Forsberg's Mailbag: Plotting a trade deadline plan for Celtics


The next two weeks for the Boston Celtics will not lack for intrigue.

It starts on the court this week with visits from Miami and Charlotte, two rivals ahead of them in the East standings, and culminates off the floor with the trade deadline on February 10.

How are we feeling about the Celtics' mini January surge? What exactly should the team do at the trade deadline? Let’s dive into your letters: 

What would your plan be to turn the Celtics back into a championship contender? -- @Patrick76661889

It’s funny because, as down as we've been on this team at times over the past two seasons, we're strangely encouraged by a lot of what we saw in January. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown worked in concert well, Marcus Smart thrived when he put his focus on playmaking and defense, and Robert Williams is blossoming into a legitimate backline force.

There are nights when we wonder if a small talent infusion and a less flawed roster might eliminate some of this team’s maddening inconsistencies and allow them to launch a bit.

Now, we’ll balance that by noting that, aside from three recent lopsided wins against mediocre competition, Boston was a meager 6-6 for the month with head-slapping meltdowns against the Knicks and Blazers. Boston put up a total dud against the Hawks in a show-me-something game. Even with some glitzy, blowout-juiced numbers, we’re not sure this team’s ceiling is anything more than a play-in win and a competitive first-round playoff series.

So, given the obvious desire to avoid the tax given the state of the team, we’d punt on any big-splash move until the summer when the Celtics can fully embrace that splurge. But we’d make a few smaller moves to potentially fix some of what is holding back this year’s team.

Celtics trade targets: 10 players worth considering at deadline

A couple deadline ideas -- and remember that all names can be swapped for those with similar skill set and price tags: 

  • Romeo Langford and Bruno Fernando to Indiana for Justin Holiday, second-round pick

Ship Langford to a team that can nurture his development and bring back a more experienced version of what Langford might eventually be.

It’s never easy to swallow hard on former lottery picks but the Celtics need shooting now and can’t wait for Langford to get healthy. Both teams have trade exceptions that could add value to this swap (and add time to exceptions that will otherwise expire early this summer).

The Celtics can swap in P.J. Dozier or Bol Bol instead of Fernando if Indiana prefers, and money is essentially a wash in any such deal. 

  • Dennis Schroder to Phoenix for Jalen Smith

ESPN’s Bobby Marks already pitched this one and we’re all for it if the Suns elect to move Smith. The Suns get a veteran who can aid a playoff push; Celtics take a flyer on a 6-foot-10 former lottery pick who adds depth up front alongside Robert Williams and Al Horford (with Enes Freedom a depth option against bruisers).

The Celtics wiggle closer to getting under the tax and can take Smith into the Daniel Theis trade exception, which gives them more time to utilize the newly generated exception. Smith can walk after the season but so too can Schroder, who isn’t going to fetch much more than a second-round pick otherwise. Plus, the Celtics can’t have too many Jays.

With two minor moves, the Celtics better balance their roster, add a little shooting without sacrificing defense, ease some of the youth logjam, dip below the tax (Dozier or Bol can be sent to Oklahoma City with cash if more wiggle room is needed), and preserve all future first-round draft picks. 

Boston would then go small with Holiday joining the Core Four in the starting lineup to add the needed offensive pop. Pritchard shuffles to backup point guard for a bench unit that would also feature Josh Richardson, Grant Williams, Al Horford, and Smith. Finding time for everyone -- including Aaron Nesmith -- is still tricky, but better than having three recent draftees wasting away on the pine.

Is this a championship roster? No. But it lays the groundwork to potentially move Horford in the offseason with a goal of adding a bigger-ticket player who could shuffle the team closer to that mix. The final 30 games would tell us if a roster with a bit more shooting on the floor is enough to cure what ails a roller-coaster offense, or if grander changes are needed in the summer months.

The Celtics should absolutely call other lottery-bound squads like the Blazers to inquire about the price tag on players like Larry Nance Jr. and Robert Covington. Maybe Sacramento elects to sell and you can make a play for Buddy Hield or Harrison Barnes.

But given the tax constraints, it feels like that sort of move is probably better saved for the summer.

Do you think Ime Udoka is the problem? -- @GGWDJJ

Udoka has ridden the roller coaster as much as his team, which probably should be expected of any first-year NBA head coach.

On the positive side, he took a defense that started the year impossibly bad and massaged this group into the fourth best defense in the league. Boston’s defensive rating for January is 103.4, or nearly three points better than its already glossy season average. There have been plenty of bumps, too, particularly with rotation decisions and an inability to catch his team when the offense goes painfully stagnant.

Every time we get too worked up about that, though, we remember that Brad Stevens couldn’t coax this team out of its inconsistent ways either, and so we try to not pin it all on Udoka.

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While we like that Udoka isn’t bashful with criticizing his players when they fall short of expectations, we didn’t think he did a good job early in his tenure of putting enough blame on himself. He’s done better with that lately, and maybe that’s just part of finding your way as a head coach, but some of the lineups that he’s trotted out and some of the big minutes he’s put on his stars, have most certainly contributed to Boston’s woes.

We’ve openly pined for more time for the young guys this season but we understand the pressure that comes with being a first-year coach, especially in this market, so it might be on Stevens to make deadline changes that force that issue.

What about taking a step back to move forward? We seem stuck right now. Let the kids play, cash in for Smart and Richardson, move forward with some cap space and draft picks. I get it that the Js wanna win, but they are not winning. Gotta make moves. --  @Celticsbestteam

We pitched the possibility that Boston might need to go backward to go forward in early January. We just don’t think it’s in Stevens’ DNA to take that path.

That’s a risk because getting stuck in the middle is a danger for this team after already landing in the play-in a year ago. But Stevens might just cling to some of the more encouraging numbers and hope that a better balanced roster and a weaker schedule can aid a second-half push.

We also relent that it's difficult to punt on any season in which Tatum and Brown are healthy. As long as none of Boston’s deadline dealings compromise the flexibility they’ve created, we’re OK with this team crossing its fingers a bit this year as long as this bridge is clearly leading to sunnier days.

Which path would you go for? Jays plus a third pricey All-Star (let's say Bradley Beal for the example) and minimal depth? Or Jays plus solid well-rounded depth but the third best player falls short of All-Star level (let's say Harrison Barnes, for this example). -- @therealnedbrady

We're guilty of saying "third star" whenever we discuss the possibility of what’s next for the Celtics. While we ultimately think that talent is king in the NBA and you need as much high-level talent as possible, there’s a map to title contention that doesn’t need to see the Celtics pay max-caliber money to an All-Star to get there.

While acknowledging our bias, we'd suggest that it’s more likely that Robert Williams is eventually your third All-Star and it’s perfectly fine if the next splurge is as simple as a high-level, playmaking, 3-point shooting power forward who really accentuates the other members of the core.

From there, the Celtics just need to find impact bench players that can bring a bit more consistency to that group. Player development, in that instance, becomes even more of a priority, especially with a ballooning payroll.

Lightning Round!

How long till Brad takes a college job? -- @qb10rm

I think Stevens is going to do everything he can to thrive in this new role. But it’s quite the luxury to know that, if for whatever reason, this gig doesn’t work out for him, he’ll be the most coveted coach at all levels of basketball if he ever decides to go back in that direction.

To me, that only makes it easier for Stevens to be bold as a general manager. He doesn’t have to walk on eggshells.

What type of player would you rather see this team add to the starting line up. A 2 like Norm Powell or a 4 like Harrison Barnes? -- @AndrewRiffe1

Short term: Whatever comes cheapest. Long-term: Probably a 4 because of the strain it takes off Tatum and Brown having to defend bigger players.

But, again, one of the luxuries a team has with two All-Star switchable wings is that you have some flexibility determining that next piece and are not necessarily position-locked if you elect to stick with the current Core Four.

Timelord has quickly become my favorite player to watch. If he develops a solid jumper he could dominate this league for years to come! Thoughts on that? Or his future MVP potential? -- @foggdiesel

There is no more surefire way to land in the ‘bag than sending a question that includes Robert Williams and MVP.

Rob’s solid free-throw shooting suggests he can add a solid midrange game. He shot 56 percent on all midrange shots on 63 attempts last season. He’s just such an eager passer that he sometimes passes up decent looks while trying to feed others. It’ll come in time. As will his All-Star status.

What happened to Aaron Nesmith? Is the missing shot due to inconsistent reps or was the college marksmanship a mirage? — @CPellegrini

I think more consistent playing time would take some stress off his shooting and allow him to better find his stroke. But some of his misses being so far off target is kinda odd.

We’d almost rather the Celtics get him more time in Maine to find his confidence if he’s not going to see consistent time with the parent club. The Celtics have too many young players and they ought to consider selling as high as possible at the deadline if they can add the sort of talent that better balances the roster.

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