BOSTON (CBS) – The first domino in the Celtics trade season has fallen.
Danny Ainge kicked off 2014 wheeling and dealing by agreeing to terms with the Memphis Grizzlies in a swapping of bench pieces. The Celtics will trade reserve shooting guard Courtney Lee for 25-year-old score-first guard Jerryd Bayless. The Celtics will also reportedly be sending a 2016 second round draft pick to the Grizzlies as an added piece in the deal.
On the surface, the trade seems like a relatively insignificant move. A closer inspection of the exchange, however, indicates that the Celtics did well on a number of levels to dump Lee and receive solid compensation in return.
Lee was having a fine bounce back season for the Celtics after a rocky first year in green. His poor play last year was highlighted by him falling out of the playoff rotation toward the end of the first round series against the Knicks.
In 2013-14, the 28-year-old shooting guard has been having the best shooting season of his career so far, posting career-bests in both FG percentage (49.2%) and 3-point FG percentage (44.2%) over his first 30 games.
Despite the strong play, Lee was playing a career-low 16.8 minutes per game under new head coach Brad Stevens. Such limited playing time has been largely due to the superior play of Jordan Crawford and Avery Bradley over the early portions of the season. It has been challenging for Lee to deal with, and the guard voiced his frustration about a lack of minutes on more than one occasion to reporters.
With the return of Rajon Rondo on the horizon, the reality was that Lee probably wouldn’t be getting the minutes he wanted anytime soon in Boston. Thus, Ainge wisely decided to sell high with Lee and get rid of another long-term contract (more on that later).
In a bit of a surprise, the Celtics brought back another guard in the deal, adding to their surplus at the position, in Bayless. The sixth-year player out of Arizona is more of a hybrid guard than a point guard. He’s a scorer first and foremost, and is largely capable of creating his own shot, something this Celtics team desperately needs right now.
After a strong season last year in Memphis, Bayless was having a tough time of it in 2013-2014, posting nearly a career-worst 37.7 field goal shooting percentage over his first 31 games while averaging 8.1 points a contest. Bayless had showed signs of bouncing back lately after an early season slump, though.
Bayless isn’t known as a strong defender, but his offensive potential should give Stevens enough incentive to put him in the rotation with the second unit almost immediately upon his arrival. Based on this, from a talent standpoint, this trade is a wash (at worst) for the Celtics. Given Boston’s team needs right now though, I would call it an upgrade for them.
Now we get into the bigger reason why Ainge made this move. If you made a list of the contracts Ainge was looking to get rid of before the season started, Lee’s name would probably have been number two, right behind Gerald Wallace. The Celtics signed Lee to a four-year contract for $21.5 million dollars in the summer of 2012.
Lee didn’t play up to his five million dollar salary last season, and once the Celtics decided to move into a rebuilding direction last summer, Lee was an overpaid veteran-role player on a team looking towards the future. He didn’t fit here anymore, and more importantly, his four-year contract was limiting Boston’s long-term salary cap flexibility.
Fittingly, Ainge went looking for a trading partner that needed some veteran outside shooting and solid defense, two things Lee can provide. Thankfully for the Celtics, Lee put together a terrific first 30 games of the season (for his standards) making him look like a much more appealing part to teams than he did after the end of last year’s disastrous campaign.
As one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league, the Grizzlies were seeking help in that area and felt compelled to trade for Lee, allowing Boston get rid of an expendable player.
In addition to his offensive talent, Bayless is also an attractive piece for the Celtics to take back in the trade because of his contract. He’s earning only $3.13 million dollars this season, nearly $2 million less than Lee. He’s also a free agent after this season, so the Celtics have no long-term commitment unless they want to re-sign him.
As Ainge looks to continue making moves to build for the future in the coming months, having the additional salary cap flexibility that this trade provides is crucial. The Celtics can now look to be more aggressive in trying to land a key player in a trade or free agency.
Ainge did well here to get a talented player back for a contract that the team didn’t even want on the books.