The Celtics proved this season that their young stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, could lead a contending team. Both players improved their scoring to over 20 points per game, according to basketball-reference, showcasing newfound confidence and 3-point shooting removed from former teammate Kyrie Irving.
Boston has a big-three with Tatum, Brown and Kemba Walker, but Walker hasn’t looked like himself after suffering a knee injury earlier this season, which reportedly is still bothering him in the Orlando bubble.
Depending on how these three stars and the team perform this postseason, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge may reshape the roster to make a title push in 2021. The organization has plenty of assets to offer other teams, so getting a true superstar in return isn’t unrealistic.
Boston has three first-round and five second-round picks in the upcoming draft, as well as attractive assets like Brown, Gordon Hayward (player-option), Marcus Smart, Enes Kanter (player-option) and other young prospects to potentially trade. Ainge wouldn’t move Tatum, though, and Walker’s knee issues might lower his value.
So if the team wants to create a super-team next season, here are three players they should target, all of whom would require a trade package of some or most of the aforementioned assets.
3. Rudy Gobert
Boston this season plays unselfishly and efficiently on offense. Playing Daniel Theis at the center, in addition to spacing the floor, also allows its defense to switch almost everything and keep up with the league’s trend toward small-ball.
What team lacks to truly contend in the East is an interior presence. The Celtics are likely to face bigger teams like the Bucks and 76ers in the playoffs, but they’re 2-5 in those matchups. Kanter and Theis simply can’t handle Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, two superstars in the East who will likely be in the conference for a long time, so Boston should look to acquire someone to help against those teams.
Gobert is the perfect target for Boston’s undersized roster, and he’s on a reasonable $26.5 million expiring contract for the 2020-2021 season. If the Jazz once again falter in the playoffs in part due to Gobert’s offensive limitations as the team’s second-best player, he could be on the trading block. Gobert is the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-NBA member who would fill all of Boston’s gaps in its current roster construction.
If Utah decides it doesn’t want to extend Gobert’s contract, the big man shouldn’t require a massive trade package to acquire him. The Celtics could offer a package like Smart, Langford a first-round pick to the Jazz for Gobert, which might be enough. Boston could even include someone like Kanter if needed, assuming he accepts his player-option.
With Gobert in the middle, coach Brad Stevens could run Tatum at power forward and play more guards at the same time. Gobert is strong enough on the glass and protects the rim well enough that the four other starters can be perimeter-oriented, and he’s also athletic and enough to run pick-and-rolls with those four. He’d fit right in.
2. Damian Lillard
Boston signed Walker as a free agent last summer hoping he’d provide a similar offensively-minded veteran presence to Kyrie Irving but without the drama. While Walker has been praised by his new Celtics teammates for his leadership and positive personality, he isn’t playing quite up to the level he did in his previous three All-Star seasons, particularly in his last 11 games in which he averaged 16.3 points on 32.9% shooting.
If the Celtics expect Walker’s knee to hinder him moving forward, including him in a trade package for a true star could be the best move. Lillard provides similar contributions to his team as Walker does, but at a much higher level. Pairing the Portland guard with Tatum would create arguably the best offensive duo in the Eastern Conference and likely lead Boston to the top of the standings next year.
The Celtics could offer Portland a Walker, Hayward and a 2020 first-round pick for Lillard. They could throw in another pick or a prospect like Romeo Langford or Carson Edwards if needed, but this package would both keep the Trailblazers competitive while also forming a big-three of Lillard, Tatum and Brown for Boston. Portland, however, may need to include another player like Trevor Ariza to make the money work.
This athletic, experienced and extremely skilled Boston backcourt would give the East’s best teams trouble. This couldn’t be done if Lillard simply doesn’t want to leave, but players in the bubble are surely trying to recruit him, so maybe he’ll change his mind.
1. Joel Embiid
If the 76ers were to make Embiid available, the Celtics are the last team Philly fans would want to see him go to. Still, Boston has so many assets that it may be one of the few teams in the league that could realistically trade for the big man.
The Celtics would have to offer at least three first-round picks in addition to either Brown or the combination of Hayward and Smart to get Embiid. The price is steep, but Embiid alongside Tatum and Walker would form the most diverse big-three in recent NBA history.
Embiid is one of the best interior defenders and unstoppable scorers in today’s game. His arrival in Boston would mark another potential dynasty (assuming he stays healthy).
If Boston could keep Brown as well, it’d likely be the title favorites in 2021. That foursome could have similar success to Golden State’s four All-Star lineup and torture opposing teams for the foreseeable future. Embiid is the hardest player to acquire of these three, but he’s also the most intriguing because the Celtics could play an entirely new style.