The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics should complete a no-brainer trade next month that is nearly salary-neutral and improves both teams.
NBA trading season is underway, with a few teams already executing some common sense transactions to help their causes. Western Conference playoff-caliber teams Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets have acquired pieces to make them even stronger (Rajon Rondo and Corey Brewer, respectively) from rebuilding teams who want future considerations such as draft picks and/or youth.
Other teams will soon follow at some point between now and the February 19 deadline for in-season trades. The Phoenix Suns have not made any deals since last year (not counting the Isaiah Thomas sign-and-trade which was done for cap purposes only, after Thomas agreed to a free agent deal with the Suns), but could be in the market for a change in the coming weeks.
The Phoenix Suns have struggled out of the gate, putting together a pedestrian 15-14 record despite playing more than half their games against Eastern Conference fodder. The three-headed-monster experiment of Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe has been hit and miss, more often creating frustration than wins because all of them want the ball in their hands.
The most reasonable move for the Suns would be to use one of their point guards in a trade to improve their talent in other areas. Of the three, one could surmise the Suns would be most willing to part with Isaiah Thomas. Eric Bledsoe is a two-way player who can dominate on either end of the court on a given night and Goran Dragic is the biggest of the three and can play either position.
Thomas, meanwhile, has proven to be strictly a point guard and has the least tenure on the team. His contract is extremely reasonable ($6.5 million per year on average) for a guy who just produced 20 points and 6 assists a night on 34 minutes last year, but is a backup on the Suns struggling to earn more than 24 minutes a night.
Enter Danny Ainge, GM and President of the Boston Celtics.
Let's connect the dots.
General Managers Danny Ainge (Boston) and Ryan McDonough (Phoenix) worked together for nearly a decade in Boston before McDonough took over the reins in Phoenix last summer.
Ainge has a penchant for making trades, including sending Rondo to the Mavericks last week, and McDonough has followed his mentor's suit with four trades in his first six months as GM of the Suns.
Celtics need a pure point guard
Ideally, the Celtics would have a young, already-developed point guard around whom to grow their team now and in the future while they fight back to playoff contention.
While the Celtics just acquired Jameer Nelson to replace Rajon Rondo in the trade with the Mavericks, Nelson doesn't want to lead a rebuilding squad or he would have stayed in Orlando. Expect Nelson to be released or traded in the coming weeks to a playoff contender.
Rookie Marcus Smart is talented, but not quite ready to captain the ship this season as a point guard.
Celtics and Suns still acquiring movable parts
While they try to win games this year, the primary focus of the Celtics is to position themselves for major improvement in the coming years. That includes youth, movable contracts and salary cap space. Ainge has facilitated a lot of movement on the roster in the past year as the Celtics build up their trove of assets.
The Suns, meanwhile, DO want to win this season but won't mortgage the future to do so. They are not interested in acquiring short term fixes while giving up great assets to do so.
Suns need to get Dragic back to point guard
The Suns, meanwhile, need to find more PG minutes for their best playmaker, Goran Dragic. Right now, he's forced to play shooting guard because he's the biggest (at 6'3") of the three-headed-monster and most willing to play off the ball.
But the Suns are better with Dragic and Bledsoe sharing the PG duties for most of the game, and they have their own PG rookie, Tyler Ennis, to fill in backup minutes as needed.
Suns need more perimeter defensive help
While Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker can defend the perimeter, one of Dragic or Gerald Green is always having to check a highly talented shooting guard on the opposing team. This breaks down the Suns D, and allows a lot of drives to the rim that puts the Suns D in a precarious position.
Suns need reliable, veteran rim protection
While Miles Plumlee and Alex Len are providing good defense on most nights, either or both have bad nights on the regular. Both are only in their first or second real season of playing time and have not yet figured out how to be consistent every game. Shavlik Randolph is a hustle player but is not a rim protector.
This trade I propose won't solve everyone's problems. It won't make the Celtics a playoff contender nor will it dramatically improve their rebuild, and it won't necessarily make the Suns one either.
But this trade will help balance each team's roster just a little bit more while they work toward bigger deals.
- Bradley: 4 years, $32 million, through 2018
- Wright: 1 year, $5 million
- Thomas: 4 years, $27 million, through 2018
- Plumlee: $1.1 million this year, 3rd year of rookie deal
Why the Celtics make the trade
The Celtics move some more moving parts, but these parts fit better. They turn defense-first Avery Bradley into a score-first point guard Isaiah Thomas, who would be a much better fit next to big combo guard Marcus Smart for the coming future. Their contracts are close - both 4 years, with Bradley getting $32 million through 2018 vs. Thomas' $27 through 2018.
Thomas, 25, is only a year older than Bradley, 24, and Thomas has recently revealed Boston GM Ainge was the first person to call him on July 1 to express interest as a free agent. Now Thomas would be able to play 35 minutes a night on a team in real need of his scoring and distributing.
The Celtics swap newly-acquired Brandon Wright for Miles Plumlee. Plumlee, 26, is a year younger than Wright, 27, and on an extremely cheap contract (third year of rookie deal) for the next two years. Plumlee protects the rim, albeit inconsistently, and just put up 8 points and 8 rebounds a night last season.
Tolliver is included for salary matching, as the Celtics are still over the cap and luxury tax line. His contract is nearly expiring (only $400,000 guaranteed for 2015-16), so he comes off the books just like Wright.
Why the Suns make the trade
Swapping Isaiah Thomas for Avery Bradley balances the Suns back court better. Bradley can play mostly two-guard and provide solid perimeter defense while Dragic can move back to sharing point guard 50% of the time with Bledsoe. Bradley can also share the court with Bledsoe, forming one of the best defensive perimeter duos in the game. Put P.J. Tucker on the small forward, and the Suns could truly trot out a lock down perimeter. Bradley would also be helpful next to defensively-challenged Tyler Ennis. Bradley is young and on a cap-friendly, tradable deal ($8 million per year, 4 years, beginning in 2015) as well.
Bradley is also one of those guards that former Celtics Asst-GM Ryan McDonough pushed the Celtics to draft in 2011. Bradley cannot be traded until January 15 because of his rookie extension and the fact that the Celtics are over the cap (weird CBA rule), and his contract for "trade purposes" would be an average of this year's salary and the future contract (often called the 'poison pill' rule). Hence the need to include Tolliver in the trade for salary matching purposes.
Brandon Wright, an 8-year veteran whose $5 million contract expires this summer), can provide veteran rim protection at the center position. He's only 6'9" but his arms are long and he's highly productive, putting up 9 points, 4 rebounds and a block in 18 minutes per game the last two years in Dallas. He is also a highly efficient inside scorer and pick-and-roll finisher, and rarely gets himself into foul trouble. Wright can spell Alex Len at center, and fill in for long minutes on nights the 21-year old Len isn't providing much value.
This trade a nearly neutral swap of contracts and positions, but the net result is that both teams get just a little bit more of what they really need.