If there is one certainty entering the 2016-17 NBA season, it's that if a big-name player is even rumored to be available, the Boston Celtics will be pegged as one of the teams in the mix.
Even during a summer in which the Celtics signed free-agent big man Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract, the team has maintained the necessary assets to pursue additional talent on the trade market or be able to generate the necessary cap space to pursue another max-contract free agent next summer.
For Day 7 of our Celtics Summer Forecast series, we asked our expert panel of 18 Celtics bloggers: Who is the next superstar the Celtics should pursue via in-season trade or free agency next summer?
From draft-night chatter about pursuing Jimmy Butler to July's trip to the Hamptons to pitch Kevin Durant to persistent rumors that the team was interested in the likes of Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, the Celtics have been linked to plenty of superstars this offseason. Who's next?
This writer has maintained that Boston's best path to sustained success might simply be to remain patient and maintain the sort of assets that will keep the team on the draft-and-develop path until the right deal comes along. Most season projections peg the Celtics as one of the top teams in the East and -- maybe more encouraging -- the Brooklyn Nets, whose draft position the Celtics will own for the next two years, are pegged to finish in the basement.
With that in mind, our suggestion has been for the Celtics to wait for next year's free agency, when they can make sales pitches to players like Griffin without having to sacrifice assets to bring them to Boston. There are plenty of others with player options in their contracts -- guys like Gordon Hayward and Danilo Gallinari -- who the Celtics would be in position to make a strong pitch to with a good 2016-17 playoff run.
If Boston decides it needs a bit more talent this season to push it over the top while hoping to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics could try to target players on rookie deals that won't erase the team's salary flexibility next summer. They could also try to beat the rush and target a star with a player option in hopes that his current team might fear losing him without compensation in free agency. Those targets might not come into focus until the new season gets underway.
For now, our panel is still shooting for the stars. A sample of the responses:
Alex Kungu, Red’s Army (Griffin): Griffin is the sort of versatile forward Brad Stevens loves -- one who can do just about everything at a high level except shoot the 3. Though Celtics fans want to trade for him now, the Celtics could make a run at him next summer in free agency coming fresh off a potentially deep playoff run, and having Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Horford and maybe the No. 1 pick at the table. With All-Stars and a possible path to the NBA Finals, that's a hard pitch to walk away from.
Bobby Manning, CelticsBlog (DeMarcus Cousins): Cousins is an absolute machine. Putting up numbers on par with some of the game's all-time greats (Hakeem Olajuwon/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Bob McAdoo), he stands as one of the few intimidating interior presences in the NBA today. There's no better target to shoot for to put the Celtics on par with the Cavs. When it comes to beating LeBron James, a Paul Pierce-esqe character is needed with an edge both physically and mentally. There's no way to defeat James by playing him buddy-buddy. It has to get rough, ugly and bitter. Cousins is a player who can both bruise in the paint and shoot on the perimeter, which will make him a seamless fit in Stevens' system. Stevens could even channel some of Cousins' frustration into greater strides. The big question is how much of the current core would have to be sacrificed to trade for him. In position to acquire an all-time talent, the Celtics shouldn't hold back.
Ryan Bernardoni, CelticsHub (¯\_(ツ)_/¯): The Celtics' strategy doesn't lock in on any single player. Durant could be a free agent again next summer and Danny Ainge may never give up on that pursuit. If Oklahoma City struggles, the Thunder may be back in a similar position next July to what they were in this summer and considering moving Westbrook before he can opt out of the last year of his new extension. I think the C's will make a free-agent play for Griffin next summer. If the Celtics score big in the lottery and the Indiana Pacers struggle, maybe Boston makes a trade offer for Paul George when he's only one season from free agency. In reality, the answer might be Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum or one of the other super prospects in the 2017 draft.
Tom Westerholm, MassLive (George): Is this wishful thinking? Of course! The Pacers aren't going to trade him. Pursuing any star is a difficult and unlikely process. I don't think the Celtics will ever employ George. That said, perhaps no superstar fits the general Celtics aesthetic of positional flexibility, grit and two-way basketball as well as George. A lineup of Smart/Bradley/George/Crowder/Horford would give up about 65 points per 48 minutes. That would be a lot of fun to watch.
Mike Dynon, Red's Army (Cousins): If it's going to take a king's ransom to obtain a star, might as well pay it to the, um, Kings. Wouldn't Boogie welcome a trade to an emerging powerhouse? A winning record and Boston's solid culture should improve Cousins' mood as he puts up 25 and 12 a night.
Jake Keaney, CelticsBlog (Griffin): If he completes a healthy, productive season in 2017-18, I’d like to see Boston pursue Griffin in free agency next summer. Waiting until the summer to go after Griffin rather than attempting to snag him midseason would once again preserve Boston’s best trade assets. Doing so would then allow the Celtics to make additional signings and trades in the 2017 offseason.
Justin Poulin, Celtics Stuff Live on CLNS Radio (Nobody): I am now fully in the camp of allowing the rebuild to happen organically. Let the team make the Brooklyn selections the next two years and have the competition sort out the roster. Trades can still be made to cut down the rotation, but those trades can be executed with an eye toward staying young and acquiring depth at the right positions in balancing the roster.
Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live on CLNS Radio (Cousins): The number of players with truly special ability is very, very limited -- an even smaller subset of which you can conceivably acquire. Cousins has two years left on his deal, so if the Kings do not wish to enter free agency for Boogie, the period between now and the trade deadline is crucial. Larger deals like that are always less likely during the season, but it seems the Kings need to hold onto Cousins at least until the new arena has opened.
Bill Sy, CelticsBlog (Nikola Jokic): He's not a star, but Jokic did finish third behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis for rookie of the year last season. Jokic is a nifty passer and low-post offensive threat who can shoot from the outside. Unfortunately, he's probably untouchable. But if there's a deal where the Celtics have to eat some contracts or give up first-round picks, he's worth it.
Dan Greenberg, Barstool Sports (Cousins): Give me Boogie. People want to harp on his outbursts in Sacramento, but look at what he is doing on Team USA. Bring Cousins into Boston's situation and you are a legit contender. The Celtics should attempt to trade for him at every possible opportunity, and then max him out if he becomes a free agent. Bringing Boogie to Boston needs to happen.
Sean Penney, CelticsBlog (Butler): The Bulls had an opportunity to blow up the roster this summer but instead targeted mediocrity by bringing in a 34-year-old Dwyane Wade and the enigmatic Rajon Rondo. Good luck with that, Chicago. If the Bulls' plan to stave off rebuilding backfires, they may be forced to pivot back toward listening to offers on Butler. A wing who happens to be one of the best two-way players in the game will get Boston's attention if he becomes available.
Sam Sheehan, Celtics Reddit and CLNS Radio (Griffin): The Celtics are currently positioned to have multiple avenues to max space in the 2017 offseason. While the Celtics would be foolish to reject a reasonable trade for an All-Star, the Celtics can afford to be more selective with their trade partners. If the Celtics keep this current team and make the Eastern Conference finals, they'd be on the short list for most free agents who want rings and to get away from the Golden State Warriors. After all, free agents are "free" -- they only cost Wyc Grousbeck's money. Griffin is the most impressive of those free agents, though I think a case could be made for Hayward and (braces to be shouted down) who knows what will happen with Durant. Looming over all of this, however, is the league's collective bargaining agreement negotiations, which may affect how these acquisitions work.
Lachlan Marr, CelticsBlog (Butler): I think Butler suits the Celtics' style and fits their current timeline. Based on the trade rumors, the Bulls aren't willing to part with him for anything less than a king's ransom, which ultimately doesn't seem worth it. If Boston sits tight until free agency, there's plenty of top-tier talent in the 2017 class, but as usual many of the best players are likely to re-up with their current teams. I guess the Celtics could always go after Durant again -- just depends how much heartbreak Ainge can take.
Rich Jensen, Red's Army (Anthony Davis): Look, the Kings are not going to trade Cousins any time soon. I wish they would. To anybody. Either that or at least please fix everything else about their team. It's hardly even fun to make jokes about them anymore. But I think Davis is a slightly more realistic target, if only because New Orleans is a slightly more rational team. The Pelicans have to do something because current management has stuck them in the lower-middle class of the NBA -- they don't have the assets needed to get better, and Davis is their best asset for launching a rebuild. Sacramento is in almost the same situation as New Orleans, but the Kings are still in denial about it.
Mark Van Deusen, CelticsLife (Paul Millsap): We already know Millsap and Horford are a good combination. Millsap can be a free agent next summer (he has a 2017-18 player option for $21.5 million), but he might also be available at the deadline. I'm betting on the Hawks continuing to regress with Dwight Howard supplanting Horford and Jeff Teague now in Indiana. If Atlanta stumbles toward mediocrity, why not move the 31-year-old Millsap while he still has value?
Ben Mark, Red's Army (Cousins): He's one of the two or three most dominant low-post scorers in the league and he's only 25 years old. And if anyone can get him to buy in to a team concept, play within himself and keep his cool, it's the stability of the Celtics' coaching staff and front office. It still boggles my mind that Cousins hasn't demanded a trade while getting nothing close to consistency and a winning culture in Sacramento. Maybe this is the year.
Jared Weiss, CLNS Radio (Butler): Talking about the Celtics trading for Butler has become old and mundane at this point. But they are still in great position to make a move for the dynamic wing who is entering his prime. If and when the Bulls find their retooled roster struggling to stay above .500, they may find themselves ready for a fire sale. The haul they can bring in for Butler can be tremendous, as No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown would be a nice centerpiece along with a package of picks. A Butler deal will be on the radar for the first half of the season.