The Boston Celtics, armed with a treasure trove of draft picks, young talent and tradable contracts, are going to find themselves in a lot of trade whispers in the two weeks leading up to this year's deadline. The rumor du jour? The New York Daily News reported Wednesday that the Celtics have "engaged the Houston Rockets in talks about a possible deal for Dwight Howard."
More from the Daily News: "Howard can opt out of his contract this summer, and considering his back and knee issues, it doesn’t make much sense for Boston GM Danny Ainge to use the assets on a player with declining skills and a battered body. Boston, which either owns or controls the Brooklyn Nets’ next three first-round picks, are positioned to make a major move either before the trade deadline or this summer around the draft."
Ainge has repeatedly noted this season that the Celtics, as currently constructed, are not championship-caliber contenders. He has also pledged to remain patient in the quest to find the sort of elite talent that could push Boston closer to that goal and won't splurge just to make a move.
Is Howard, at age 30 but in his 12th NBA season, the sort of player worth sacrificing some of Boston's prime assets for? An eight-time All-Star, Howard is seemingly on the backside of his career and, for all the obvious talents, there are the obvious headaches that come along (he missed Tuesday's game against the Miami Heat while suspended for swiping a referee's arm).
The upside? Howard is the sort of rim-protecting big man that could not only aid a defense that ranks second in the league in defensive rating, but his offensive potential is intriguing in Boston's floor-spreading lineups. The Celtics have an obvious need for a scoring big man that can help loosen things up on the perimeter and create more space for the likes of All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Ultimately, when considering a potential Howard swap, the key is cost. If the Rockets are willing to sell low with a goal of accumulating future assets and lowering their tax bill during a season in which they simply don't measure up to the West's elite, then Boston might be interested. But the Celtics would almost assuredly be unwilling to part with the more glossy of their draft picks and, considering both the absurd size of Howard's contract and his ability to opt out of the final year after this season, Boston would also tread carefully with what younger players it might be willing to move as part of any deal.
In pursuing any big-money star, Howard or otherwise, the Celtics can start with a package that includes David Lee (his $15.5 million salary) and draft picks. When considering what Boston might give up from there, remember what Ainge said about being patient. And that might ultimately be the sticking point in any Rockets talks because Boston would seemingly be leery of giving up too much for a player that might ultimately be a short-term rental.
So why ponder it at all? By adding a player with Howard's potential, the Celtics could separate themselves in a muddy Eastern Conference in which the Cleveland Cavaliers are clearly the lone frontrunner. According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, the Celtics currently project at nearly 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the East (they are tied for that spot at the moment with the Atlanta Hawks, whose path Boston will monitor closely, too, with speculation about Al Horford's future). What's more, the Celtics currently project at a 29.5 percent chance of making the East finals. Adding another impact player at the deadline would not only improve those odds, but might give Boston a better chance at competing with the Cavaliers in a possible meeting.
If Boston can hang onto this year's unprotected Nets pick while navigating the deadline, then the Celtics would enter the summer with not only a high lottery pick to add talent to its already young roster, but have the potential cap space to track another star. A quality run in this year's playoffs might be the difference in attracting another star to Boston by suggesting that coach Brad Stevens has this team on the cusp of being a true contender.
Which is why the Celtics have to at least ponder potential moves like Howard. Because of what Houston is likely to desire in return and the long-term uncertainty with Howard, it would seem unlikely that this particular deal would gain much steam. If nothing else, it's a reminder that Ainge is being "quietly aggressive" while trying to find the best path to improve his team's chances at being a contender now and in the future.