The Boston Celtics raised their record to 6-9 on Sunday, led by Paul Pierce's 34 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He even pitched in three steals. That's good news for the Celtics in more ways than one.
Pierce now seems fully recovered from a heel injury that has hampered him in the early part of the season. However, Pierce's return to form belies the fact that his team is in rapid decline. As Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus astutely points out today, of the Celtics' six wins, three have come at the expense of the hapless Washington Wizards.
If Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge wants to begin the rebuilding process in earnest, he should start with trading Pierce and getting good value in return. Pierce's contract is relatively friendly; he is owed about $48 million through 2014. Pierce appears to be close to fully recovered, so it behooves Ainge to trade him while Pierce's value holds and before another injury befalls the 34-year-old small forward. Though most of these trades might entail including other ancillary players, here are the central pieces to five trades that best fit Pierce and the Celtics:
1. Pierce to the Atlanta Hawks for PF Josh Smith
Smith is an athletic and versatile forward. He is a big-time rebounder and shot-blocker and can defend multiple positions. He can handle and pass for a big man while also being able to step away from the basket and knock down the perimeter shot. However, there is a problem with their team chemistry. Smith desperately needs a veteran coach like Doc Rivers to get him to play hard, help him with shot selection and drive him to be the best player he can be. The Hawks would benefit with the addition of a player of Pierce's veteran stature. Frankly, the Hawks need a star, a go-to player who is not afraid to be the face of the franchise.
Impact: This is a high-risk/high-reward trade. Smith is talented but has not exhibited the maturity to blossom into an All-Star. A change of scenery and coaches could do the trick. Pierce's impact will probably be felt more after center Al Horford returns from injury. But if this team can win games in Horford's absence and make the playoffs, then the addition of Pierce would make the Hawks a more consistent playoff team for the next two years. With just $25.5 million due Smith through 2013, he could offer the Celtics a versatile core piece for a moderate salary.
Gay's high-flying skills might fit better with Rajon Rondo.
2. Pierce to the Memphis Grizzlies for SF Rudy Gay
This trade could make sense for both teams. The Grizzlies were one game away from the Western Conference finals last year without Gay. But Pierce would give them a better chance of reaching the finals. Pierce offers the Grizzlies big-time scoring, perimeter shooting that can stretch the defense and the ability to get to the foul line. With the tremendous inside scoring of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Pierce might be a better fit with this team. Gay has shot poorly from the perimeter this season and his skills might fit better with the Celtics and Rondo in a more open, fast-break system.
Impact: Although Pierce has gotten off to a slow start this season, he is shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line as opposed to Gay's 30 percent. He is getting to the foul line 4.7 times per game and is averaging more assists than Gay, at 4.6. With Tony Allen locking down opponents' best perimeter players and Randolph and Gasol inside, Pierce could be the perfect complement for the Grizzlies. Gay's young, athletic legs would give the Celtics the bounce they desperately need. Though he is owed around $68.6 million through 2015, the Celtics would have money committed only to Rondo beyond 2011-12 and could fit Gay's salary, allowing Rivers to mold a new team around him and Rondo's high-flying open-court abilities.
3. Pierce to the Indiana Pacers for SF Danny Granger
Certainly the Pacers are a young team on the rise. Granger has done a nice job for the franchise, scoring 18.1 ppg over his career. However, he has not demonstrated the ability to create his own shot in crunch time or carry his team in the fourth quarter. Currently Granger's scoring numbers are down (15.3 ppg) and his shooting has dropped to just .337 from the field. Pierce is the type of clutch, team-first veteran Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird values. Pierce, the Celtics' third-leading scorer -- behind Bird and John Havlicek -- could be the piece to vault the Pacers deeper into the playoffs.
Impact: Granger would give the Celtics a young small forward who can score. He is a very talented player, just not someone you can build a team around. He cannot be the face of the franchise like Pierce, but he would be a significant piece to their rebuilding puzzle. If the Pacers want to put some pressure on their Eastern Conference foes, trading for Pierce would make a bold statement. And with Granger owed just a little over $39 million through 2014, he could provide similar numbers to a declining Pierce for a significantly smaller price.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
The hard-working Millsap would fit well in Boston.
4. Pierce to the Utah Jazz for Paul Millsap and future draft pick or Enes Kanter
The Jazz have an overabundance of frontcourt players. They traded for Derrick Favors and drafted Kanter No. 3 overall in 2011 However, they lack a wing player with Pierce's skills and ability. Millsap, though undersized, is one of the top young power forwards in the league. He makes shots, plays extremely hard and is a terrific rebounder. But the Jazz's frontcourt depth makes Millsap expendable. Pierce would give Utah a professional scorer who would fit well with the team. He would space the court for Jefferson, Favors and Kanter and can be that clutch player in the fourth quarter the Jazz lack right now. If the Jazz would rather keep Millsap, then a package of Kanter and the Jazz's 2012 second-round pick (No. 53 overall) could work.
Impact: As previously mentioned, these deals with the Jazz would also include some ancillary players for cap considerations and Pierce's salary of $15.3 million. As previously mentioned, the Celtics would probably also want a draft pick -- in 2012 or beyond -- with Millsap. But the Jazz would not have to break up their talented frontcourt and just decide who is more important to their future, Kanter or Millsap. In the 6-foot-11 Kanter, the Celtics acquire a strong, young interior player with high upside. In Millsap, the Celtics get a moderately priced player ($13.9 million through 2013) who just happens to be one of the top young power forwards in the league.
5. Pierce to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Patrick Patterson/Jordan Hill
Martin simply has not been the same this season. His body language, coupled with his drop in scoring, down from 23.4 ppg in 2010-11 to 16.5 this season, are reason enough. Whether he remains disappointed from the failed trade that would have sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this season, or the new rules that affect his ability to pump fake and draw fouls, Martin's game has regressed. He does not have the ability to be the No. 1 scorer for the Rockets and carry them in the fourth quarter.
Impact: Pierce would be a perfect veteran fit for the Rockets. Putting him alongside talented youngsters Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Luis Scola and Samuel Dalembert would give the Rockets a good blend of youth and experience. For the Celtics, Martin would provide them with a 20-point scorer to take over for impending free agent Ray Allen. Martin has shown signs of returning to form, scoring 32 points last Thursday. Either Patterson or Hill would offer quality -- and inexpensive -- depth for Ainge, who must fill almost an entire roster next season.
John Carroll is an analyst for ESPN Insider's Scouts Inc. He served as head coach of the Boston Celtics from 2003-04.