deals, especially at this stage of the season with the clock on the wall ticking, is a tricky process and one that rarely results in the sort of swap that immediately changes the fortunes of a team, particularly one still building toward a brighter future.
But you can bet that Ainge and his staff are examining all possibilities -- and there's no shortage of them given Boston's flexibility -- while searching for the sort of moves that can inch Boston just a bit closer to that home run swing.
Rewind to late December and the aftermath of the Rajon Rondo trade. Ainge was asked if he felt the rebuild was back at the start line after trading away the team's best individual talent. Ainge said he doesn't see it that way and believes Boston is still in good position moving forward. When referencing the possibility of more trades, Ainge offered, "We just have to be ready to have assets to trade and stay opportunistic to making our decisions with our assets."
Ainge already has made four trades since the Rondo swap, all in a quest to essentially maximize the return for sending out Rondo and Jeff Green. Boston enters deadline week armed with its treasure trove of draft picks, a handful of trade exceptions they should be motivated to use and room to work under the luxury tax line.
So what will Ainge do? The simple answer is: Whatever is best for the long-term health of his team. But that could take him in any number of directions. Fortunately for the Celtics, they have the resources that allow Ainge to be opportunistic, something that most rebuilding teams are not in position to be.
WHAT THE CELTICS HAVE TO WORK WITH
Let's start with a general overview of where the Celtics stand. After Andre Dawkins' second 10-day contract expired on Wednesday and Boston elected not to sign him for the remainder of the season, the Celtics stand at 14 players committed to salaries of roughly $64.4 million. That means Boston has one open roster spot and is $12+ million under the $76.8 million luxury tax line.
Here's why that matters: Boston, if it desired, could essentially take on $12 million in salary without worrying about going over the tax line. Staying under puts the team in position to collect a refund from the league's biggest spenders at season's end and allows Boston to avoid those pesky escalating repeater taxes, something that will come in especially handy when they are contenders again.
The Celtics have a bevy of trade exceptions from their recent dealings, but while many don't expire until next December or January, Boston is likely to renounce those exceptions this summer if it desires to clear the space necessary to pursue top-tier free agents.
Boston can offer something of a get-out-of-jail-free card to contenders either over or tip-toeing the luxury tax line. Boston can absorb as much as a $12.9 million contract -- or smaller chunks -- in exchange for future assets (likely draft picks, though perhaps young cheap talent).
With that in mind, it would seem most likely that Boston would be a facilitator at the deadline rather than a buyer or seller. The Celtics can quietly collect more assets by simply helping others maneuver.
But keep in mind the Celtics have their surplus of draft picks, with what's likely to be six first-rounders and eight second-rounders (including some early in the second round) over the next two drafts (hop HERE for a full breakdown on those picks) if they desired to be a surprise buyer at the deadline.
DECISIONS UNLIKELY TO BE IMPACTED BY PLAYOFF PUSH
The Celtics are 7-5 over their last 12 games, moving them within 1 ½ games of a playoff berth in the lowly Eastern Conference. Boston fans spent much of a Celtics-less All-Star break debating the merits of making a run at the postseason versus downshifting and hoping for more ping-pong balls.
What should be stressed is that Ainge is unlikely to maneuver with this season in mind. The Celtics' goal is not to be the 16th best team in the postseason; their desire is to be a sustained contender capable of competing annually for the league's top prize. So if there's a trade to be made that sacrifices Boston's ability to make a run this season but can aid the future, Ainge shouldn't hesitate.
Some have wondered if Ainge would be any less likely to move a veteran because of Boston's potential playoff push. The guess here is that there are enough obstacles -- taking back salary, low overall return -- that would dissuade Ainge from making a deal than worrying about removing a veteran role player.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his players made a push for minimal change at the deadline before the All-Star break and might just get their wish, but Ainge won't allow Boston's short-term situation to impact his long-term vision.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
In the aftermath of the Rondo and Green deals, many anticipated that Boston would attempt to move veterans Brandon Bass and Marcus Thornton to contenders looking for a boost at the deadline. But salaries complicate matters, at least in terms of the receiving team sending back enough expiring money to make Boston consider a swap. Contenders surely desire expiring deals at the deadline, but Boston's preference to keep its books clean beyond this season simply makes moving those guys a bit more challenging (though a first-round pick would surely make Boston more motivated to make it work).
So it's hard to imagine Boston being much of a seller at the deadline. It would seem more likely that any subtraction might come after the deadline via the buyout route. But even then, Boston can dig in a bit. If someone like Tayshaun Prince desires his freedom to pursue a job with a contender, then he must be willing to sacrifice dollars to do so. Boston can carry his expiring deal and the only real detriment is the lingering logjam at the wing spot that might be limiting the minutes for rookie James Young.
Could Boston be a buyer? Sure, it has the necessary assets to obtain a player that a seller might dangle. And Celtics fans will perk up every time they hear a rumbling that someone like Goran Dragic or Ty Lawson is available. They'll even daydream about DeMarcus Cousins, though it's hard to fathom the Kings would hire George Karl and be willing to move their superstar in the immediate aftermath.
What's hard to gauge is whether Ainge would be willing to sacrifice some of the team's future assets in order to make an upgrade that could both help the team now and into the future. Boston certainly has to consider such a move because of its trade exceptions, but Ainge has acknowledged that -- even with Boston's pile of draft picks -- you only get one real chance at that home run swing.
So break out the phone chargers and pile up the snacks in the Celtics' Waltham offices. Boston is going to explore everything that's out there and you can bet they'll be ready to pounce if the right deal emerges.
"You never know what happens at the trade deadline," Ainge said last week during his weekly call to 98.5 the Sports Hub last week. "We’re ready. We have a lot of bullets in our arsenal right now. We have a lot of assets that we can move for a lot of different things and we can go in a lot of different directions at this point."