Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Boston Celtics chose to construct their roster with one objective in mind: beat the Miami Heat at their own game. The idea being that if the defending champions wanted to go small with LeBron James at power forward and Chris Bosh at center that the Celtics would need to counter with a similar structure revolving around Kevin Garnett's positional versatility.
Boston beefed up its three-point shooting and perimeter play by acquiring Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, and increased its flexibility by re-signing Jeff Green and Brandon Bass instead of targeting any big men capable of offering more than six fouls per 15 minutes (see Jason Collins, Darko Milicic).
On paper the Celtics match up with the Heat, but after 20 games the Celtics have been a disappointingly inconsistent basketball team, with rebounding and rim protection continuing to give them unanswerable headaches. As the year progresses, Boston may be in need of another big man who can contribute in more than a few ways if it even wants to meet, then defeat, Miami in the spring.
The players the Celtics should be targeting need to be young, athletic, two-way capable and large. Here are three who fit the bill that they should seriously consider acquiring before the trade deadline.
A Probable Target: Kosta Koufos, center, Denver Nuggets
The Cost: Avery Bradley and Fab Melo
Why The Celtics Do It
Last season Koufos averaged over four offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. This year—his first as a full-time starter—he’s right about at a double-double per 36 minutes and continues to improve as a pick-and-roll defender and legitimate offensive weapon in the post. According to Synergy, last season Koufos averaged 1.1 points per possession in post-up situations, good for the fifth-most efficient mark in the league.
The Celtics are starving for someone like Koufos, especially if they plan on hitting the Heat where it hurts (the paint) come playoff time. He’s only 23 years old, 7'0" tall, active on the boards and more than capable of catching dumpoffs and finishing at the rim.
Playing him in the frontcourt should lessen the strain on Garnett throughout the regular season, and against Miami he'll bring a completely different element to the matchup should Garnett be reverted back to the 4 and Koufos takes center.
Does his presence force Joel Anthony onto the court? Do the Heat stay small and suffer the consequences on defense while raining three-pointers on offense? How do they account for Koufos when Chris Bosh exits the game? All these questions are intriguing, and while they don't guarantee a Celtics advantage, they do force Miami to find some answers.
Why The Nuggets Do It
Kosta Koufos has started every game for Denver this season, but his backup, JaVale McGee, signed a four-year, $44 million contract in July 2012, creating a weary situation on the depth chart. Moving Koufos might unclog a jam in Denver's frontcourt, while adding Avery Bradley will improve a backcourt in need of more youth and athleticism.
(Also, the Nuggets are quietly one of the league’s most aggressive teams when it comes to acquiring a superstar. They love assets, and Bradley fits that mold perfectly.)
Possible, But Tricky: Larry Sanders, center, Milwaukee Bucks
The Cost: Avery Bradley and a first-round pick in 2013.
Why The Celtics Do It
On the defensive end Sanders is the perfect center for Boston’s system. He’s the fifth-best post defender in the league right now, allowing just half a point per possession on 21 attempts, per Synergy. And he’s arguably the best rim protector in basketball, averaging three blocks per game (third in the league) and holding down a blocks percentage of 9.9 percent (best in the NBA).
On top of that, he's shown serious growth on offense: His PER leapt from 13.3 last year to 18.7 right now, and his true shooting percentage is currently at a career-best 56.1 percent.
Why The Bucks Do It
Sanders is a young, talented big man who’s shown serious improvement in his third NBA season. So why would the Bucks be willing to part ways with him? Depth and money.
With Sanders, Drew Gooden (stuck on the bench), Ekpe Udoh and first-round draft pick John Henson all big men under contract for at least the next couple seasons, the Bucks can stand to move one of them for a talented guard and valuable draft pick. Sanders has the most value, by far.
A Mirage In The Distance: DeMarcus Cousins, center, Sacramento Kings
The Deal: DeMarcus Cousins and John Salmons for Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Boston’s first-round pick in 2013 and second-round pick in 2014. (Note: Green can not be traded until January 15, 2013.)
Why The Celtics Do It
DeMarcus Cousins is one of the best big men in all of basketball, with an elite scoring arsenal and ability to make something out of nothing on the offensive glass. He's had difficulty dealing with the incredible responsibility that is single-handedly trying to make a terrible basketball team not so terrible, but in Boston, Cousins would have everything simplified.
He would no longer be the best player on his team, and instead of being mired in a losing situation (where he appears to lack motivation), Cousins would play for one of the best coaches in the NBA, beside two future Hall of Famers and the league's best passer.
Context and situation is a huge yet underrated factor in determining what type of career most players have, and in a Celtics jersey Cousins might straighten himself out.
Why The Kings Do It
DeMarcus Cousins might be the least dependable franchise talent in the NBA, and if the Kings want to move forward with him as their cornerstone, they’ll really be rolling the dice.
Now in his third season, Cousins’ usage percentage is higher than LeBron James’, but his per-game and per-36 minute scoring numbers are at a career low, and he’s shooting an absolutely gross 42 percent from the field.
The haul Boston would be offering here is enticing: Avery Bradley is a 22-year-old elite perimeter defender (and would be a perfect complementary piece to Jimmer Fredette, Tyreke Evans or whomever was sharing the backcourt then); Jeff Green is a versatile, athletic forward (albeit one with a dicey contract) who’s currently averaging his most points per 36 minutes since 2009; and Jared Sullinger is a rebounding machine who’s playing like a six-year veteran in his rookie season.
The Kings would also receive two draft picks to aid their rebuilding process and receive a “get out of jail” free card by unloading John Salmons’ contract (due $7.58 million next year and a non-guaranteed $7 million in 2014-15).
Instead of digging themselves into a deeper hole, the Kings would be wise to punt next season altogether and go for the top overall pick in the 2014 draft. Unfortunately, Boston doesn't have that option.