The first Woj bomb of the 2021 off-season has dropped — and it took less time than expected.
The Celtics are trading Kemba Walker, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2021 draft and a 2025 second-round draft pick to Oklahoma City for Al Horford, Moses Brown and a 2023 second-round pick, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 18, 2021
At first glance, this looks... pretty funny.
I mean, Boston just had Al Horford and let him go in free agency because they didn’t want him on their books at his current contract amount. Now they’ve coughed up a first-rounder to get what would be expected to be the worst two years of this contract? It’s hard not to find the humour in that.
The thing is, if you’re a Raptors fan, you might want to stop laughing.
That’s because this deal does two things:
1) Believe it or not, it makes the Celtics better in the here and now, and
2) It might make them into a player for Kyle Lowry this off-season.
Let’s start with the first thing before we careen towards the “Darkest Timeline” — in which Kyle Lowry beats the Raptors while wearing Celtics f’ing Green. Absolutely horrifying to think about.
On paper, Kemba Walker and Horford were similarly effective players last year.
Kemba and Al, 2021-2022
(*OBPM is Offensive Box Score Plus-Minus that measures how a player compares to league average, while DPBM does it for the defensive end — for both, higher numbers are better.)
Walker graded out ahead of Horford, because when healthy, Walker can still be a dynamic on-ball scorer. That’s still the most valuable thing in the NBA. In a vacuum, you wouldn’t trade the younger guy who has that skill, for the older guy, who does not.
Of course, we’re not in a vacuum. For one thing, Walker has some sort of chronic knee problem. He’s only played in 99 games the past two seasons combined, and while he hasn’t seen a major on-court decline, the risk that it’s coming continues to grow.
Horford, of course, tends to get his own nicks and bumps — he’s averaging a little under 70 games a season since 2016-17 (not including this past year when he was sent home early by the tanking Thunder). However, he’s a much better bet to be available when the Celtics need him — especially with modern “load management” rest protocols.
Beyond health though is the question of fit. Walker’s best NBA skills — shot-creation and shot-making — are something the Celtics already have in their two All-Star wings, Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Cardiac Kemba not the Heart of the C’s offense
It’s clear that Walker is still a gifted offensive talent, but it’s also just as clear that the Celtics have two other scorers who are even better.
This should be no surprise, Tatum and Brown are super-sized wings who can drive, pass, and shoot. They can get to places that Kemba, with his compromised knee, can’t, and they can shoot over, or finish through defenders who can seriously bother Kemba’s shot.
In today’s NBA, those types of players are the most valuable to have — especially, if, like Tatum and Brown, they also play defense. There is no way to play guys like them off the floor on defense, and no obvious way to take away their offense. It’s why I still rate the Celtics as having the best medium-term future in the East. Yes, even after they were dumped out of the playoffs right quick this past year.
Horford helps to improve that future by being a complement to Boston’s wings, rather than a replacement. He’s one of the best frontcourt facilitators in the NBA (Cleaning the Glass has him in the 94-percentile for Assist percentage among big men and hasn’t seen him below the 90-percentile for a decade), whose heady passing from the post can give the Celtics’ offense a different type of geometry than the drive-and-kick game Boston’s “Big 3” featured. Think Marc Gasol’s impact on the Raptors.
Like Gasol, Horford is also a solid-enough three-point shooter — generally hanging out around league average — but is more willing to take those shots than the Big Spaniard was, making him someone that has to be respected in the pick-and-pop.
The big edge here is on defense, where Kemba was a liability that teams could hunt relentlessly. Walker battles, but undersized guards with eroding quickness are always going to be a problem.
Getting Horford allows Boston to jump on the newest NBA trend — going small without giving up too much size. A Marcus Smart-Tatum-Brown-Horford-Robert Williams lineup should have enough shooting, combined with Williams straight-line gravity as a dive man, to give Tatum and Brown enough room to operate — while likely being bigger than their opponents at almost every position.
And while Horford’s age and declining mobility mean he’s no longer the All-Defense calibre player he was in his prime, he’s still an incredibly smart and large human being. Again, Marc Gasol feels like a fair enough comparison. Can you attack Horford? Yes. Will it always be profitable? That’s not so clear.
Add to that the fact the Celtics likely got the better second-rounder in the deal, saved $20 million dollars, and added an intriguing flyer in Moses Brown (who averaged a shade under nine points and nine rebounds in his rookie go-around) — the 16th overall pick doesn’t seem like a overpay.
All right, so we’ve laid out why this works out for the Celtics — but now, how is Kyle Lowry getting dragged into this?
Simply put, the Celtics now have a real lack of a top-flight organizer for their offense. Marcus Smart functions as something of a point guard, but he’s not the type of elite talent that can unlock playoff defenses in the half-court.
The Celtics do have an impressive young point guard in Peyton Pritchard (a newly minted member of the: “random guys that kill the Raptors” team), but he projects to top out as a high-end back-up.
Meanwhile, Brown, Tatum, and Evan Fournier (if re-signed), can all run an offense for periods of time, but it’s not the ideal role for any of them. It’s a slight distinction sometimes, but it matters. Case in point: the Clippers are the recent poster-children for why a true point guard can make a difference. For all their talent, the Clips have gone into mysterious funks because they let their offense devolve into Kawhi Leonard or Paul George going one-on-one.
Their Marcus Smart is Pat Beverley, who is also a noisy defender who can get streaky hot from beyond. But he, like Smart, is not someone who can take control of an offense and make sure that just because two talented wings could get semi-uncontested 17-footers every time down meant that they should.
Enter Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors legend is one of the best game managers in recent NBA history. He also takes about four shots less per-36 than Walker does — leaving more possessions for Tatum and Brown. Lowry consistently puts up much higher assist percentages than Walker, and is arguably a more dangerous three-point shooter.
Basically, Lowry could bring almost everything Walker does to Boston’s offense at a higher level. And the one thing he doesn’t quite provide — rim pressure — is something of which the Celtics already plenty.
The more pronounced upgrade for Boston would be on defense. Even if he’s lost a step today, Lowry has operated as a centrepiece of what has been one of the NBA’s better defensive teams for half a decade-plus. Put two high-IQ guys like Horford and Lowry onto the floor together, and the Celtics defense is almost assured of being even better than last year’s team which ranked an uncharacteristically low 13th.
Of course, the Celtics won’t have the cap space to sign Lowry outright, not even by renouncing everyone not nailed down. To make a deal the Celtics would have to work a sign and trade with Toronto.
A Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson and one of Romeo Langford, Pritchard or Aaron Nesmith would work against a Lowry deal in the $25-million dollar range and would make some sense for Toronto.
Smart isn’t Lowry, but he’s very Lowry-lite. Thompson might be more likely to be bought out or moved, but with only one year left on his deal, he could serve as a second-unit big-man who might be revitalized by coming home. Finally, while the Celtics wouldn’t want to give up Pritchard (and might not have to, depending on how things shake out), Langford and Nesmith both have interesting skill sets that the Raptors development staff could go to work on. As a bonus, both lottery picks are bigger back-court options (Langford at 6’4”, 216 lbs; Nesmith at 6’5” and 215 lbs), that would give the Raps some size in an area they lack.
Of course, Toronto wouldn’t want to make this trade, but if Lowry was courted hard enough by new team president Brad Stevens, and decided that he wanted a change in scenery, it would serve as a palatable return.
But would the Celtics want to make such a deal? I mean, they’d be dealing players that have real utility now or — in the case of the Nesmith, Langford, and Pritchard — are players they have invested in. Why do all this to get a player more than a decade older than your twin All-Stars?
Life comes at a team fast in the NBA. While Brown is under contract until 2023-24, and Tatum 2024-25, their deals will quickly run down. The rumblings in Dallas and New Orleans of Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson having “issues” underscores how team control of stars is a myth.
Even franchises that are relatively successful aren’t immune to a star’s wandering eyes. The Celtics have been to two Eastern Conference Finals in Tatum’s four NBA seasons, and to three in Brown’s five years in the league, and yet the narrative is that the Celtics have underachieved.
If a Horford deal only produces another exit in round one or two, how much does that change Tatum or Brown’s mindset? How quickly could Boston be put on the clock, where rumours of “issues” with their stars begin to circulate?
Trading for Lowry would definitely raise Boston’s playoff ceiling while also sending a clear message to their present and future stars that the Celtics will do what it takes to win now. After Danny Ainge was roasted for sitting on his hands as star after star came off the board the last few seasons, that type of bold move might be needed to show Boston is serious about maximizing their potential.
After all, what’s better than making one big move for a veteran to help your two young stars get to the promised land?