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The Great Sorting: Who Are The NBA’s Available Stars?

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Plus, more on the Celtics’ challenges.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Recently I wrote an article in which I debated the future of the Boston Celtics and their title hopes. At the end, my alter ego Randy Cohen suggested that even if the Celts’ chances this year are thin, their future looks bright. I promised him I’d explain that the C’s future has big problems too!

In order to keep that promise, it makes sense to start by reviewing what I call The Great Sorting. This is the movement of almost every star player in the NBA to one of the relatively small number of teams with serious title hopes. I believe it’s an unprecedented phenomenon in pro sports. Basically Sam Hinkie showed the league that you’d better either get busy living or get busy dying. That is, it really only makes sense to either try in a serious way to win now or to get serious about rebuilding. And if you’re serious about rebuilding, it’s (generally) crazy to keep a star player who’s older than 25 on your team; you’re wasting the valuable asset that is his prime, while simultaneously hurting your own draft position.

As more and more teams have gotten the memo, star players have been traded or moved via free agency to the contending teams, and this means that there are very few stars available in a deal — contending teams don’t want to trade them, and non-contenders don’t have any to trade!

I thought it would be fun to make a list of that small group of potential stars available in the NBA; I figure that this is of general interest to any hoops fan. And while its relevance to the Sixers as a team is modest since a star trade for Philly is unlikely given the current roster, it is extremely relevant to my ongoing review of the Boston situation. And you know how it works in Philly; our favorite team is the Sixers and our second-favorite team is whoever’s playing the Celtics!

So to make the article more concrete and realistic, I’ve decided to analyze the question “is it plausible for the Celtics to add a star this year?” And of course by “add a star,” I mean just that — any team will consider trading a star if they get a star back, but that doesn’t increase the squad’s star count. So if you want to read a piece about the Sixers, hit the “Back” button on your browser and enjoy one of LB’s many, many such pieces. But if there’s something about the Celtics that sticks in your craw, or if you just enjoy analysis of roster construction, read on!

Sorting it out

There’s been a great deal of consternation expressed about the new era of player control in the NBA, and with Anthony Davis and Paul George forcing their way to LA, that is certainly a topic of interest. But in my view the even-more-dominant recent trend in the NBA is the Great Sorting. That’s the way in which almost every single really good player in the NBA has been traded to a team that is currently contending or that has a solid-seeming plan for contending in the next couple of years. I’ve bucketed the NBA’s teams into categories so you can see what I mean.

Category 1: Contenders, Or Think They Are Contenders So Are Unlikely To Trade A Star

Milwaukee
Philadelphia
Boston
Indiana
Brooklyn
Orlando
Golden State
Houston
LAC
LAL
Portland
Denver
Utah
San Antonio

Category Notes:

  • Indiana is emblematic of teams that, while extremely unlikely to win a title next year, are acting like contenders. I mean, if you ring them up and offer a package of youngsters and draft picks for their star, Victor Oladipo, it’s difficult to imagine they’ll show interest unless your offer is a ludicrous overpay. Of course they’d listen to offers for good players; even a good young player with star potential like Turner or Sabonis would be potentially available. But these are solid starters, +1 players or thereabouts, not difference-making stars. The teams in this category aren’t looking to trade their difference-makers.
  • I don’t know what to do with Orlando. They’re sort of acting like a contender, but unlike Indiana, who really does have a plausible path to the Finals if the injury bug strikes someone else and not them, Orlando is IMHO obviously not ready to contend. They have Nik Vucevic, who, admittedly for only one year but it was last year so can’t be ignored, played like a difference-making star. I guess what I’ll say is: if Vuc plays great again, but the team is lousy come the trade deadline, then ORL should be moved down into Category 4, teams who aren’t contenders and do have a star to trade. I’ll add that as a just-signed free agent, Vucevic isn’t available to be traded until January 15 in any case.
  • Brooklyn presumably cannot contend this year unless KD comes back strong by the playoffs, which is highly unlikely but I suppose not impossible; if you want to place them in Category 2 below, I won’t argue with you.
  • San Antonio doesn’t appear to have the talent to contend, but they have Pop Magic so probably shouldn’t be counted out. In truth it’s not clear they have anyone who plays at a star level anymore either, though of course cases can be made for LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. For all these reasons and more, it’s hard for me to imagine Danny Ainge saying “I’m one star short, but, no problem, the Spurs will be happy to trade me one!” Thus I place them in the “Acting Like Contenders” category.

Category 2: Not Contenders Now But Expecting To Be There Very Soon So Unlikely To Trade A Star

New Orleans
Dallas
Miami

Category Notes: You know the stories here. NO and DAL have young players they think have a shot at superstardom, perhaps as soon as the next two seasons; consequently it’s going to be nearly impossible to pry Jrue Holiday, say, away — they’d just need to try to re-acquire him in a year or so when their young core gels. As to Miami, well, Lord knows whether they’ll ever be any good, but their only star is Jimmy Butler and they are hoping he’s the key to a strong future; it would be a real shock if they traded him anytime soon. Actually what’s weird about Miami is: if you look at the starters on their ESPN depth chart (e.g. Dion Waiters), they don’t look like much. But if you believe in on-off statistics like I do, and you start the five guys with the best numbers by that type of measure, they have a case as the third-best starting lineup in the East!

C Bam

PF Olynyk (or Myers Leonard, who is also decent)

SF Winslow

SG Butler

PG Dragic

Butler is a lot better than Kemba, Tatum and Winslow are similarly good (of course Tatum will have a far better career as he’s this good while being only 21, but they are similarly good right now). Bam is at least as good as Kanter/Theis, and Olynyk is probably around as good as a reasonable best guess at what Hayward will deliver. Smart is better than Dragic. If you want to sub in Jaylen Brown for one of these guys, feel free. Overall the two lineups are pretty comparable; I like Stevens better than Spo and we didn’t dig into the bench, but overall I’m just saying it’s hard to say one of these teams is a contender and the other is a joke, right?

Anyway, they — Miami, that is — don’t have any stars they’d be willing to trade, so regardless of whether you think they’ll be decent or hopeless in 2019, they’re not going to be the solution to Boston’s problems...

Category 3: Not Contenders But Don’t Have Any Difference-Making Stars To Trade Anyway

Chicago
Atlanta
Charlotte
New York
Cleveland
Memphis
Phoenix
Sacramento

Category Notes:

  • On these teams, your mileage may vary; I feel very comfortable saying that Lauri Markkanen is not yet a difference making star, plus which even if I’m wrong and he kills it this year, he’ll be the guy they build around, not a guy they would trade. Same with Trey Young, DeAndre Ayton, and other up-and-comers from this group. I don’t think Devin Booker is a star-quality player, but even if he is, he’s not on the block.
  • As a further reminder, there are plenty of solid players from this group someone could acquire in a trade; Nemanja Bjelica from SAC, say. But I don’t see anyone on any of these teams I expect to be +3 or better which is, loosely speaking, what I’m calling a “star.”.

Category 4: Have A Star And Might Trade Him

Washington: Bradley Beal

OKC: Chris Paul

Minnesota: KAT

Toronto: Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol

Detroit: Blake Griffin

And there we have it. Not only are there only six players on this list, there are only two young players! In the entire Association, just two guys under 30 who have star quality and seem like they might be available in 2019. Three if you count Vucevic. Those are shockingly low numbers. I won’t go through the past to demonstrate this, but I can say with confidence that it didn’t used to be this way.

Celtic Pride

So that’s the first point; very few options for teams that are one star away, and ridiculously few for those that need a young star because their story is not “we can dominate this year if we just add one more guy” but rather “we need another young star so we can be contenders for the next five years.”

The second point is this: all these guys make around $30M/year. This is really important because if a capped-out team — i.e. virtually any team — wants to trade for one of them, they need to shed an approximately-equal amount of salary in the process. Let’s continue to use Boston as our example; here’s a summary of their cap situation, courtesy of the always-superb Early Bird Rights site:

Kemba Walker: 32,742,000
Gordon Hayward: 32,700,690
Marcus Smart: 12,553,471
Jayson Tatum: 7,830,000
Jaylen Brown: 6,534,829
Daniel Theis: 5,000,000
Enes Kanter: 4,767,000
Romeo Langford: 3,458,400
Vincent Poirier: 2,505,793
Grant Williams: 2,379,840
Robert Williams: 1,937,520
Semi Ojeleye: 1,618,520
Brad Wanamaker: 1,445,697
Carsen Edwards: 1,228,026
Javonte Green: 898,310

So if you’re Danny Ainge, and you’re trying to add one of the stars above, meaning you need to send back at least $20M, and in some cases more like $26M, you need to either:

  • Trade a star to get a star, which fails to achieve the goal of increasing the star count. This would include trades involving Kemba Walker, Jason Tatum, or a returned-to-form Gordon Hayward
  • Trade a not-returned-to-form GH, which would require either the inclusion by Boston of a truly massive haul of other assets or the existence of an opposite-number GM of Billy-King-like obtuseness.
  • Trade Marcus Smart together with other assets.

In theory it might be possible to get there with a many-player package involving Brown + Theis + Kanter + Langford, maybe others too; all those put together get you to around $20M which is within spitting distance of the number needed to give back in a Beal trade. But such deals almost never happen because the other team, the Wizards in this case, would have to cut a bunch of their current guys to create roster room which a) creates cap problems for them and b) makes the trade unappealing as presumably they like those players! WAS would be giving up not only Beal, but also several end-of-bench guys they may feel have real promise.

Celticsland

You know how in Philly people refer to the metro area, the places you might drive to a store if the sale were good enough, as “the Delaware Valley”? Or sometimes, at least when I was a kid, as “the tri-state area,” which is also what they call the area around NYC (of course it’s NY/CT/NJ instead of PA/NJ/DE)? Lots of cities have a name like that for the area around them; the area around Cincinnati is branded the “Blue Chip region.” When I moved to Chicago for grad school I started seeing references to Chicagoland, which I thought was a joke, but, no, that’s really what they call it! I guess it’s not really any weirder than saying “down the shore” or calling the downtown area “Center City.”

Anyway, I live in a mythical kingdom I call “Celticsland.” I reside in the Boston area, listen to the Bill Simmons podcast, read The Ringer and some Celtics Blog, etc. And there’s a lot of chatter here in Celticsland about the idea of the C’s packaging Jaylen Brown with a pick, if necessary the Memphis pick, to obtain a star. Almost every episode of his pod Bill Simmons — who, for the record, I think is terrific — says something about the Celtics having one more big move to go. And if a “big move” means going from a bad starting center in Enes Kanter to a solid one, which would be a major improvement, he may be right. But if “big move” means adding a star like Beal, well, look, I don’t want to underestimate the cleverness of the Ainge-Zaren team, who knows what they may cook up? But it looks to me like adding Beal in a Brown-centered deal would, realistically, require including Marcus Smart, just to get the cap part to work. Boston suffers from the “problem” that all their high-paid players are good! I use scare quotes because of course it’s not as though lousy-but-high-paid players are the hallmark of championship teams. But if you want to add a high-salary player and improve the team, you need players to send back who have high salaries but far less on-court value. Since almost all the C’s cap space goes to Kemba, Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Smart, this is a real challenge.

The faults in our stars

Since there are so few stars with seeming potential availability, let’s take them one by one; each is interesting in their own way!

1) Kyle Lowry

I have been a huge Kyle Lowry guy for years. When the Sixers signed JJ Redick, I went on a FanPost rampage arguing that we should have brought Lowry home instead. I got roasted by commenters telling me Lowry didn’t fit the timeline, but I said the timeline was immediate, and I believe I was right. And I said Lowry’s subpar playoff performances were a fluke, and I think I was right about that too. Now Lowry is a champion forever. He’s 33 years old and still really good. It’s true that last year he failed to extend to a fourth season his streak of being top 10 in the NBA in RPM. But he was 15th, which is hardly an embarrassment! If we’d signed him instead of JJ, who knows how far we’d have gone last year, or even the year before. But, it’s water under the bridge....

What would Boston have to give to get him?

Toronto might not ask an arm and a leg, as Lowry’s contract is expiring and he, uh, maybe doesn’t fit the Raps’ timeline?! Lowry makes around $30M for the coming season, after which he’s an unrestricted free agent.

But matching cap for Lowry would be tricky. If Toronto is shedding Lowry it’s probably to clear cap space and start a rebuild around Pascal and OG and Fred; adding a not-yet-recovered ultra-high-paid forward who’ll be 30 when the 2019 playoffs begin doesn’t seem like a sensible part of the plan. And by the way Gordon Hayward is even less valuable than he appears, because Danny Ainge got a little drunk on player options a while back, handing them out not only to Al Horford, but also to Hayward. Player options are great for getting a deal over the hump, but they can really come back to bite you. In Horford’s case, it meant Boston lost a player they wanted to keep. In Hayward’s case, it may be the oppositte; if he isn’t very good, he’ll take the $35M payday for mediocre play. But there’s another way the Hayward deal could burn the Celts. What if Hayward plays great this year? Suppose he’s back to his old form, and more. In that case he’ll be a 10-year vet eligible for unrestricted free agency. And given what he just went through he, like Al before him, will be looking to lock up big money with a long-term deal. And since next year’s free agent class is so weak, an offer will be forthcoming, perhaps even for the 10-year max which starts around $39M/year. Will Boston pay up, or let him walk? So the C’s have a problem if Hayward is lousy, and a different problem if he’s good. That’s the cost of giving options away. And of course it absolutely destroys Hayward’s trade value; who would want a guy you get stuck with if he’s bad but lose if he’s good?

So then it’s back to Brown + Smart + more to make the number work. Hard to see Boston going for that.

Should Boston do it?

No way; they have a great PG in Kemba, and the price is too high for a player in the final year of his deal.

2) Chris Paul

In my recent post on closers, I wondered aloud whether Oklahoma City, with 15 first-round picks and another 5 or so swaps to offer in trade, could conceivably sweeten the pot so much with draft capital that Philly would consider a Simmons for CP3-and-picks deal (recognizing that for cap reasons we’d need to also trade Tobias Harris for a lower-paid player like Galinari or Covington). Personally I have no interest in trading Ben Simmons, I am a talent-over-fit guy all the way, and Simmons has the talent; if the coach can’t fit the pieces together I say that’s a coach problem, not a Ben Simmons problem. But I thought others might like the idea; after all, it fixes our shooting problem, our closing problem, and our guarding-small-quick-PGs problem in one fell swoop, while reloading the draft-asset gun. What if we got four first-rounders in the deal?! Six?!?! It’s a win-now move, since Simmons and Harris are, at a guess based on the past, perhaps +2 players in 2019-20 while Paul and Cov are more like +4 players. And it simultaneously creates value for the future through the draft-pick part. Maybe it’s not a good idea for the Sixers, indeed I think it isn’t, but it hardly seemed like a crazy idea.

Anyway, rather than embracing the idea, or pooh-poohing it as unrealistic, or debating it calmly, people instead slagged it mercilessly. The difference between my take on the deal and others’ is that apparently it’s now conventional wisdom that Chris Paul is a big pile of crap. He’s cooked. He’s toast. Stick a fork in his ass, he’s done.

Well, maybe, I guess we’ll see. I take on-off statistics seriously, and the on-off stats say that the fight for the best player in the NBA in recent regular seasons, not in any one year but consistently over say the past three years, was between Curry, Harden, and Chris Paul. Probably Curry deserves it as he was top three all three years, but CP3 beat him two of the three years, finishing first the year before last and second three seasons ago. Last year Paul fell to 12th in the NBA in RPM, and that is a meaningful drop from being #1. It’s totally possible that he is indeed cooked, that after 3-2-1 the previous three years he went 12 and will now go 40th, 90th, out of league. But if anyone thinks he won’t be top 20 this year, I’ll take the other side of that bet. And if anyone thinks he hasn’t really been that great all these years but the on-off stats overrate him, I’d love to hear how they think that can happen. Father Time is undefeated, and maybe it’s Chris Paul’s turn to experience that. But he is one of the very best players in NBA history, and I don’t think it’s out of the question that he’s going to last a little longer than what we get from players who are “merely” very good or even “merely” great.

What would Boston have to trade to get him?

Since OKC is not really dying to keep him, this is the one star the C’s might be able to get for Gordon Hayward plus draft capital; maybe the Memphis pick, or maybe two lower-value first-rounders, or even just one.

Should the C’s do it?

It’s not a great fit as Kemba is Boston’s PG. And Paul has a rep as someone who players don’t enjoy teaming up with all that much. After the Kyrie fiasco, I’m guessing Boston isn’t interested. And I actually believe Hayward is likely to be most of the way back come this Spring; we as fans always underestimate how long full recovery from injury takes. And of course GH and Brad Stevens are very close. So on a million dimensions this really doesn’t make sense. But I’ll just say this: if Boston wants to have the best possible 2019-20 season and playoffs, then I think adding CP3 would be a great idea.

While we’re on OKC... there’s a lot of talk about Steven Adams going to the C’s. As with Paul, I think OKC would be open to a deal, but making the salary part work would, again, be the challenge. If the Celts want to offer Hayward for Adams, they could probably get some version of that done. And that would improve the quality of the Celts starting lineup, as they improve the center situation while not downgrading the starting wings much (since they are so strong at sixth man and that player, Brown or Smart, joins the starters with GH gone). But the problem is, this move doesn’t add a star, as Adams is not one, and indeed arguably it lowers their star count by one, depending on one’s view of Hayward.

3) Marc Gasol

I was seriously bummed when Toronto picked him up at the deadline without giving up any core pieces, and I was right to be, as this addition is what, in my opinion, put the Raps over the top in their series with Philly. Gasol delivered another excellent season as he entered his mid-30s, and he’ll probably be good again in next-year’s playoffs when he’s 35.

What would Boston have to give up to get him?

As with Lowry, it’s the cap match, rather than Toronto’s demands, that will be the problem.

Should Boston do it?

I admit I fear Gasol on the C’s just as I feared him on the Raptors. But if they get him by trading the Smart-Brown combo, well, yeesh, that’s a high price to pay for a 35-year-old. And as discussed Hayward doesn’t seem like the form of value back that Toronto would be looking for. I can’t see a deal here that makes sense.

4) Blake Griffin

This situation is similar to Toronto’s, only more so. With Toronto you could at least try to argue that if they add Heyward and he’s back at full strength, the team is a contender; that doesn’t apply to Detroit.

What would it take to get him?

Blake makes $35M so you really can’t get there with the Smart-Brown combo; you need to give back like $28M which is Brown, Smart, Kanter, and more. It’s not happening.

Should Boston do it?

I can’t see any deal that makes sense; Blake is a fine player but he’s not a player type Boston especially needs and the numbers don’t work.

5) Bradley Beal.

My take on Beal is that he is, um, not that great of a player. I know this is a minority view. Basically, Beal is a very good offensive player but a bad defender. Most NBA pundits still seem to believe the sport is 80% offense and so this combination makes him an All-Star. But in my view O and D are, by the nature of how scores are kept, equally important. Now, it’s true that having an absolutely devastating offensive player can be a special case because you can force the ball to him. But that’s not Beal — Beal is a very good offensive player, a +2 or +3 player at that end, but he is not a dominator like Steph or the Beard. And so when you add his defense in, what you get is a nice player, but not what I consider a legitimate star. If he has a big year he’ll be over +2; he’s managed that in the past but not in the past three years. More likely he’ll be +1.5 like he was last year.

Now, as discussed in a previous article, Beal does have that highly-sought-after “closer” skill that the Sixers currently appear short on. Boston has Kemba Walker, so doesn’t have a crying need for closing ability, but more is always better. So on-off stats may underrate Beal, failing to give him full credit for his abilities against bear-down defense. He’s 26, so not a kid but not an old man either; his next three years could easily be the best he has in his career. He has two years left on his current deal, at which point he’d be an unrestricted free agent who will command around $35M/year.

What would it take for Boston to get him?

The Wiz will have plenty of offers for Beal, and as noted above a Beal package will probably require Brown as he is highly valued, and also Smart to make the cap work. I don’t think Boston should have to give more than those two plus maybe some draft capital to get him.

Should Boston be willing to pay that price?

If Boston trades Brown, Smart, and the Memphis pick for Beal, I, as a fan of Boston’s rival Sixers, will turn cartwheels. This really might happen, and so both Boston and Philly fans will have the opportunity to throw these words back in my face if Beal becomes Boston’s Philly Strangler, a possibility I don’t deny.

Jaylen Brown and his contract situation do not seem to me like a great overall package. He has shown in 2017-18 and in some playoff performances that he is capable of fine play. But his RPM last year was below -1, and while that may have been due in part to an injury, it’s still an iffy situation. Max Carlin over at Celtics Blog has a nice article detailing the reasons he thinks Jaylen will struggle to be a true star. He argues that Brown lacks the ballhandling skills to create for himself, and the passing skills to create for others. That leaves spot-up shooting and defense; if you are elite at both, as Robert Covington is, you can be a star without the stardom; I myself think Covington is a top-30 player. But the point is, if Carlin is right, Covington is the best Brown can be, and that only if he is absolutely otherworldly at D as Cov is; if Brown can’t manage that — few can! — then his ceiling may be to be a good starter, but no more than that.

Now, maybe Carlin is wrong, maybe Brown can be a self-creator. If he has a great year this year, then, sure, he’s a 23-year-old on the verge of stardom, great stuff. And if he is -1 again, well then his RFA rights are pretty worthless. But the most likely case is that he’s solid but not special, say +0.5, a below-average starter. Now what? Someone is going to look at his youth, his fine play in the 2018 playoffs, his draft pedigree, and the fact that there are virtually no good free agents next year, and offer him over $20M/year. Even a max offer is not out of the question. If you’re Boston and you match the offer, say you give him 20% of the cap which would be around $23M.... well now you’re spending over $90M per year on Hayward-Kemba-Brown, none of whom is a superstar and who in a year or two might be a $90M group with no stars at all. Risky!

But, I love Marcus Smart, who is very good on the court right now, is still young and improving, and who is the kind of all-about-winning player that every team can use. I’d rather have Smart than Beal if they earned the same, and I’d way, way rather have Smart for $13M than beal for double that amount. So, no, I don’t think Boston should be willing to include Smart in a Beal deal. I think a lot of C’s fans are thinking that Jaylen + Memphis pick would be a high-but-worth-it price to pay for BB. If the rules changed to make that trade legal I’d probably say to go for it; I’m not in love with either Beal or Brown but Beal is a proven commodity so grab him. But for that to work Boston would need to have a high-paid low-value player to add in, and I don’t see how that happens. Recognizing of course that the Boston Brass may have some tricks up their sleeve....

6) Karl-Anthony Towns.

He’s by a long, long way the jewel of the group, a legitimate star (offensive RPM over +3 last year with positive defense to boot). I mention the offense first as players with high overall on-off numbers but modest offensive contribution are often seen as “not really stars.” But Towns doesn’t have that problem. He’s only 23 so has years of potential improvement in front of him. Obviously MIN would not want to trade him, he’s their centerpiece, but since there’s no contention in their foreseeable future in the brutal West, and since they have a smart new GM in Gershon Rosas who isn’t afraid to be aggressive, and since young players are often not inclined to spend their whole careers in Minnesota, a trade for Towns is at least a possibility.

What would Boston have to give?

There’s no rush for Minny to do a deal as Towns has not been a noisy complainer. And if word gets out that the Wolves are listening to offers, they’re going to get calls from virtually everyone. Boston is pretty well-positioned to put a package together, as they still have the very-valuable Memphis pick, plus projected late picks of their own and from Milwaukee. Along with Smart, who is good, young, and cost-controlled, and Brown, who is young and might be good and who comes with RFA rights. And of course recent draftees like Langford and the Williamses.

A year ago I’d have said that the Celtics might get KAT with a package like: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, Memphis pick, Milwaukee pick.

Suppose for a moment that could get it done.

Should the C’s be willing to pay the price?

This is the one, right? The only deal I can find that seems like it might make sense for the other team, and would enable the Celtics to add a high-value, long-term star. Towns went to high school in the Northeast so might not spend all his days California Dreamin’, a la Kawhi. He seems like someone who might be willing to play within Stevens’ system, though of course I really have no idea. He’s already super-polished offensively, and has the potential to be a stout defender as well. They missed on AD, and Towns is the next-best possibility. They should get him if they can.

But the Anthony Davis, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook deals may have been the harbingers of a permanent change in the NBA trade landscape. We might call this the “Jaylen Brown Perplex.” That is, even when you get a high pick, and even when you do a good job and pick an exciting young player, the value to the team may not be all that great. Let’s say Brown is a +1 this year. Then the C’s will have paid him around $7M per year for four years in which he delivered -3, +1, -1, and +1, around NBA average play for four years. But for the veteran minimum, you can sign players like Trey Burke, Thabo Sefolosha, and Noah Vonleh, who will likely play at that level or better. For the $7M they paid Brown you can get even better players, guys like Ed Davis. Hell, you can have Ed Davis and take a flyer on Boogie Cousins for what they’re paying Brown and their 15th man! So even when you get it right, the first contract is arguably a loser. And then on the second contract, if you end up maxing a good-not-great player like Jamal Murray, that’s a loser too! Again, I’m not picking on failures like Andrew Wiggins here, I’m saying when it works out well but not ridiculously well, even very high picks don’t give you much. And middle and low picks have shockingly little value in expectation. And as the league starts drafting even younger players in a couple years, this will be even more true. Teams are recognizing this, recognizing that a Paul George is worth giving up a whole lot of draft picks and good-not-great players for.

So, a year ago I think a package such as I listed above might have been the best offer for Towns, should Rosas decide to move him. But now? I think it will take a lot more. What would you offer if you were, say, Brooklyn? I’d think Jared Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, four first-rounders and some swaps would be where the bidding heads pretty quickly. Because with that deal BKN is a pseudo-contender even before Durant gets back, and arguably the East favorite after. Crap, I’m scaring myself. Anyway, I think the bidding is going to be too rich for Boston’s blood unless they’re willing to put Tatum in the mix, or offer an absolute raft of draft picks. The key now, as compared to back at the time of Kevin Garnett, is that Minnesota is run by a real GM rather than a mole installed there by the ghost of Red Auerbach!

What if Orlando decides to rev up the tank and trade Vucevic?

That’s maybe the scariest scenario for Sixer fans, as, first, there were strong rumors of Boston being interested in him before they locked on to Kemba. And, second, he was by most measures a top-5 center last season, and he’s only 28, and fills a key Celtic need. And, third, it’s not obvious the Orlando front office really knows how this game is played, so it’s not inconceivable they would fall for a Danny Special sucker trade. So while I’m fairly confident Gershon Rosas in Minnesota knows that Marcus Smart is terrific and Enes Kanter isn’t, I can’t be as confident the same is true of the Orlando braintrust.

Vuc makes $28M so the C’s would need to send around $22M back. Could they do it while only giving the Memphis pick plus in-my-opinion dubious assets like Brown and kanter? (Again, not saying Brown doesn’t have a shot at stardom, just saying the contract and timing make him a potentially poisoned chalice). Brown plus Kanter is only $12.5M so around $10M short; it’s hard to see Boston getting there without adding Smart. If they give up Brown and Smart both, well, that’s not going to cause too much gnashing of teeth among Eastern rivals; it might improve the Celtics in the short run, and could work out great if the players Boston has drafted the past two season step up fast enough, but the Magic will have received reasonable value.

It looks to me as though the Celts have only a slim chance to add a star this season; based on the above there’s a series of events that could, in theory, get them Vuc, there are trades for what I consider pseudo-stars like Beal or perhaps DeRozan, and of course there’s always the possibility of something that isn’t even on our radar now — suppose Boogie Cousins plays brilliantly but LeBron hates him and the Celts trade Langford plus draft picks for him, that sort of thing.

What about next offseason?

It’s almost impossible to look that far ahead in the NBA — we just don’t know who’s going to look like a contender-to-be at that point, who’s going to be demanding a trade, etc. Most of the circumstances described above will be unchanged. Hayward-Kemba-Smart-Tatum will still be taking up almost the entire salary cap; if the Celtics re-sign Brown, or keep his rights using his cap hold, they won’t have room for a major free agent signing.

Now, once people realize that trading Brown and Memphis for Beal this season doesn’t work, their minds will drift to the possibility of a Brown-and-picks-for-Beal sign and trade this coming offseason. That sounds as though it should work, since Brown will likely sign for at or near the max, and that will put him close to Beal’s salary level. But whenever you hear someone singing this siren song, drive it out of your head with the appropriate mantra:

BASE YEAR COMPENSATION... BASE YEAR COMPENSATION... BASE YEAR COMPENSATION

As savvy readers know, the BYC rules were created to prevent teams from signing players just so they could use them in a salary match. I.e. the trick Boston would be pulling in a hypothetical Brown-for-Beal trade is the exact thing the BYC rules were created to prevent. You hate to see that! What the rule says is that if Brown signs for $26M/year, and the Celts sign-and-trade him to the Wiz, then he counts for $26M on the Wiz cap sheet, but the C’s can only take back half of $26M, or $13M, in the deal. To get close to the $29M Beal will earn in 2020-21, the C’s would have to add more than $10M in additional salaries, which, first, means including Marcus Smart and, second, would mean the Wiz couldn’t do the deal as they are over the cap. Obviously anything is possible, maybe the Wizards will trade John Wall elsewhere, getting under the cap and making a Beal-for-Brown-and-Smart deal workable. But waiting for the season to end doesn’t solve the basic problem of salary matching; because of BYC waiting actually worsens the problem. The Celts either need to find a low-paid star to add, or trade away another core player in addition to Brown.

Once we get to next offseason, new possibilities will present themselves. I’ve seen too much in my sports life to say that it’s impossible for Boston to turn this situation to their advantage. There are still some foolish GMs out there, and maybe the Celts can benefit from their generosity. But so far all the suggestions I’ve heard involve magical thinking on the part of Boston backers. If someone has a good idea for how the Celtics can wriggle out of this, please share in comments!

Since this is a Sixers site, let me just add one Sixer-specific remark: If you’re wondering why the Philly brass paid the price, in trade assets and cap space, to fill out the core with Horford/Harris/Richardson, here’s your answer. If the Sixers had held on to Landry Shamet and draft picks, we wouldn’t have Harris. But we also likely wouldn’t have Horford, since without Harris we would have been too thin to play Toronto so tough, and thus Al might well have seen us as also-rans rather than contenders. And then we’d be in a similar situation to Boston. Not as bad, because we have Joel Embiid. But similar in that adding a star going forward would be extraordinarily difficult. So when the chance presented itself to add one fantastic player in Horford, along with two very good players who are still young enough and hard-working enough to retain star potential, the team took that chance, and was right to do so. Watch as other teams struggle to collect the kind of talent Philly has over the next few years and the wisdom of Elton and Co. will, I predict, become clear.