Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and trade target Kevin Love arguably comprise the two top free agents on the NBA market next summer. While the possibility of Love coming to Boston has faded, the C’s front office continues to pursue a second star to pair with Rondo.
A look at the remaining talent in the 2015 free agent class may offer a clue about who Celtics president Danny Ainge & Co. consider a potential Garfunkel to Rondo’s Simon. The C’s have the salary cap space to target anyone on the list, and stars signed beyond the coming year are rarely traded during the season.
Let’s start by crossing off the list LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng — all of whom have player options for 2015-16 and never looked Boston’s way this summer. Now, let’s sort the cream of the crop into four tiers.
LaMarcus Aldridge: Possibly the best player available in 2015, the 29-year-old big already vowed to sign a five-year, $108 million max extension with the Trail Blazers next summer. Given the team’s improvement this past season, there’s no reason for him to leave Portland.
Brook Lopez (player option): After playing all 82 games in each of his first three NBA seasons, Lopez missed a combined 134 over the last three years, twice breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. If he returns to form as the 19-7-4 center who made his first All-Star appearance in 2013, the 26-year-old may also command max dollars on the open market. Still, the Nets have deep pockets and would be first in line to retain his services.
Marc Gasol: Once the other brother in the 2008 trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers, Marc submitted his first All-Star season in 2012 and a Defensive Player of the Year campaign a year later before a knee injury kept him from 23 games this past season. If the Grizzlies take another step back this year, he could be ripe for the picking.
Roy Hibbert (player option): Slated to make $14.3 million this season, the 7-foot-2 center regressed over the past year, submitting the worst player efficiency rating of his career and a second straight sub-50.0 true shooting percentage in 2013-14. Still, his relationship with fellow Georgetown product Jeff Green could be a recruiting tool.
Paul Millsap: The Celtics aren’t necessarily in the market for another undersized big, but they sure could use Millsap’s effort on the block. Since 2010, the 6-foot-8 power forward has produced averages of 16.6 points, 8.0 boards, 2.6 assists, 1.5 assists and one block, missing only a handful of games each season.
Tony Parker: We can argue Parker vs. Rondo all day long, but a player of Parker’s caliber rarely escapes Gregg Popovich‘s Jedi mind trickery. Besides, Rondo is four years younger and more easily retained in Boston.
David West (player option): Still a productive player, West snubbed the Celtics in 2011, when they still had championship aspirations, so it’s hard to imagine him joining the rebuilding project at 33 years old.
(Note: Every player on this tier is a restricted free agent in 2015 and therefore as difficult to pry from their teams as Gordon Hayward was from Utah. But, hey, there could always be a Chandler Parsons offer out there.)
Kenneth Faried: Another undersized banger on the block, Faried has steadily progressed in Denver, compiling an impressive 19.7 PER and 58.1 true shooting percentage over his first three seasons. While he too has been the subject of trade rumors this summer, the Nuggets won’t part with the 24-year-old easily.
Enes Kanter: As his playing time has increased, Kanter continues averaging a double-double per 36 minutes – a positive sign, particularly for a 22-year-old center. Should he enjoy a breakout year and warrant big money, Kanter may be available, especially with Utah already committing max money to Hayward.
Brandon Knight: Twice named the national prep player of the year and an NCAA Tournament star at Kentucky, Knight hasn’t enjoyed the same success in the NBA yet, but the excitement surrounding Jabari Parker‘s arrival in Milwaukee could rekindle the fire. The Bucks will face a difficult decision if another team offers Knight a hefty raise.
Kawhi Leonard: The heir apparent to San Antonio’s ageless Big 3, Leonard submitted career highs for PER (19.4) and true shooting (60.2%) this past season. Like Parker, though, he’s a student of Pop culture and won’t soon be willing to leave the organization that developed him into an NBA Finals MVP at the ripe old age of 22.
Klay Thompson: Even if the praise for Thompson has gone overboard on occasion , he’s still an impressive 24-year-old shooting guard shooting 41.0 percent from 3-point range for his career. But if the Warriors aren’t willing to part with him in a deal for Love, as has been suggested, surely they won’t be letting him walk next summer.
Tristan Thompson: Playing all 82 games each of the past two seasons, Thompson has averaged 13.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, and his production should only improve with the arrival of LeBron James in Cleveland. However, if the Cavs land another power forward whose name rhymes with Dove, he could be available.
Nikola Vucevic: A 23-year-old center, Vucevic has produced 13.6 points and 11.5 boards per game the past two years despite ankle and Achilles injuries that hobbled him during his third season in Orlando. The Magic have a boatload of cap space next summer, so don’t expect the 7-foot Montenegrin to change uniforms anytime soon.
Arron Afflalo (player option): An argument could be made Afflalo deserved an All-Star bid last season, when he averaged 18.2 points (57.4 TS%), 3.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists in Orlando, but the Magic seemed oddly willing to deal him to Denver for Evan Fournier and Roy Devyn Marble on draft day. Should Afflalo submit another All-Star worthy campaign out West, he could be looking for a big payday come 2015.
Monta Ellis (player option): Still only 28 years old, Ellis would certainly give the Celtics some much needed scoring punch, even if he hasn’t always be efficient. Over the past eight seasons, the lightning quick shooting guard has averaged 20.5 points on 52.8 true shooting with a 17.0 PER ‘ all respectable numbers, particularly at his current salary of $8 million. Should he opt out next summer, he’d obviously be looking for a raise.
Goran Dragic (player option): The league’s Most Improved Player and a Third Team All-NBA selection this past season, Dragic’s 21.4 PER and 60.4 true shooting far exceed his $7.5 million salary for the Suns. Another season at that level would make Dragic one of the most sought after free agents in next year’s class.
Rudy Gay: The 27-year-old UConn product is still a 20-point scorer; he’s just an overpaid one ($17.9 million in 2014-15), given his porous defense. Twice traded since January 2013, Gay could be had in a deal again. As a free agent next summer, he’ll take a pay cut, and his friendship with Rondo could lure him to Boston.
Al Jefferson (player option): Big Al has always had an affection for Boston, even after he was dealt to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. Now in Charlotte via Utah, the 29-year-old Jefferson is underpaid at $13.5 million based upon his production this past season (21.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.1 bpg, 53.2 TS%, 22.7 PER). Jefferson’s improved defense anchored a surprising run to the playoffs by one of the league’s best units on that side of the ball, and believe it or not Charlotte might be a better situation for him than Boston moving forward.
DeAndre Jordan: While the declaration that Jordan could win Defensive Player of the Year seemed like just another absurd preseason promise from Doc Rivers, the 26-year-old center finished third in the voting while leading the league in both rebounding (13.6 rpg) and field goal percentage (67.6). Ainge could exact some payback by swiping Jordan next summer, but Donald Sterling‘s replacement will have pockets deep enough to keep him in L.A.
Ricky Rubio (restricted): If the C’s can’t land Love and lose Rondo, then perhaps they can still score a talented Timberwolf. Coming off an ACL injury, Rubio played all 82 games and averaged a career-high 8.6 assists while submitting staunch defense. While his sub-50 true shooting remains a concern, he’s still only 23 years old.
Jimmy Butler (restricted): Another promising prospect linked to Love in trade talks, the 24-year-old needs polish offensively, but he’s already a Second Team All-Defensive wing. The Bulls are looking to bolster their roster, perhaps making Butler expendable, and Boston could benefit from the pursuit in a three-team deal or in free agency.
Tobias Harris (restricted): Albeit on another terrible team, Harris has proven rather productive, averaging 15 and seven as Orlando’s 22-year-old starting stretch 4. With Vucevic also a restricted free agent next summer, another step forward from Harris could put the small market Magic in a bind.
Wesley Matthews: A solid defender who shot nearly 40 percent on 6.2 3-point attempts per game, Matthews started for a team that won 54 games in the Western Conference last season. His 6-foot-5 frame makes him a more natural fit at shooting guard than Avery Bradley, but he may not be enough of an upgrade.
Iman Shumpert (retricted): The Knicks have seemingly shopped Shumpert to anyone willing to listen, which should tell us all we need to know about his plummeting value. His defensive reputation has declined since his ACL surgery, and his shooting has similarly fallen back to earth after shooting 40 percent from 3 in 2012-13.
Kemba Walker (restricted): Another poor shooting point guard, Walker still averaged 18 points, six assists and four rebounds for a playoff team, even if his PER (16.8) and true shooting (49.9%) suffered since 2012-13. Like Jefferson, his defense improved under coach Steve Clifford and he may be better suited staying in Charlotte.
Thaddeus Young (early termination option): Signed for $8.6 million this season, Young submitted another impressive season in Philadelphia (17.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.1 spg, 51.2 TS%, 16.6 PER). Yet, the 26-year-old found himself the subject of trade rumors once again, a sign he may be seeking a hefty raise come free agency.
Even if the Celtics had the pick of this litter, it’s hard to imagine them contending for a title in 2014-15. As much fun as it might be to imagine Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol all surrounding Rondo in the future, the likelihood of any of the above mentioned players landing in Boston in 2015 is roughly the same as the C’s signing LeBron and Carmelo Anthony this summer. Maybe the odds are a little better, considering their salary cap structure, but their history of attracting star players on the open market is not kind.
Still, don’t rule out the arrival of players on this list altogether. Perhaps Memphis falls off the NBA map and the Grizzlies start shopping Gasol or Tristan Thompson becomes available to a third team willing to facilitate a Love deal. These are the conversations Ainge must engage in now that Love isn’t walking through that door.