The case against a Celtics blockbuster trade

Jimmy Butler is a star. So is Paul George. But in case you haven't noticed, the Celtics have the best of both worlds right now.

Jimmy Butler is a terrific two-way player, but the Celtics would have to pay a steep -- perhaps too-steep -- price to acquire him.
Jimmy Butler is a terrific two-way player, but the Celtics would have to pay a steep -- perhaps too-steep -- price to acquire him. –AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

COMMENTARY

Maybe this is the moment Danny Ainge cashes in. It does feel that way, with the NBA trading deadline less than 24 hours away, an abundance of useful young talent and high draft picks at his disposal, and rumors percolating that the likes of Paul George and Jimmy Butler might be available for the right price.

Answers to the intrigue will come one way or another Thursday. But what already appears certain, based on the anticipatory vibe of the buildup, is that a sizable segment of Celtics fans will be disappointed if Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, doesn’t make a significant move before the 3 p.m. deadline.

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I’ll let you know right now, before the rumors ultimately prove fact or fiction: I will not be among them. As the day draws nearer, I’ve found myself hoping that Ainge does not dismantle what the Celtics have going now for the sake of making a blockbuster.

I’m not suggesting it would be disappointing if the Celtics traded for Butler, George, or another genuine All-Star whom only Ainge is thinking of right now. The Celtics have the second-best record in the East and the fifth-best record in the entire league despite lacking the superstar wattage of every team ahead of them (Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Cavaliers). Adding Butler/George/Mystery Star to the Isaiah Thomas/Al Horford tandem would all but guarantee a compelling May around here. It t would be fun to see how it all plays out, especially with the Cavaliers appearing more vulnerable than expected.

Somehow, some way, Ainge is going to get a superstar at some point. I’m just not sure this is the right route. Let’s focus on Butler for the moment, since he seems more likely to move than George. He is a wonderful two-way player, an excellent scorer and fierce defender. But the Bulls are in disarray, and it’s hard to tell from afar how much, if any, of that responsibility falls on him. At this point in his career, he reminds me a little bit of Paul Pierce with the mid-2000s Celtics, a world-class player who hasn’t won anything of significance yet and occasionally finds himself at the eye of the chaos.

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I’m not especially concerned about how Butler (or George, or Mystery Star) would fare here. The Celtics have adults in charge, with a coach in Brad Stevens who treats players respectful while showing a genius knack for getting the best out of even the most abstract talents. It will take time for any new star to coalesce with Thomas and the holdovers, but I trust that it would be working to maximum effect by the time the playoffs come around.

It’s fun to imagine what that might look like. But I’m surprised that it’s a minority opinion to feel OK about the possibility of standing pat Thursday, save for a helpful secondary acquisition such as the Mavericks’ Andrew Bogut (8 rebounds in 17 minutes in his most recent game) or the Suns’ P.J. Tucker.

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I’m genuinely enthused about where the Celtics stand at this point in time: They’re 37-20, having gone 24-8 since December 16. Isaiah Thomas is threatening to average 30 points per game while showing us what an efficient Allen Iverson season might have looked like. Marcus Smart has emerged in the injury-related absence of Avery Bradley (arguably the Celtics’ best all-around player early in the season) as a game-changing defensive force. They play with uncommon cohesion and camaraderie, and I fear that might end if the structure of this team becomes more conventional.

Let’s acknowledge this, too: A trade may enhance their chances of getting past the Cavs to the Finals, but it’s not going to help them win a title this year. Will it in the near future? Perhaps, if the Cavs get old and the Warriors make mistakes in terms of whom they pay. But trading for Butler is going to be very expensive in the near and long terms. It wouldn’t put the Celtics over the top now. And  it may prevent them from seizing an opportunity a few years from now when the current powers are declining.

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Trader Danny gets a ridiculous amount of grief from casual NBA observers for “hoarding” his assets. And it’s true, he can’t keep everyone. But at the moment, the Celtics are in a best-of-both-worlds situation, and Ainge has put them in this spot in a mere 3 ½ years, starting with the June 2013 trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets.

They are one of the five best teams in the league. They have a couple of fascinating young players already on the roster in Smart and 20-year-old Jaylen Brown, and they have a decent shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft not only this year, but possibly next year as well. I like these assets; I want these picks to be deployed in finding the next Celtics cornerstones, and I suspect you will too once you watch a few rounds of March Madness. And I especially don’t want Ainge to trade four dimes for a quarter, especially when a couple of the dimes might become quarters.

If Jimmy Butler becomes a Celtic in the next couple of days, sure, it will be exciting. Optimism will be irresistible. We’ll immediately begin imagining the possibilities for this postseason. But I won’t be able to help it: I’ll also lament the possibilities that were transferred to Chicago in the transaction. I like what the Celtics are now, and love what they might be a few seasons from now. We call them assets for a reason.

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