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Who is the next piece of the puzzle?

The goal of the Boston Celtics franchise should be ensuring the team is in the best possible position when Tatum and Brown enter their prime

Jaylen Brown by Erik Drost is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Who is the next piece of the puzzle?


Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Last NBA offseason, forming superstar duos was all the rage. We saw LeBron/AD, Kawhi/PG, Harden/Westbrook, Durant/Irving, and Rozier/Batum all create mega-partnerships.

This was in contrast to recent thinking of teams needing a Big Three to truly be title contenders. The Philadelphia 76ers have two stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but have used all their assets to find that third piece in Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, or Al Horford. None worked out particularly well.

The shift to twosomes becoming the norm could create more parity in the league or at least make more fanbases think their team has a legit shot at the Larry O’Brien trophy.

However, it is doubtful this will last very long as it’s always in a team’s best interest to obtain as many stars as possible.

The question then becomes, who is going to make up the next Big Three for each team?

And for the Boston Celtics, there are a few exciting options.

Start with #1 and #2

The Celtics have one of the best young tandems in the NBA with Jayson Tatum (22 years old) and Jaylen Brown (23). The two almost perfectly complement each other with Tatum having All-NBA scoring potential and solid defensive skill, while Brown is a prototypical NBA wing defender with the potential to be a #2 scorer on a title contender.

A great example of Tatum/Brown’s ceiling that has been discussed quite a bit is that they could be the next version of Kawhi/PG (though Tatum will likely never be at the same defensive level as Kawhi).

They currently have the Celtics as a top 2/3/4 Eastern team (depending on who you ask) along with veterans Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart. It’s conceivable the Celtics ascend to the top of the NBA at some point in the next few years.

However, the goal of the franchise should be ensuring the team is in the best possible position when Tatum and Brown enter their prime (typically around age 26 for NBA players).

The first step for this was when the team extended Brown with a 4 year, $115 million contract.

The next step would be extending Tatum this offseason, which seems likely to happen.

What would be left is finding the final piece of their next Big Three.

The parameters

Walker and Hayward have been All-Stars, and Smart is one of the best defensive players in the league. But Walker and Hayward will be 33 when Brown turns 26, meaning they will no longer be at the top of their game and could be too costly to keep as complementary pieces if it prevents the team from adding another maximum salary player.

Smart will be 29 when Brown turns 26, but he also is playing on a comparative bargain deal and will likely be looking to make up for that with what could be his last multi-year NBA contract. Again, Smart is a great defensive player and has improved offensively throughout his NBA career. But his ceiling is not at the level the Celtics should be aiming for with the last piece of the triangle.

The Celtics will also likely need to target players who are nearing the end of their deals in 2023 or 2024 as these players could either be had via cap space (the Celtics currently only have Brown on the books for the 2023-24 season) or potential trades.

The players should also be around 26-29 in 2023 so their primes can align with Tatum/Browns.

With this being the case, there are 6 players who can be a big piece the Celtics should at least consider adding to the roster in the next 3-4 years.

#5 – D’Angelo Russell

  • Current team – Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Free Agent Offseason – 2023
  • Age when Brown turns 26 – 27
  • Career PER16.4

This likely would not cause a rush to the season ticket sales for many Celtics fans, but Russell could still be a valuable cornerstone to partner with Brown/Tatum. He’s averaged 20+ points the last two seasons along with 6+ assists. He made an All-Star team as a 22-year-old and has the pedigree of being a #2 overall pick.

Still, if Russell is looking to move teams in a few years it likely means things did not go well in Minnesota. This would mean he would be looking to join his fifth team (at least!) at 27 years old.

Typically, players with this type of talent/these stats don’t do that.

#4 (Tie) – Domantas Sabonis & Myles Turner

  • Current team – Indiana Pacers
  • Free Agent Offseason – Sabonis = 2023 / Turner = 2024
  • Age when Brown turns 26 – Sabonis = 27 / Turner = 27
  • Career PER – Sabonis = 17.2 / Turner = 16.2

The Pacers will come to a crossroads at some point with their two young bigs. Unlike the two wings on the Celtics, these Pacers’ long-term fit with each other is much murkier. Turner shoots threes so theoretically they could share the offensive floor at crunch time. But Turner also doesn’t shoot them exceedingly well (34% on 4+ per game).

Sabonis is the better fit for the Celtics after breaking out this year and averaging 18/12/5, but the Celtics likely would need to trade Brown to get him. They shouldn’t do this, so they would need to wait until the summer of 2024 when Sabonis is a free agent and hope they can sign him and re-up Brown at the same time.

Acquiring Turner would likely be easier and could probably be done via a trade sans Brown. However, his talent ceiling makes him the “safety school” of Big Three options. The Celtics could use help at Center but the better solution could very well be retaining Smart and hoping Robert Williams provides them 75% of what Turner could at a much lower cost.

#3 – Devin Booker

  • Current team – Phoenix Suns
  • Free Agent offseason – 2024
  • Age when Brown turns 26 – 26
  • Career PER – 16.8

Booker made his first All-Star team this year while averaging 26 points and 6+ assists per game. His increased playmaking ability the past two seasons make it reasonable to think he could be the primary ball handler for the Celtics and allow Tatum and Brown to focus on getting to their spots on the offensive end.

He is another example of a player that would likely require Brown in a trade, but it’s not outlandish to envision Booker making it to free agency and wanting to head east. However, the smart money is on Booker being the next big name to move after the eventual Karl-Anthony Towns trade.

#2 – Joel Embiid

  • Current team – Philadelphia 76ers
  • Free Agent offseason – 2023
  • Age when Brown turns 26 – 29
  • Career PER – 24.8

This is unlikely.

At the same time, it was mentioned earlier how the 76ers have failed to surround Embiid and Simmons with their own #3. The team is out of assets and cap space, and really needs to hope they can get lucky using a trade package of Tobias Harris and Al Horford to get another star who is a better fit (not happening).

It’s been rumored if there is an eventual breakup in Philly that Simmons would be the one to leave (cough, Klutch client, cough cough). But who knows what could happen? The 76ers definitely would not trade Embiid to the Celtics after the Fultz for Tatum/Langford debacle, so the Celtics would need to keep their cap sheet clear for 2023. This is easier said than done, especially for what could be a pipe dream acquisition.

#1 – Nikola Jokic

  • Current team – Denver Nuggets
  • Free Agent offseason – 2023
  • Age when Brown turns 26 – 28
  • Career PER – 24.9

Here’s where Celtics fans would be running for the season tickets, and what could possibly be realistic enough for Danny Ainge to keep an eye on a lowered cap number in the summer of 2023.

The Celtics acquiring Jokic would be very similar to getting KG if you just swap out the unbelievable defensive ability for unbelievable offensive ability. Jokic has been a 20/10/7 player the last 2 seasons and is still just 25.

Now, the idea of the Nuggets letting a player like this go might seem crazy but look at where the Nuggets are. They have finished 2nd and 3rd in the West the past two seasons and are not viewed as true title contenders.

Their young stars besides Jokic are Jamal Murray (a nice player but likely a #3 at best), Gary Harris (his numbers have gone down for two straight years), and Michael Porter, Jr. (a promising prospect with a scary injury history).

The team will also continue to be good enough where they can’t hope for any high lottery picks before Jokic can leave. Their best option would seem to be getting a true #2 with a Murray/Porter package and hope that’s enough to entice Jokic to stay.

That could happen or it could easily not. And if Jokic does leave there’s no guarantee he’d be interested in the Celtics.

But think about this. A 28-year-old player is in the middle of his prime and has just gone through eight seasons of the bear fight that is the Western Conference. He never got over the hump and now there’s an opportunity in the East to join two young All-Star level wings that are 26 and 25 years old.

That must be something the player would at least consider. [eye emoji/eye emoji/eye emoji]

The Celtics are in the enviable position where if they just focus on keeping Tatum/Brown in a good situation, they could be contenders for the next decade.

But a move to get them their third Amigo could vault them to the favorites of the NBA.

Terry is from Massachusetts and is a passionate fan of the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins. He also will admit he only pays attention to Syracuse basketball when they're good. If there's a Twitter trade rumor even remotely associated with one of his teams, he's likely fallen for it. Finally, he believes 100% that if the Celtics had beaten the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals they would have swept the Thunder in the Finals.

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